Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, November 2014
How Hwee Yong / Reuters

Democracies have struggled and autocracies have grown in strength in the past decade and a half. During this period, dictatorships have intensified and modernized their systems of repression. Governments in virtually every region, many ostensible democracies among them, have become more illiberal or authoritarian. Two major powers in particular, China and Russia, have led the way in tightening control domestically, adapting their techniques for the digital era, and exerting greater influence abroad with the aim of making the world safer for autocracy.

Democratic countries are now more vulnerable to authoritarian governments and ideas than at any other point in the post–Cold War era. Thanks to globalization, autocracies and democracies have become tethered to each other in complicated ways that, more often than not, have harmful effects on the democracies. For example, media- and technology-related partnerships have proliferated between democracies and autocracies, often skewing the integrity of news and information content and limiting freedom of expression. Universities, publishers, and think tanks in democracies interact with and accept funding from authoritarian countries to an extent that not long ago would scarcely have been imaginable. The economies of many democracies are enmeshed in the economies of autocracies to an extent that makes many democracies more vulnerable to strategically debilitating forms of corruption and authoritarian machinations.

Through these connections, autocratic powers erode essential standards of accountability in democracies. As we noted in these pages in 2017 when we introduced the term “sharp power,” the success of authoritarian powers stems from “their exploitation of a glaring asymmetry: in an era of hyperglobalization, the regimes in Russia and China have raised barriers to external political and cultural influence at home while simultaneously preying upon the openness of democratic systems abroad.” Unlike “soft power,” with which countries seek to gain influence by winning over hearts and minds, governments use sharp power by trying to stifle and even censor views abroad that they dislike and by undermining independent democratic institutions. We contended that authoritarian regimes, led by Beijing and Moscow, had refined their influence techniques to suit the modern environment.

In the last four years, the authoritarian impulse to make authority unaccountable and suppress dissent has metastasized and further spread across national borders. Democracies have been preoccupied with their internal problems—allowing authoritarian regimes to emerge as active and purposeful transnational forces capable of influencing open societies and their institutions. 

A WORLD SAFER FOR AUTOCRACY

Authoritarian regimes have attempted to remake the international organizations charged with safeguarding democracy and human rights. Led by China and Russia, illiberal powers seek to sideline the participation of independent groups and undermine official observers such as special rapporteurs in the human rights and democracy mechanisms of the United Nations and similar institutions. They have curated the agenda of these institutions to stifle the discussion of topics that they deem unwelcome. Their aim is not simply to defend authoritarianism at home but to reforge international norms that stigmatize authoritarian governance. They have even tried to develop their own body of self-serving international law. For instance, Beijing’s Hong Kong national security law, adopted in June 2020, makes vaguely defined subversive acts subject to a broad extraterritorial jurisdiction in such a way that it may have chilling effects on speech globally.   

Authoritarian powers have deftly exploited the openness of democratic systems. They probe the integrity of a democracy by turning features once seen only as strengths—such as competition, openness, and fair-mindedness—into vulnerabilities in the media, by appropriating the systems through which scholars and students exchange ideas in the education sector and by trying to exercise greater control and define standards in the realm of new technologies. Compromising any particular media agreement or educational exchange program is merely a means to the larger end of fundamentally altering the way institutions work in open societies and what people therefore expect of them.

Authoritarian powers have deftly exploited the openness of democratic systems.

The digital disruption of traditional news media has afforded authoritarian regimes an opportunity to amplify their preferred narratives and gain traction in many places around the world. Their significant investments in broadcasting state media abroad cannot be matched by independent outlets in democracies, which now have fewer resources to cover the actions of authoritarians and their proxies. Partnerships with local media in democratic countries, such as between Italy’s ANSA and China’s Xinhua News Agency, and with international news-aggregating platforms, such as the tie-up between Reuters Connect and TASS Russian News Agency, Turkey’s Anadolu Agency, and China’s CCTV and Xinhua, result in coverage that fills information gaps but often reflects the narrow interests of authoritarian regimes.  

Authoritarian actors can exploit commercial and financial relationships to corrode the integrity of democratic institutions. Just last month, the German press reported that lobbyists and operatives linked to regimes in Azerbaijan, Hungary, and Russia had issued payments to parliamentarians in exchange for influence in Brussels and Berlin. If even mature democracies have difficulty warding off such corruption, emerging democracies are at even greater risk. 

Authoritarian regimes have pressured private-sector firms in ways that amount to attempts at censorship on a global scale. In March and April, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Chinese state media subjected several international apparel companies, including H&M, to intense online abuse in response to these firms’ public insistence that their clothing lines did not source cotton from suppliers that used forced labor in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Such pressure extends to culture and entertainment. For example, the government of Saudi Arabia reportedly sought to create major obstacles for the global distribution of the film The Dissident, about the U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whom Saudi operatives murdered in 2018.

In order to preserve their gains, authoritarian regimes hope to craft the norms and standards that govern emerging technologies. Beijing seeks to influence the development of hardware, software, and technical standards of technologies it exports abroad and seeks to shape the conceptual framing of crucial technology-related debates, such as that over the development of artificial intelligence technologies. For example, China has increased its participation in international standards-setting bodies such as the International Telecommunication Union and the International Organization for Standardization, which are particularly influential in developing countries that lack the resources to craft technological standards themselves. Should authoritarian states gain further influence over the systems through which people around the world share and receive information, they will be even more empowered to pursue digitally driven “authoritarian curation,” spreading messages that serve their interests and blocking those that challenge their preferred narratives.

BLUNTING SHARP POWER 

Much analysis of authoritarian regimes in recent years has assumed that such governments would attempt to build international influence through persuasion. But autocrats have rather bludgeoning preferences about the way the world should be ordered and governed. Their regimes are organized around the control of speech and ideas, the quashing of civil society, and the elimination of independent power centers. Their interventions abroad reflect these preferences.

Confronting this agenda will require the efforts of a full spectrum of institutions within open societies. Governments may be best suited to respond to certain aspects of authoritarian interference; covert or coercive intrusions may demand the action of law enforcement or the use of regulatory instruments. But governments alone cannot craft an effective response to all the means by which authoritarian regimes seek to spread their influence. 

Independent civil society is a crucial piece of the competitive advantage that democracies hold over authoritarian states. Nongovernmental actors—including but not limited to the media, universities, and technology and entertainment firms—must develop strategies that reinforce standards of openness, accountability, and institutional integrity. Otherwise, they will grow increasingly susceptible to the sharp power of authoritarian regimes. Policymakers should recognize that the nongovernmental sector, which authoritarians view as a weak point, is actually one of democracy’s great strengths and should afford it the importance it merits. 

A security guard outside an H&M clothing store in Beijing, April 2021
A security guard outside an H and M clothing store in Beijing, April 2021
Thomas Peter / Reuters

The leaders of critical institutions in democracies should find strength in numbers when fending off the authoritarian threat. They must coordinate with one another. For instance, Beijing attempted to censor several European think tanks and scholars this spring in retaliation for EU sanctions targeting Chinese government officials accused of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. A range of individual scholars and research institutions issued joint statements of solidarity denouncing the actions as part of the CCP’s efforts to constrain independent academic research on China. Such responses, while welcome and laudable, would be far more potent if they came out of a sustained, organized effort to support unfettered intellectual inquiry in advance of pressure from the CCP or other authoritarian forces. Similarly, universities, publishers, and think tanks should devise industry guidelines to avoid making ad hoc concessions to authoritarian governments, such as submitting to censorship requests, and send clear signals about their own principles. Any lack of solidarity will weaken these institutions’ bargaining power as they deal with so-called counterparts based in authoritarian countries and expose them to predatory brinkmanship and intimidation. 

Likewise, private-sector firms in open societies must consider adopting business strategies that do not allow authoritarian regimes to pressure them to revise public positions, sanction their employees, alter maps to reflect the regimes’ territorial claims, and the like. Failure in this regard could result in a downward spiral that would bolster the strategic advantages of autocracies.  

In the technology sphere, democracies need to stimulate a race to the top. They must deepen efforts to defend free expression, the integrity of information, and privacy. To this end, civil society must play a meaningful role in shaping standards for technologies such as 5G wireless networks and the Internet of Things. Civil society organizations should focus in particular on the regulation of powerful new technologies, such as facial or voice recognition systems, that risk threatening civil liberties. 

The Chinese and Russian regimes both seek to win influence by deploying capital in other countries. Civil society activists, think tank analysts, and investigative journalists who understand the complex relationships between these authoritarian regimes and their proxies will be well equipped to follow these financial flows. They should study negotiations, agreements, and transactions in their local contexts to uncover potential corruption and the creeping influence of Beijing, Moscow, and others.

CLEANING THE HOUSE, GUARDING THE GATE

 Encouragingly, certain sectors in democratic countries are already devising an active response to these authoritarian threats. For instance, media outlets, think tanks, civil society groups, and technology companies are finding innovative ways to rebuff Beijing’s sharp-power intrusions in the media sphere, as illustrated by the civil society advocacy campaign that saw the United Kingdom’s media regulator revoke the broadcasting license of a Chinese state-owned TV channel in February, with implications for its ability to broadcast elsewhere in Europe and beyond. Australia, the Czech Republic, and Taiwan are among the countries with the most advanced civil society efforts to counter authoritarian sharp power. But success depends not just on the successful measures of individual countries: democracies must take action together.

 A common refrain today holds that democracies must “get their own house in order” before confronting the authoritarian threat—but they cannot afford to ignore the world around them while they do so. The authoritarian regimes that have secured greater influence both in democratic countries and in international rules-setting bodies are not likely to retreat or pause their activities as democracies tend to their own difficulties. Democracies must simultaneously address their own weaknesses and protect their institutions from external threats in mutually reinforcing ways if they want to prevent authoritarian rivals from making a world safer for autocracy.

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  • CHRISTOPHER WALKER is Vice President for Studies and Analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy.
  • JESSICA LUDWIG is a Senior Program Officer at the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies.
  • This article draws on the forthcoming International Forum for Democratic Studies report, A Full-Spectrum Response to Sharp Power: The Vulnerabilities and Strengths of Open Societies.
  • More By Christopher Walker
  • More By Jessica Ludwig