Symposium | Democracy's Future: Abroad and at Home

China’s Assertive Authoritarianism

By Elizabeth Economy

Tagged AuthoritarianismChinaDemocracy

China’s authoritarian model presents a new and challenging set of risks to the United States and the current international system. Over the past decade, the Chinese leadership has shifted from simply defending its governance system from outside criticism to actively promoting it as worthy of emulation by others. China’s leaders seek to align both the policy choices of other countries as well as the norms and values embodied in international institutions with their own policy preferences. It is a new form of Chinese assertive authoritarianism that challenges the ideals of liberal democracy, including individual freedoms, the rule of law, and transparency and accountability. China has achieved progress in realizing some of its objectives but has also encountered significant challenges in its pursuit of others. The United States and its allies and partners are well-equipped to counter China’s efforts, but it will require a consistent, coherent, and unified approach across multiple policy domains.

Historical Backdrop

For most of the period following the death of China’s revolutionary leader Mao Zedong in 1976, China’s leaders focused overwhelmingly on consolidating power and bolstering their authoritarian political model at home. Little attention was paid either toward exporting Chinese values or advocating for China as a model for other countries. For the rest of the world, China’s model presented two distinct challenges: first, China’s treatment of its own citizens and its repression of individual rights, and, second, the limitations its political model, including the lack of the rule of law and transparency, placed on opportunities for multinationals to do business in China. The United States, as well as most of its allies and partners, approached China through the lens of “engagement”—the belief that if China were integrated into international agreements and arrangements, such as the World Trade Organization, Beijing would, over time, reform its domestic and foreign policies to align with the current international order. Many proponents of engagement also believed that, as China’s economy grew and its expanding middle class demanded a greater voice in its own political and economic future, China’s leaders would transform the country’s domestic institutions to reflect greater protection for individual political and economic rights and assume more of the economic attributes of a market democracy. In the mid-1980s, and then again beginning in the mid-1990s through the 2000s, such a transition appeared to be underway. There were experiments with grassroots democratic elections, the development of an activist Chinese civil society that protested for change around issues such as environmental protection, and a small but robust group of intellectuals who called for democratic transition.

Such nascent moves toward the development of democratic institutions failed to take hold, however. Instead, China’s expanding economic influence, coupled with the success of the 2008 Olympics, enhanced confidence in China’s own development path. This confidence was also bolstered by the flaws revealed in the U.S. system during the global financial crisis. The narrative within China that questioned the utility of democratic norms gained strength—even as dissident voices proliferated—and underscored the benefits of greater state intervention in managing the country’s political and economic affairs. Xi Jinping’s ascension to power as General Secretary of the Communist Party in November 2012 proved decisive in turning the country toward a more authoritarian model at home and introducing a more ambitious foreign policy abroad. At the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Xi suggested that China possessed a model that others could learn from, particularly those countries that were disenchanted with liberal democracy, and that China should lead in the reform of the global governance system.

Assertive Authoritarianism

China’s transition from a country focused on protecting itself from international criticism to one actively promoting its values and norms on the global stage is reflected across four distinct dimensions. First, Xi Jinping has tried to ramp up Chinese soft power—the influence that derives from the attraction of a country’s ideas, values, and culture to the international community. He has called explicitly for senior Chinese officials to do more to ensure that the country’s image is “credible, lovable, and respectable.”[i] One of Beijing’s most important initiatives in this regard has been the establishment, globally, of Confucius Institutes (CIs), which are centers of Chinese language instruction and cultural education. Beijing has also provided scholarships for hundreds of thousands of students and journalists from around the world to visit and study in China. And it has wooed top scientific talent to China through its Thousand Talents program. In addition, China has increased its effort to strengthen the appeal of its society and culture by increasing the sophistication of its media outreach. Although Chinese news programs typically have limited appeal outside the mainland, Beijing has also supported the spread of more broadly appealing Chinese dramas, kung fu movies, and documentaries. In Africa, for example, Beijing has worked with the Chinese firm StarTimes to finance not only the deployment of satellite television throughout the continent but also a wide array of Chinese content dubbed into local languages. Chinese soft power can also be generated organically. For example, the country’s early success in arresting the spread of COVID-19 was widely attributed to its state-centered political model. The Chinese-developed app TikTok, whose short-form videos have captured the admiration of hundreds of millions of people worldwide, also earned China widespread applause for the innovation that the app represented.

In pursuing the transformation of global norms and values to reflect more directly those of China, Beijing also relies heavily on the coercive leverage of its economy. The Philippines, Sweden, Canada, and South Korea, among others, have all suffered Chinese economic retaliation for perceived political infractions. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, China’s coercive tactics received particular attention when the country threatened to deny countries access to personal protective equipment if they did not adequately thank it for its assistance. China also banned several of Australia’s most significant exports, such as coal, barley, and wine, in response to the latter’s call for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Beijing has also long insisted that international actors support its sovereignty claims around Taiwan, the South China Sea, and Hong Kong; at various times, Beijing has targeted the hotel, entertainment, sports, and airline industries for potential economic sanctions; in the case of the NBA, it punished the league by refusing to broadcast its games in response to a tweet in support of Hong Kong democracy activists by the general manager of the Houston Rockets. While many observers believed that China’s red lines were limited to its core sovereignty priorities, in 2019, China Central Television announced that all issues related to sovereignty and social stability did not fall within the purview of free speech. Thus, any perceived slight, made anywhere, on any platform might inflict a significant economic cost. A few months later, Beijing expelled several Wall Street Journal reporters in response to an opinion piece published by the newspaper that referred to China as “the sick man of Asia.”[ii]

In recent years, China has also adopted more covert forms of coercion. It has become proficient, for example, in using online resources to spread disinformation. Via Twitter, Chinese diplomats cast blame on the United States as the origin of COVID-19 and maligned the response of other nations to the pandemic. China also covertly meddled in other nations’ social media to create discord, supporting opposition candidates in Taiwan and amplifying political polarization in the United States.

Xi’s ambitions extend well beyond shaping other countries’ behavior around individual issues. China has developed a broad range of political capacity-building efforts designed to strengthen authoritarian institutions within interested countries. It has established a training facility for leaders from Southeast Asian countries in Guangxi that conducts courses on party-grassroots relations, how to guide online public opinion, and revolutionary traditions, among others. China also provides the technology underpinning state control, enabling leaders in some African states, for example, to monitor political opponents and control online public opinion. Several countries, including Tanzania and Vietnam, have also modeled their cybersecurity laws after those of China. In Zimbabwe, the Chinese company CloudWalk is providing facial recognition cameras and helping the government develop a national facial recognition database. For China, the benefit of states that share Beijing’s political values is not only that they are less likely to criticize China for its human rights behavior or policies toward Hong Kong and the South China Sea, but also that they support China’s efforts in the United Nations and other international institutions to advance Chinese policy priorities.

China places significant value on international institutions and the role they play in establishing the rules of the road on issues as varied as trade, technology, human rights, and space. It works diligently to try to cement its values and those of its supporters in the fabric of the international system. Over the years, China has managed to place many of its officials in senior leadership positions, as well as other mid-tier appointments, and it is proficient at using these positions, as well as its role on the United Nations (UN) Security Council, to advance its narrow political interests. For example, in 2019, Chinese officials twice threatened to veto the reauthorization bill for the UN mission to Afghanistan unless the bill included support for China’s massive infrastructure initiative, the Belt and Road. Chinese officials have also publicly claimed credit for blocking voices critical of Chinese human rights practices, such as Uyghur Muslim advocates, from speaking at the UN. In addition, Xi has called for China to become a global standard-setting power and launched a strategy to try to ensure that Chinese technical standards are adopted in international standard-setting bodies. In some cases, these standards also embody political values. China has put forward a significant initiative, for example, around New IP, which is designed to enable the state to control the flow of data to and from any device hooked up to the network. Privacy and the free flow of information would be entirely at the discretion of the government.

China’s new assertive authoritarianism poses a distinct challenge to the current liberal international order. The country is exporting elements of its authoritarian model globally and seeking to enhance the role of the state relative to individual rights and freedoms, as well as to prevent international actors from voicing perspectives or taking actions that deviate from Beijing’s preferences. Beijing has achieved some clear successes, for example, strengthening the capabilities of some authoritarian leaders in Africa and curtailing the willingness of many multinationals to identify Taiwan or the South China Sea as separate from mainland China. However, Beijing has also fallen short in achieving several of its objectives. For example, Beijing targeted the establishment of 1,000 CIs by 2020 but instead realized only slightly more than half that number. Instead of CIs prompting a revolution in the learning of Chinese language, many universities ultimately determined that the Chinese government’s demands for secret contracts and control over the teachers and curriculum was ill-suited to the values universities prize, such as transparency and the rule of law. Similarly, although China’s economic coercion is often successful in pressuring multinationals to adopt Chinese preferences around sovereignty or other issues related to social stability, its efforts to use similar strategies to shape the behavior of countries have not yielded similar success.


[1]Stephen McDonnell, “Xi Jinping Calls for More ‘Loveable’ Image for China in Bid to Make Friends,” BBC News, June 2, 2021,

[ii]Walter Russell Mead, “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia,” The Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2020,

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Elizabeth Economy is Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University (on leave). She previously was C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director, Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of four books and co-editor of two volumes, her most recent book, The World According to China (Polity Press, 2021), explores China’s foreign policy ambitions and their impact on the international system. She is a frequent commentator on radio and television programs, including PBS Newshour, Fareed Zakaria GPS, and Bloomberg Surveillance.  She also is a member of the Board of Managers of Swarthmore College and of the Aspen Strategy Group. She is currently serving as Senior Advisor for China to the Secretary of Commerce. The research for this piece was completed before her government service and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government.

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