The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is bolstering autocrats and undermining democracy across the globe, and its means run the gamut. It exports surveillance systems to governments accused of human rights violations (Egypt, Serbia, Cambodia, for instance). It trains the recipients on how to use the technology for social and political control. It extols the virtues of authoritarian rule to political parties in South Africa, Kenya, Vietnam, and Cuba while sharing expertise on how ruling parties can tighten their grip. Its internet and social media regulation, which really amounts to censorship, even spurred Nigeria’s minister of information and culture to call for replicating CCP practices.
Emboldened by the pandemic, authoritarian actors and aspiring dictators attempting to cement power and centralize authority across the globe are increasingly supported and encouraged by the CCP. And the party has seized on its well-established networks to export its authoritarian model more candidly and aggressively than ever before.
But a growing number of civil society groups, journalists, and activists in target countries are working to push back against authoritarian influence from Beijing and shore up their countries’ democratic institutions. Spurred on by the CCP’s increasingly forceful posture and a mounting body of publicly available evidence exposing the impact of its tactics on democratic processes and values, civil society and independent media are working to expose and counter this threat – and they are increasingly joined in these efforts by national and local elected officials. Such resistance will become even more critical, as governments around the world seek to contain COVID-19 and deploy new approaches to governance challenges left in the wake of the pandemic. Those challenges include foreign and domestic disinformation efforts that threaten public health responses and undermine the integrity of information ecosystems.
China’s increasingly potent foreign-influence tactics undermine vulnerable democracies by exploiting and exacerbating trends toward autocracy and by capitalizing on a lack of clear understanding among governments in target countries of the potentially damaging aspects of engagement with Beijing. As an example, China promotes opacity at the expense of accountability: while Chinese government-linked entities conclude infrastructure investment deals that give it financial leverage and embolden complicit and corrupt local players, the CCP simultaneously shapes the information space to silence critics and influence domestic political decision-making in its favor.
The CCP utilizes varying and sophisticated means to influence countries’ internal narratives. They include overt propaganda, funding of research centers, media training and investment, corrupting powerful elites, and the establishment of Confucius Institutes, Chinese-funded university partnerships to promote Chinese language and culture that the U.S. State Department has characterized as entities intended to advance “Beijing’s global propaganda and malign influence.”
In recent years, the CCP has only become bolder in its efforts to promote authoritarian solutions to problems facing a growing number of countries, and it is rapidly co-opting politicians and elites all too willing to reject democratic processes to serve their own ends. These trends are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has highlighted systemic weaknesses in service delivery – health care and economic assistance, for starters — and increased governments’ desperation to accept Chinese investment and other offers of assistance that address pressing short-term needs.
Exposing Authoritarian Influence
Yet, a growing number of civil society organizations, investigative journalists, and elected officials are undertaking efforts to identify and expose the impact of such influence campaigns on their societies’ economies, democratic processes, and environments.
In Africa, China’s high-dollar-value loans, pervasive media investment and propaganda dissemination, and party-to-party exchanges that export its governance model have significantly increased its influence over the last two decades. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, paused, if not entirely modified, that trend. Despite the CCP making pandemic-related inroads with governments across the world, its “charm offensive” in a few, key African democracies has underperformed. As a result, African civil society sectors and even some governments are re-considering their relationships with China.
In Nigeria, for instance, in August 2020 lawmakers in the House of Representatives exercised their oversight function by conducting multiple hearings on Nigeria’s debt portfolio held by China. They emphasized the lack of transparency in tender processes that resulted in large contracts awarded to Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and they decried controversial forfeiture clauses in the case of a default. The hearings culminated in a call from trade unions, political parties, and news media, for accountably and transparency from the government of President Muhammadu Buhari regarding loan agreements with China. The executive branch of Nigeria has not responded to the calls for greater transparency, but it is clear that civil society and the legislature will serve as the foundation of the increasingly vocal pushback against potentially lopsided economic arrangements and domestic undemocratic practices.
In Latin America, China has pursued closer ties with infrastructure investments through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), sought to expand its influence among new economic allies through information operations, and found a new market for exporting surveillance technology. In response, news media and civil society are beginning to document and expose the destructive aspects of these actions, such as how it has engendered repressive trends, corruption, and other forms of democratic backsliding. Such documentation efforts are a crucial first step in understanding the nature of CCP influence operations and in building democratic resiliency to confront it through increased transparency and government accountability.
Since 2017, indigenous community leaders in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s most populous department, have been fighting against a dam project that the Bolivian government had awarded to the Chinese state-owned enterprise Three Gorges Corporation. By documenting the lack of transparency and the failure to consult with the community and by exposing the likely environmental and infrastructure damage, the activists were successful in pressuring Bolivia’s National Electricity Company to temporarily suspend the project, though the fight is by no means over.
In Europe and Eurasia, the traditional influence of the Kremlin is frequently supplemented by an increasingly assertive China. In the European Union, this influence is best characterized by China’s significance as a trading partner and home of cultural influence centers such as Confucius Institutes. Given the strategic location of many of these countries – particularly in Eastern Europe – for BRI transport and infrastructure routes and the strong relationships with the United States, the region has quickly become central to China’s operations to co-opt elites, spread propaganda, and instrumentalize the Chinese diaspora to further Beijing’s political interests. Countries in the region, at various levels in society, are swiftly organizing to expose such influence and bolster democratic responses to stop its spread. In Georgia, for instance, civil society organizations are taking multi-pronged approaches using research and knowledge sharing to inform Georgians of China’s activity in the country and the numerous associated negative consequences.
In the Balkans, a consortium of local NGOs called the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) has long exposed instances of corruption, human rights abuses, and attacks on democratic practices in the region. Recently, BIRN has begun covering the incursion of Chinese and CCP-affiliated entities into the Balkans via massive and opaque infrastructure projects clouded by allegations of corruption. As is the case in many countries around the world, civil society attention to an issue doesn’t always result in policy from local and national government leaders. Nevertheless, the growing awareness of China’s negative influence on local democratic values and institutions among citizens across Europe and Eurasia is creating bottom-up pressure that cannot be ignored forever.
In Asia, where the CCP has long sought to assert its political and economic dominance, the Milk Tea Alliance, a loose coalition of activists from Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, developed organically in the spring of 2020 as a way to counter CCP information operations. The groups were specifically concerned by the mass deployment of Chinese nationalists and bots on social media platforms working to drown out dissent and amplify pro-China voices.
The Milk Tea movement has become a unifying force for channeling the frustrations of young people in response to the CCP’s aggressive actions in the region, exemplified not just by the BRI and China’s claims in the South China Sea, but increasingly by the CCP’s attempts to export or impose its model of authoritarian government. The recent expansion of the Milk Tea Alliance’s aims to include demands for democratic reforms and to fight back against autocratic governments and elite capture highlights that, in some parts of the world, efforts to promote democratic ideals and counter CCP influence operations are increasingly intertwined.
This grassroots effort builds on the work of democratic activists throughout the region. In Taiwan, groups like Doublethink Lab are mapping modern threats to democracy, including online information operations and the export of surveillance technology and digital authoritarianism. The groups also are developing strategies to counter those tactics. In Australia, Chinese diaspora media are exerting their independence from CCP influence, providing objective coverage of the party in the face of Beijing’s attempts to coerce or silence them, offering a model for how to protect independent media and press freedom.
Exposure of the CCP’s mounting influence and power is rightly bringing attention to a critical challenge facing many countries across the world. At their core, however, these are not stories about the CCP, but stories about democratic resilience in the face of resurgent authoritarian threats not only from China, but also from other foreign influences and from within. Beyond the headlines of great power competition and U.S.-China relations, people committed to democratic ideals are working to strengthen civic and government institutions against internal and external threats. This growing swell of activism, rooted in an increased understanding of the CCP’s playbook, must be at the forefront of U.S. efforts to push back against spread of authoritarianism and support the restoration and further development of democracy.
In every instance of successful resilience, the ability of independent media, civil society, political parties, and private enterprise to force greater transparency has mitigated, and in some cases, nullified damaging CCP influence. Accurate information, through free press and freedom of expression, permits broad public debate. Well-established rule of law can inhibit elite capture and corruption with oversight, checks and balances, and transparency on everything from Chinese infrastructure financing to purchases of stakes in national media outlets. Strong institutions ensure that countries can negotiate with China on equal terms.
Promoting, executing, and protecting democracy in an increasingly repressive world is painstaking, long, and expensive. For small ‘d’ democrats to build on their successes against foreign authoritarian influence requires more support – both rhetorical and financial – from the world’s leading democracies.
The United States is critical to this effort. The incoming U.S. administration can send a signal to both democratic and authoritarian actors that it will serve as a forceful ally for global democracy by prioritizing this work in its inaugural budget, using diplomatic resources to empower local democratic leaders and activists and providing rhetorical support for struggling democratic movements. The global struggle to counter malign authoritarian influence will not ease with a new American president. But a new American president has a chance to bolster support to democratic allies and partners pushing back against the CCP’s increasingly aggressive efforts.
IMAGE: Sticker messages placed on a fence by Thai student demonstrators are seen during a Milk Tea Alliance anti-China protest outside the Chinese embassy in Bangkok on October 1, 2020. (Photo by ROMEO GACAD/AFP via Getty Images)