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Chinese Authoritarianism and the Global Order

The suppression of freedoms at home is intimately tied to China’s global strategy.

Vijay Gokhale

In consideration of The Elements of the China Challenge, Policy Planning Staff, U.S. Department of State

Leader of the world’s most populous state, Chinese President Xi Jinping, is fond of speaking about how our world is undergoing once-in-a-century major changes. To a world exhausted by the pandemic and the ensuing economic dislocation, his 2022 Davos address offered a soothing vision of “the right way forward for humanity,” in which the global community will prosper by “choosing dialogue over confrontation, inclusiveness over exclusion and standing against all forms of unilateralism, protectionism, hegemony or power politics.” Similarly for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—as it embarks on its second century and moves closer to the center of the world stage—its ostensible pledge is to “promote the shared human values of peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy and freedom” in cooperation with “all progressive forces around the world.” And yet for each of these claims made to a global audience, the activities of the Communist Party inside China tell a different story.

Over the past decade, China has become less democratic and free; it is now more, rather than less, authoritarian. The CCP has dismissed the idea of universal values and freedoms as a Western effort to dominate the world. It has constitutionally subordinated all institutions of the state to the Party’s will. The very idea of the rule of law, so fundamental in open societies, has been contorted to suit “Chinese conditions” (yifa zhiguo) in order to fortify and legitimize the Party’s leadership over the media, the justice system, and even the basic right to privacy.

Since 1978, the CCP has allowed for limited freedoms, albeit within the basic framework of Chinese communism. This has been rapidly reversed under President Xi. Entire sections of the Party’s rules on collective leadership and of opposition to personal arbitrary rule have been eliminated. In the name of restoring the moral authority to govern, the Party has been “handcuffed” and led into a “cage of institutions” that shows no tolerance for dissent. With the elevation of Xi Jinping Thought to the level of almost religious doctrine that the entire country is now required by law to draw upon for guidance, China has become more authoritarian than at any time since Mao Zedong’s death in 1976.

The CCP is seeking to define the rules of global engagement with China at the world’s center, in similar fashion to President Xi’s own centrality within the Communist Party. When China speaks about advancing with unstoppable momentum toward rejuvenation, it is seeking to create an international narrative that will be steered and, over time, even controlled by China. The Belt and Road Initiative that China claims is intended for mutual benefit is a unilateral and non-consensual set of arrangements that requires the recipients of its largesse to accept unquestioningly the specifications, standards, and business practices of Chinese companies. China has silenced any criticism of its methods when projects are subsequently found to be overpriced or poorly executed, and it has not hesitated to dictate political terms when its core interests are involved.

The Party’s belief that it can shape global arrangements in line with its own authoritarian imperatives has been reinforced by its assessment of the pandemic’s impact around the world. According to the CCP, the once-in-a-century pandemic has exposed both the faltering leadership of the United States and the failing capacities of the world’s democracies. The Party feels that it can put to rest, once and for all, the idea that democracy and universal values are the best guarantors of global development and prosperity.

In order to fully appreciate the likely global impact of Chinese behavior, it is essential to bear in mind that the Chinese state is merely the outer shell for the Chinese Communist Party’s rule, and that China always acts in the concrete interests of the Party, namely, regime survival and absolute leadership. Those interests are well served abroad by creating a positive brand for itself while also dampening criticism of its behavior in many parts of the world. Since the failed Soviet experiment has stifled any desire in the Chinese leadership to finance communism abroad, and its own political model (socialism with Chinese characteristics) is, by definition, exclusive and difficult to replicate as a global standard, the CCP uses fuzzy concepts such as “China Dream” and “Community of Shared Future for Mankind” to pursue its real intentions.

China’s leaders are not seeking to create a new international order, but rather to bend the global order to their will. If they are able to do so by discrediting the idea of democracy as a Western political principle in international relations, thus dividing “the West and the rest,” they will succeed in making the world a safer place for authoritarianism. An international system that is less democratic and more authoritarian would automatically place China at the center of the world’s stage to achieve the China Dream that the Party propagates in the name of the people. Russia’s military action in Ukraine and the NATO response might, possibly, lead China to double down on the view that the West seems determined to maintain its hegemony by weakening alternative political systems, and cause the Chinese to step up their efforts to propagate the idea that nations can better enjoy economic development by adopting the Chinese model.

It is, therefore, important for those who believe in democracy and the rule of law to hold up a mirror to China in order for others to see the Chinese Communist Party’s true face. Internationally, China makes appeals for the democratization of global order, while inside China political participation is straitjacketed and political discourse is strictly regulated within a thin band of acceptable ideas. The CCP is the sole determinant for what constitutes legitimate political expression.

Internationally, China speaks of inclusiveness and rejects exclusion; internally, it is intensifying efforts to “Sinicize” the culture and faith of ethnic minorities. While speaking of openness and transparency in international behavior, the CCP is building virtual walls to control the cross-border flow of people and information. It claims it will never seek hegemony in the future even as it continues to use its economic muscle to stifle the voices of countries that do not subscribe to the Chinese view of things.

The first signs of Chinese authoritarianism being propagated abroad are already visible. Foreign media in China is being pressured to desist from any negative reporting or risk expulsion. Businesses are regularly coerced into aligning with Chinese narratives on pain of losing opportunities. Overseas Chinese students and academics are sought out to be silenced or enrolled into United Front work in the Chinese communities abroad. The entertainment industry, including Hollywood, is increasingly cornered into portraying only the narratives that China wants. Elected foreign legislators and public officials are being told to align with Chinese interests, or else the communities they represent will face the consequences.

The international community should carefully consider whether the CCP’s behavior, whether within China or abroad, bodes well for a more representative and democratic global order in which genuine differences of opinion and diverse ideas are respected. China’s president declared at Davos this year that history is moving forward. Inside China, the CCP seems to be moving in reverse gear. There is every to think that what happens domestically will find reflection in the manner in which China conducts its international business in the future.

Vijay Gokhale, a commentator on China, served as India’s foreign secretary from 2018­–20 and as its ambassador to China and Germany. He is author of The Long Game: How the Chinese Negotiate with India (2021).

U.S. Foreign PolicyChinaDemocracyAuthoritarianismDiscussion reply