A powerful but anxious Chinese regime is now engaged in an aggressive effort to make the world safe for autocracy and to corrupt and destabilize democracies. Democracy promotion may be out of style in U.S. foreign policy, but democracy prevention is very much at the heart of Chinese strategy today.
Since ancient times, contests among great powers have often involved contests of ideas. The Peloponnesian War was not simply a clash between a regnant Sparta and a rising Athens, but also pitted a liberal, seagoing protodemocracy that saw itself as the “school of Hellas” against a militarized, agrarian slave state. The ideological threat that revolutionary France posed to the European order was just as serious as the military one. In the run-up to the Second World War, fascist powers and democracies squared off; during the Cold War, the superpowers divided much of the world along ideological lines.
The intertwining of ideology and geopolitics should not be surprising: At root, foreign policy is how a country seeks to make the world safe for its own way of life. Many analysts accept that U.S. foreign policy is driven by ideological impulses. Even hardcore international-relations “realists” concede the importance of ideology when they bemoan the grip that liberal passions have on Washington’s statecraft. Curiously, though, there has been more resistance to the idea that there may be an ideological component to the grand strategy of America’s chief rival—the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Beijing is not making any “grand strategic effort to undermine democracy and spread autocracy,” writes one leading Sinologist. Its foreign policy is based on “pragmatic decisions about Chinese interests.”1 Realists say that China plays Realpolitik while America ignores John Quincy Adams’s 1821 advice to go “not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Other analysts suggest that it is a distraction or even a “delusion” to emphasize the ideological aspects of Sino-American rivalry at the expense of Beijing’s military and economic challenge.2
In fact, the reverse is true: To grasp the Chinese challenge, we must grasp its ideological dimensions. If Woodrow Wilson and his followers wanted to make the world safe for democracy, the PRC’s rulers want to do the same for autocracy. For them, autocracy is not simply a means of political control or a ticket to self-enrichment, but a set of deeply held ideas about the proper relationship between rulers and the masses. In his October 2022 keynote speech to the Twentieth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—during which he had himself installed for a third term as top leader, while on the final day having his predecessor Hu Jintao unceremoniously escorted out of the room—Xi Jinping insisted that “constantly writing a new chapter in the Sinicization of Marxism is the solemn historical responsibility of contemporary Chinese communists,” and made it clear that “the authority of the Party Central Committee” will continue to be at “the core of leadership in controlling the overall situation.” Everything in the speech hinges on the CCP remaining in sole charge of “developing socialism with Chinese characteristics.”3
This belief in the superiority of an autocratic Chinese model coexists with deep insecurity: The PRC is a brutally illiberal regime in a world led by a liberal hegemon, a circumstance from which the CCP draws a sense of pervasive danger and a strong desire to refashion the world order so that the PRC’s particular form of government is not just protected but privileged. That is why a powerful but anxious Chinese regime is now engaged in an aggressive effort to make the world safe for autocracy and to corrupt and destabilize democracies. Democracy promotion may be out of style in U.S. foreign policy, but what the scholar Jason Brownlee calls “democracy prevention” is very much at the heart of Chinese strategy today.
The Sources of Chinese Conduct
In some ways, China’s bid for primacy in Asia and globally is a new chapter in the history’s oldest story: As countries grow more powerful, they become more interested in reshaping the world. Rising states seek influence, respect, and power; they discover vital interests in places that were simply beyond their reach before. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a rising Germany demanded its “place in the sun”; after the Civil War, a reunified and economically ascendant United States of America tossed its rivals out of the Western Hemisphere and began throwing its weight around globally. As the great realist scholar Nicholas Spykman wrote, “the number of cases in which a strong dynamic state has stopped expanding . . . or has set modest limits to its power aims has been very few indeed.”4 Given how rapidly China’s power has increased over the past four decades, it would be very odd if Beijing was not asserting itself overseas.
Yet China is moved by more than the cold logic of geopolitics. It is also reaching for glory as a matter of historical destiny. China’s leaders view themselves as heirs to a Chinese state that was a superpower for most of recorded history. A series of Chinese empires claimed “all under heaven” as their mandate and commanded deference from smaller states along the imperial periphery. In Beijing’s view, a U.S.-led world in which China is a second-tier power is not the historical norm but a profoundly galling exception. That order was created after the Second World War, at the tail end of a “century of humiliation” during which rapacious foreign powers had plundered a divided China. The CCP’s mandate is to set history aright by returning China to the top of the heap.
And then there is the ideological imperative. A strong, proud China might still pose problems for Washington even if a liberal-democratic government held sway in Beijing. That China is ruled by autocrats committed to ruthlessly suppressing liberalism at home turbocharges Chinese revisionism globally. A deeply authoritarian state can never feel secure in its own rule because it does not enjoy the freely given consent of the governed; it can never feel safe in a world dominated by democracies because liberal international norms challenge illiberal domestic practices. “Autocracies,” writes China scholar Minxin Pei, “simply are incapable of practicing liberalism abroad while maintaining authoritarianism at home.”5
This is no exaggeration. The infamous Document Number 9, a political directive issued almost a decade ago at the outset of Xi’s presidency, shows that the CCP sees a liberal world order as inherently threatening.6 “Because China and the United States have longstanding conflicts over their different ideologies, social systems, and foreign policies,” a Chinese military document stated in the 1990s, “it will prove impossible to fundamentally improve Sino-U.S. relations.” For decades, in fact, Chinese officials have alleged that Washington has been waging a deliberate, well-orchestrated campaign—a “smokeless World War III,” in Deng Xiaoping’s words—to weaken and fatally subvert the CCP.7 Deng blamed the United States for being behind the “so-called democrats” who dared to protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989.8
Even when the United States has engaged China, the latter’s leaders have detected a plot to topple their regime. In 1998, Deng’s successor Jiang Zemin warned his colleagues that whether the United States was taking a stance of “containment” or “engagement” toward the PRC, Washington’s real goal was to further a “political plot” to “divide our country” and “change our country’s socialist system.”9 After Jiang came Hu Jintao, who spoke to his Foreign Ministry in 2003 of the “grim reality that Western hostile forces are still implementing Westernization and splittist political designs on China.”10
Chinese leaders are wrong if they think that the United States is actively seeking to overthrow the CCP regime. They are not wrong, however, to think that a world rooted in liberal values is one in which their own rule must be perpetually precarious. In an international system built on respect for human rights and a preference for democracy, governments that murder their own citizens risk censure, ostracism, and punishment—as happened to Beijing after Tiananmen Square in 1989 and is happening again today in response to the brutalization of the Uyghur minority. An international system in which democracies are strong, vibrant, and globally engaged is one in which subversive tendencies will continually tempt states ruled by tyrants: In 1989, Tiananmen Square protesters erected a replica of the Statue of Liberty, while those in Hong Kong thirty years later publicly waved American flags and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In what it is and what it does, a hegemonic democracy threatens the Chinese regime.
The resulting insecurity has powerful implications for Beijing’s statecraft. Chinese leaders feel a compulsion to make international norms and institutions friendlier to illiberal rule. They seek to push dangerous liberal influences away from the PRC’s borders: In Beijing’s mind, writes Timothy Heath, a “harmonious Asia” would feature a “political order shaped by Chinese political principles.” The rulers in Beijing feel that they must wrest international authority away from a democratic superpower with a long history of bringing autocracies to ruin. And as an authoritarian China becomes powerful, it inevitably looks to strengthen the forces of illiberalism—and to weaken those of democracy—as a way to enhance its influence and bolster its own model.11 China is doing so, moreover, at a time when the world, and its prevailing distribution of ideological power, presents the CCP with both keen anxieties and tantalizing opportunities.
Anxiety and Opportunity
At the darkest moment of the Second World War, there were perhaps a dozen democracies in the world. As late as 1989, there were twice as many autocratic governments as democracies. Twenty years later, however, democracies outnumbered autocracies 100 to 78, and the share of the world’s population living under autocracy had fallen by half. From a U.S. perspective, democracy’s global advance was one of the most hopeful developments of the post-1945 era. From the perspective of China’s leaders, however, it was a clear sign that the liberal world order was rigged against their form of government and needed to be changed before it destroyed their regime.
According to Beijing’s narrative, the problem started at the beginning of the postwar period, when the United States exploited its dominance to inject radical liberal ideas into international institutions. For example, the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was modeled on the U.S. Bill of Rights. The UDHR states that all humans are born free and have the right to overthrow governments that fail to respect that freedom. In later decades, Beijing watched in horror as dozens of nations, including South Korea and Taiwan, evolved into prosperous democracies. The expanding global posse of democracies subsequently used military force, economic sanctions, and an array of media and human-rights organizations to undermine dozens of autocratic regimes—not just those of tin-pot dictators, but also the Soviet Union and nearly the PRC itself in 1989.
Although PRC leaders long chafed at this ideological pressure, it was bearable so long as China enjoyed a booming economy and a stable periphery. When Gross Domestic Product was growing three times faster than the democratic average during the 1990s and 2000s, it was easy for Beijing to persuade people at home and abroad that authoritarianism was best for China, if not for other countries.
But now, China’s economy is slowing, and the regime is coming under greater domestic pressure—witness the large-scale protests that broke out against Xi’s covid-zero policy in multiple cities and on dozens of university campuses in late 2022. Beijing is encountering growing international criticism and resistance on other fronts as well. Around the world, negative views of China have surged to highs not seen since the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. The Taiwanese have become more determined than ever to maintain their de facto sovereignty. Japan is doubling its defense spending and explicitly preparing for war against China this decade. Under a new democratically elected government, the Philippines is bolstering its defense ties with the United States. India is massing forces on China’s western border. The European Union recently labeled China a “systemic rival” and suspended its investment treaty with Beijing. Even the UN, in which China holds numerous leadership positions, recently released a report declaring that Beijing may have committed “crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang. Buffeted by growing headwinds, autocracy is no longer such an easy sell for the CCP. China’s citizens were willing to forgo political rights when their wallets and their country’s international status were swelling, but it is an open question whether they will continue to do so under harsher conditions. That question is especially pressing as regards China’s millennials, born in the 1980s and 1990s, who have known nothing but upward economic and international mobility.
China’s rulers also have long understood what political scientists have proven empirically: Autocracies often fall in waves, as revolutionary activity in one country inspires popular uprisings in others.12 A democratic domino effect brought down communist regimes across Central and Eastern Europe in 1989. The self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor in late 2010 set much of the Arab world aflame. The lesson is that revolution anywhere is a threat to autocracy everywhere. Xi Jinping knows this: Not long after the Arab Spring, he privately fretted to President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden that China was a target of “color revolutions” and vulnerable to the type of upheaval engulfing the Middle East.13
The CCP has responded with stepped-up repression over the past decade—jailing dissidents, mobilizing security forces, censoring information, and preempting popular unrest. Yet China is now strong enough that it can do more than just hunker down in the face of foreign pressure. Xi believes that the CCP’s domestic power will be enhanced if authoritarianism is prevalent and democracies are dysfunctional—fellow despots will not punish China for rights abuses, and the Chinese people will not want to emulate the chaos of liberal systems. He thinks that preventing revolts against authoritarianism in other countries will lower the odds of such a revolt erupting in China. And he believes that silencing critics abroad will limit the challenges facing the CCP within China. Xi sees rolling back democracy overseas as part of his plan to secure his regime at home.
The PRC wrote its first formal national-security strategy under Xi, in 2014.14 Whereas regime security used to be one of many government priorities (albeit the most important), it is now the priority.15 All other issues—trade, diplomacy, military modernization—are adjuncts to keeping the CCP in power. As a result, every issue is a matter of regime security. A trade war with rich democracies is no longer just an economic disagreement; it is an assault on the Chinese state and a possible prelude to a shooting war.
Whereas previous Chinese administrations espoused “stability maintenance,” the focus under Xi is on threat prevention. Chinese documents compare popular outbursts to cancerous tumors that need to be cut out quickly before they spread to vital organs of the state. Ideologies that could rival communism, including liberalism and Islamism, are seen as infectious diseases against which China’s population must be immunized. As Sheena Chestnut Greitens has shown, these medical metaphors justify targeting and “treating” people long before they display threatening symptoms.16 The clearest illustration is in Xinjiang, where China has extrajudicially locked up more than a million Uyghurs.17 But China is applying this preventive logic beyond its borders too.
Beijing spends billions of dollars annually on an “antidemocratic toolkit” of nongovernmental organizations, media outlets, diplomats, advisors, hackers, and bribes all designed to prop up autocrats and sow discord in democracies.18 The CCP provides fellow autocracies with guns, money, and protection from UN censure while slapping foreign human-rights advocates with sanctions. Chinese officials offer their authoritarian brethren riot-control gear and advice on building a surveillance state; PRC trade, investment, and loans allow those dictators to avoid Western conditionality regarding anticorruption or good governance.
Beijing uses its globe-spanning media organs to tout the accomplishments of illiberal rule while highlighting democratic governments’ flaws and hypocrisies. China works with fellow authoritarian regimes, such as Vladimir Putin’s in Russia, to push autocrat-friendly norms of internet management in international institutions and standards-setting bodies. Beijing also helps other illiberal regimes near or in Central Asia to hound and repress exiles and dissidents. Not least, China is waging a campaign of political and military coercion to destabilize Taiwan, a flourishing nation whose very existence disproves the CCP’s claims that Chinese culture is incompatible with democracy. The fundamental problem that Taiwan poses for China, write Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell, “comes from Taiwan’s simply being what it is—a modern Chinese society that is economically prosperous and politically democratic.”19
It might be tempting to dismiss China’s democracy-prevention efforts as “world politics as usual.” After all, autocrats have been colluding to hold liberalism at bay ever since the monarchs of Austria, Prussia, and Russia banded together to fight Revolutionary France more than two centuries ago. But China’s ideological assault is especially threatening, for three reasons.
First, China’s global reach is more pervasive than that of any prior illiberal power. Its massive economy and 1.4 billion consumers arm it with powerful carrots and sticks to silence free speech far beyond its borders. Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Japan, Lithuania, Norway, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States—plus dozens of private companies and individuals from democratic nations—have recently experienced China’s economic wrath. In many cases, the punishment has been vastly disproportionate to the supposed crime. For example, China slapped steep tariffs on nearly all of Australia’s major exports after Canberra requested an international investigation into the origins of covid-19.
In addition to economic weapons, China holds leadership posts in the UN and other major international institutions that give Beijing chances to bend global governance in an illiberal direction. For example, when Belarus violated international norms by forcing down an airliner that was carrying a wanted dissident in 2021, China exercised its authority as head of the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization to shield the brutal Alyaksandr Lukashenka regime from censure.20 And if diplomacy and economic inducements fail, Beijing can use its navy, now the world’s largest, and conventional missile force to coerce countries into compliance or even to wipe democracies off the map, as China is threatening to do to Taiwan.
Second, China’s illiberal campaign capitalizes on a disturbing global trend: As Freedom House reports, authoritarianism has spread during every year since 2006, while democracy has retreated. This “democratic recession” has given China a window of ideological opportunity to promote a vision of a hierarchical and harmonious society and a critique of a disorderly and decadent West. Around the world, public faith in democratic institutions has sunk to lows not seen since the 1930s. The political soil has grown ripe for authoritarianism to take root, and China, Russia, and other authoritarian states are fertilizing this antidemocratic plant with digital disinformation that their propagandists pump into the social-media feeds of billions worldwide.21
The third and most important factor supercharging China’s efforts is the ongoing digital revolution.22 The CCP possesses data-collection and messaging power to rival that of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Twitter.23 By combining artificial intelligence (AI) and “big data” with cyber, biometric, and speech- and facial-recognition technologies, Beijing is pioneering a system that will allow dictators to know everything about their subjects—what people are saying and viewing, whom they hang out with, what they like and dislike, and where they are located at any given time—and to discipline citizens instantly by restricting their access to credit, education, employment, medical care, telecommunications, and travel if not to hunt them down for more medieval forms of punishment.
This technological revolution threatens to upend the global balance between democracy and authoritarianism by making repression more affordable and effective than ever.24 Instead of relying on expensive and potentially rebellious armies to brutalize a resentful population, an autocrat will now have more insidious means of control. Millions of spies can be replaced with hundreds of millions of unblinking cameras. Facial-recognition technologies can rapidly sort through video feeds and identify troublemakers. Bots can deliver propaganda tailored to specific groups. Malware can be installed on computers through seemingly innocuous apps or links, and then government hackers can crash the computer networks of dissidents or gather information on their operations. That information, in turn, can be used to coopt resistance movements by bribing their leaders or meeting their more innocuous demands. Alternatively, authorities can print out an AI-assembled list of alleged activists and kill everyone on it.
The evil genius of this “digital authoritarianism” is that most people will be seemingly free to go about their daily lives. In truth, however, the state will be constantly censoring everything they see and tracking everything they do. With old-school authoritarianism, one at least knew where the oppression was coming from. But now people can be nudged and cajoled by invisible algorithms delivering personalized content to their phones. In past eras, autocrats had to make tough choices between funding death squads or economic development. Today, however, repression is not only affordable, but also profitable, because “smart-city” technologies that enable tight social control can also be used to fight crime, diagnose diseases, and make the trains run on time.
These technologies are a tyrant’s dream. Recognizing this demand, Chinese companies were already selling and operating surveillance systems in more than eighty countries as of 2020.25 As the CCP feels increasingly threatened at home and abroad, there is every reason to expect Beijing to export digital authoritarianism farther and wider. Many countries already want it, and China has powerful tools to compel those that do not. Want access to the vast PRC market? Let Huawei install the core components of your 5G network. Want a Chinese loan? Accept PRC surveillance technology in your capital city.
As more governments partner with Beijing, the reach of China’s surveillance state will grow.26 Existing autocracies will become more totalitarian, and some democracies will drift into the authoritarian camp. International conflicts will likely proliferate—not merely those of ideas but those of arms, for as Putin’s invasion of Ukraine illustrates, dictatorship often turns to blood-and-soil nationalism and violent revanchism. The liberal belief that democracy and peace are destined to spread around the world will be upended. So will the comforting myth that humanity has evolved past the point of mass atrocities, because digital authoritarianism does not displace gulags and genocide; it enables them. When dictatorships ramp up digital repression, they also engage in more torture and murder.27 Computers and cameras handling everyday surveillance free the regime’s foot soldiers for tasks such as ethnic cleansing and beating dissidents into submission. Xinjiang, with its smart cities and concentration camps, offers a glimpse of this dire future.28
China’s ideological offensive is thus at the heart of its effort to reshape the global order. A crucial part of the democratic world’s China strategy, therefore, must involve securing democratic institutions against authoritarian assault. If democracy promotion has a bad name, democracy protection is becoming indispensable.
This ideological campaign does not entail seeking regime change in China. Democracy may eventually take hold in that country, but there is little prospect of it anytime soon, and active efforts to destabilize the CCP could be counterproductive and dangerous. During the Cold War, the United States never really tried to overthrow the Soviet government. This was out of concern that doing so might trigger the hot war that Washington hoped to avoid. The same cautionary principle ought to apply today. Democracy protection is an essentially defensive strategy, although in some cases it will require tactics that are more assertive than those which the United States and its allies have been willing to employ to date.
At its core, democracy protection requires what military planners call “defending forward”—safeguarding democratic systems by actively weakening an opponent’s ability to damage them.29 The United States should do whatever it can to shore up democracy at home and abroad, but the immediate priority must be to blast holes in the digital iron curtain that Beijing is drawing around large swaths of the globe. If the world is indeed at an “inflection point” in the struggle between democracy and autocracy, as Biden and Xi seem to think it is, an America that remains on the defensive will not tip the balance. Getting “America’s democratic house in order” is a wonderful idea, but it will take years, if not decades, and would lend only indirect help in halting the spread of autocracy overseas. Forming a giant alliance of democracies is a worthy objective, but might deliver endless debate instead of decisive action. In 2000, the Bill Clinton administration created the “Community of Democracies,” which ultimately included 106 countries. After years of meetings, its sole accomplishment was a bland statement criticizing the 2021 military coup in Burma.
Instead of building yet another sprawling organization or meekly patching holes in democratic defenses, the United States should take the fight to the enemy and mobilize rough-and-ready “gangs” of allies to degrade and deter China’s political-warfare initiatives. The first step would be to hack digital authoritarian systems. One redeeming quality of digital police states is that they have myriad points of failure. Any government computer or goon is a potential entry point for malware. Hackers can stealthily feed “adversarial inputs” into surveillance systems by changing a few pixels in certain images, inserting fake data points, or entering malicious code into the patches that authoritarian technicians use to fix faulty systems. Hacks can allow banned news stories to go viral, trick surveillance systems into overlooking dissident activity, and misclassify regime loyalists as enemies of the state.
Democratic governments do not even need to attack authoritarian states directly; democracies can post spoofs online and let dissidents around the world weaponize them. And defenders of democracy need not disrupt every digital authoritarian regime—a few high-profile flubs might be enough to dampen demand for Beijing’s products. Think of this as ideological cost-imposition: The time, energy, and money that China will have to devote to repairing its domestic surveillance state will be time, energy, and money that Beijing cannot spend manipulating democratic politics abroad.
A second vital task is to slow the spread of repression-enabling technology. In part, that will mean producing affordable alternatives to Chinese telecom and smart-city products. These alternatives could include low–earth-orbit satellites (such as the 3,000-plus small satellites that make up the Starlink network) to provide global broadband. More important, it will also mean barring U.S. and allied firms from transferring certain technologies—such as those for advanced speech and facial recognition, computer vision, and natural language processing—to authoritarian regimes, as well as barring foreign firms involved in authoritarian repression from raising capital in democracies’ financial markets.30 During the Cold War, Western governments maintained the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (Co-Com) to prevent advanced technology from being sold to the Soviet bloc. Something like the Co-Com approach is fitting as regards China. Washington and U.S. allies have already crimped PRC access to advanced semiconductors, most notably so far by means of aggressive new regulations that the U.S. Commerce Department implemented in October 2022. Similar embargos will be needed to hobble Beijing’s expanding surveillance state.31
This relates to a third imperative—frustrating China’s efforts to expand the reach of its authoritarian internet. One way of doing this would be for the United States and its allies to preemptively split the global internet by creating a digital bloc in which data and products flow freely, while excluding China and other countries that refuse to respect freedom of expression or privacy rights. This may sound drastic, but it might be necessary to combat the CCP, which currently enjoys the best of both worlds: It runs a closed network at home (stopping PRC citizens from reaching foreign websites and limiting the digital access of Western companies) while also selectively going online globally to steal intellectual property, meddle in democratic elections, spread propaganda, and hack critical infrastructure. This is a digital-age version of the Soviet Union’s infamous Brezhnev Doctrine: What is mine is mine, and what is yours is up for grabs.
To counter this exploitation, Richard Clarke and Rob Knake have proposed forming an “Internet Freedom League,” an initiative that is best seen less as a sprawling multilateral alliance than as a sort of digital customs union.32 Under this system, countries that adhere to the vision of a free and open internet would stay connected with one another, while countries opposed to that vision would face restricted access or be shut out. All web traffic from nonmembers would not be blocked, just traffic from companies and organizations that aid and abet digital authoritarianism or cybercrime. Of course, the PRC government is one of those bad actors, so it and the entities that do its bidding—whether government institutions or nominally private companies that are deeply tied to the Chinese state—would be cut off.
Fourth, greater cooperation among democracies—economic and otherwise—will shrink China’s ability to scare them into silence by punishing one among them. China’s recent campaign against Australia underlined this. In April 2020, Canberra called for an independent international inquiry into the origins of the covid pandemic. An infuriated Beijing slapped steep tariffs on Australian coal, beef, wheat, wine, and other goods while demanding that Australia’s government stifle domestic voices “unfriendly” to the PRC.
To its credit, Canberra refused to cave, and it slowly found alternative markets, in part by launching a “fight communism, buy Australian wine” public-relations campaign. The Biden administration informed PRC officials that bilateral tensions would not subside if the CCP was beating up on U.S. allies, and Washington promised to supply Australia with nuclear technology to power cutting-edge attack submarines. Australia’s economy did suffer a blow, however—and, awkwardly, firms from other democracies grabbed some of the resulting market share. Denser economic ties among democracies and friendly nondemocracies that fear Chinese coercion, such as Vietnam and Singapore, can cut the costs of future resistance. Even better would be if rich democracies agreed to inflict reciprocal pain on Beijing through countersanctions. China could still try to censor democratic speech in foreign countries, but only at the cost of its own economic growth.
China would certainly bristle at these measures, but to some degree that is a good thing, because it provides opportunities to bait Beijing into strategic blunders. Recall what happened in March 2021, when the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Canada sanctioned four Chinese officials for human-rights abuses in Xinjiang. The sanctions were wrist slaps, but they triggered a self-defeating “wolf-warrior” outburst: Beijing unleashed a diplomatic fusillade and sanctioned EU officials and think tanks; the EU responded by freezing the pending China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. America and its allies can goad China in subtle ways that do not risk war but do bring on blustery overreactions through which Beijing isolates itself.
Bait-and-bleed strategies, however, require resilience. When Chinese state media threatened, in March 2020, to plunge America into “a mighty sea of coronavirus” by denying it pharmaceuticals, it underscored Beijing’s capacity for ugly retaliation against democracies that refuse to toe its line.33 A fifth requirement of this strategy, then, will be rapidly developing free-world production networks for critical resources that China currently dominates, including rare-earth minerals and emergency medical supplies. The alternative to developing these networks proactively is to develop them reactively, and at far greater cost, during a crisis—as Europe has found with its forced transition away from Russian energy supplies due to the war in Ukraine.
A sixth aspect of forward defense involves more actively fighting the information war. China’s strategy involves relentlessly touting the supposed benefits of its own model, while fanning the flames of political discord in democratic societies. Exposing fake civil society groups or media outfits that are tools of Chinese influence is obviously vital. Equally important, though, is to be more aggressive in turning the tables on Beijing by spreading word of its rights abuses, mounting economic and social problems, rampant corruption, predatory overseas-lending practices, and other CCP crimes and shortcomings. The United States accumulated plenty of experience with such efforts during the Cold War, when institutions such as the now-defunct U.S. Information Agency told the truth about the Soviet bloc while contesting communist lies about the free world.34 Today, similar messages may not resonate with kleptocratic foreign leaders who are bankrolled by Beijing—but such communications will help to make the global information environment less favorable to CCP propaganda.
Seventh, the United States and its allies must more effectively contest the institutional terrain, because those who rule the world’s international bodies write the world’s rules. Turning international organizations into tools of domestic entrenchment and global influence for authoritarian regimes is a longstanding CCP strategy. Beijing regularly buys votes from member states in these organizations, which then elect PRC-favored candidates to lead them. To halt China’s march toward institutional dominance, the United States must learn to rally shifting coalitions of democratic countries behind candidates who will stand up for the free world’s basic values. This happened in September 2022, when Doreen Bogdan-Martin was elected secretary-general of the UN’s International Telecommunication Union.
Finally, the United States needs to help shield democracies that border authoritarian aggressors. Defending vulnerable nations matters not least because successful authoritarian coercion in one place may encourage dangerous actions elsewhere. The key battleground today is Ukraine, with Taiwan a close second. By bolstering Taiwan with military protection and economic lifelines, Washington can preserve a potent ideological alternative to the CCP—and fortify a free-world coalition that can keep the world safe for democracy in the decades ahead.
This essay is adapted from the authors’ book, Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China (2022).
1. Jessica Chen Weiss, “A World Safe for Autocracy? China’s Rise and the Future of Global Politics,” Foreign Affairs 98 (July–August 2019): 93–94.
2. Elbridge Colby and Robert D. Kaplan, “The Ideology Delusion: America’s Competition with China Is Not About Doctrine,” Foreign Affairs, 4 September 2020.
3. “The Long and Short of the CCP Congress,” China Media Project, 16 October 2022, https://chinamediaproject.org/2022/10/16/the-long-and-short-of-xis-political-report. The quoted words are from the short version of Xi’s speech, which can be downloaded in Chinese from a link on this page and then run through a translation program.
4. Nicholas Spykman, America’s Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power (New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1942), 20–22.
5. Minxin Pei, “Assertive Pragmatism: China’s Economic Rise and Its Impact on Chinese Foreign Policy,” IFRI Security Studies Department, Fall 2006, https://www.ifri.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/Prolif_Paper_Minxin_Pei.pdf.
6. Suisheng Zhao, “Xi Jinping’s Maoist Revival,” Journal of Democracy 27 (July 2016): 85, www.journalofdemocracy.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Zhao-27-3.pdf.
7. Quotes from Christopher A. Ford, China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 186; Samuel Kim, “Human Rights in China’s International Relations,” in Edward Friedman and Barrett L. McCormick, eds., What If China Doesn’t Democratize? Implications for War and Peace (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2000), 130–31.
8. Quoted in Rush Doshi, The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 52.
9. Doshi, Long Game, 54–55.
10. Doshi, Long Game, 56.
11. Timothy R. Heath, “What Does China Want? Discerning the PRC’s National Strategy,” Asian Security 8 (March 2012): 54–72.
12. Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993). For data, see the Mass Mobilization Project, https://massmobilization.github.io.
13. Chris Buckley and Steven Lee Myers, “In Turbulent Times, Xi Builds a Security Fortress for China, and Himself,” New York Times, 6 August 2022.
15. Jude Blanchette, “Ideological Security as National Security,” CSIS, 2 December 2020, www.csis.org/analysis/ideological-security-national-security.
16. Sheena Chestnut Greitens, “Preventive Repression: Internal Security and Grand Strategy in China Under Xi Jinping,” unpubl. ms., 2021.
17. Sheena Chestnut Greitens, Myunghee Lee, and Emir Yazici, “Counterterrorism and Preventive Repression: China’s Changing Strategy in Xinjiang,” International Security 44 (Winter 2019–20): 9–47.
18. Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig, “The Long Arm of the Strongman: How China and Russia Use Sharp Power to Threaten Democracies,” Foreign Affairs, 12 May 2021; Elizabeth. C. Economy, “Exporting the China Model,” Testimony Before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 13 March 2020, www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/testimonies/USCCTestimony3-13-20%20(Elizabeth%20Economy)_justified.pdf.
19. Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell, China’s Search for Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 213.
20. Yaroslav Trofimov, Drew Henshaw, and Kate O’Keeffe, “How China Is Taking over International Organizations, One Vote at a Time,” Wall Street Journal, 29 September 2020.
21. Michael J. Mazarr et al., Hostile Social Manipulation: Present Realities and Emerging Trends (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2019); Jeff Kao, “How China Built a Twitter Propaganda Machine Then Let It Loose on Coronavirus,” ProPublica, 26 March 2020, https://www.propublica.org/article/how-china-built-a-twitter-propaganda-machine-then-let-it-loose-on-coronavirus.
22. See the articles in the January 2019 issue of the Journal of Democracy collectively titled “The Road to Digital Unfreedom”; see also Richard Fontaine and Kara Frederick, “The Autocrat’s New Toolkit,” Wall Street Journal, 15 March 2019.
23. Larry Diamond, “The Road to Digital Unfreedom: The Threat of Postmodern Totalitarianism,” Journal of Democracy 30 (January 2019): 22.
24. Tiberiu Dragu and Yonatan Lupu, “Digital Authoritarianism and the Future of Human Rights,” International Organization 75 (Fall 2021): 991–1017.
25. Sheena Chestnut Greitens, “Dealing with Demand for China’s Global Surveillance Exports,” Global China, April 2020, www.brookings.edu/research/dealing-with-demand-for-chinas-global-surveillance-exports.
26. Alina Polyakova and Chris Meserole, “Exporting Digital Authoritarianism: The Russian and Chinese Models,” Brookings Institution Policy Brief, August 2019, www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/FP_20190827_digital_authoritarianism_polyakova_meserole.pdf.
27. Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Erica Frantz, and Joseph Wright, “The Digital Dictators: How Technology Strengthens Autocracy,” Foreign Affairs 99 (March–April 2020).
28. Ross Andersen, “The Panopticon Is Already Here,” Atlantic, September 2020.
29. The United States Cyber Command, for instance, has adopted this approach in protecting U.S. networks. See Erica D. Lonergan, “Operationalizing Defend Forward: How the Concept Works to Change Adversary Behavior,” Lawfare, 12 March 2020, lawfareblog.com/operationalizing-defend-forward-how-concept-works-change-adversary-behavior.
30. Derek Scissors, “Limits Are Overdue in the U.S.-China Technology Relationship,” Statement to U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, 4 March 2020.
31. For a list of critical technologies, see Emma Rafaelof, “Unfinished Business: Export Control and Foreign Investment Reforms,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Issue Brief, 1 June 2021.
32. Richard A. Clarke and Rob Knake, “The Internet Freedom League: How to Push Back Against the Authoritarian Assault on the Web,” Foreign Affairs 98 (September–October 2019).
33. Barnini Chakraborty, “China Hints at Denying America Life-Saving Coronavirus Drugs,” Fox News, 13 March 2020.
34. Hal Brands, The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us About Great-Power Rivalry Today (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022), 186–89.
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