Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | East Asia

China’s Challenges to Global Democracy

Insights from Kevin Sheives.

China’s Challenges to Global Democracy
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz.

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation with Kevin Sheives – associate director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy, and a China specialist formerly at the U.S. Departments of State, USTR, Defense and Congress – is the 252nd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Explain the scope of China’s challenge to global democracy. 

Cold War analogies aside, the world is in a battle for ideas, values, and the protection of sovereign democracies from outside influence and interference. The concept of sharp power points to how outside authoritarian governments impair free expression, neutralize independent institutions, and distort the political environment. These malign actors span Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and others like the Gulf states. However, only China can pair economic and diplomatic power with global ambition and corrosive intent. China’s actions, led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), are more subtle than Russia’s interference attempts. They are designed to create a pro-CCP environment in democracies, and more focused on co-optation rather than confusion. China has proven in recent years that it wants to shape how democracies think, how they consume information, how they do business, and how they operate their political cultures. This isn’t public diplomacy or soft power; China is undermining the lifeblood of democracies. Unfortunately, China’s outright coercion, disinformation, censorship, and influence-peddling campaigns against Australia are all too commonplace in democracies of all stripes – near and far from China’s borders. Rather than learning from its mistakes, China’s rigid Party-led system has doubled down on its errors after recently declining global perceptions of China.

Identify China’s tools of national power used to counter western democracy. 

The way the Party operates domestically within China contaminates and dictates China’s activities globally. Under President Xi and even predating his arrival, the Party has reinserted itself into nearly every aspect of Chinese society. PRC think tanks and universities are constantly under pressure to promote Party-friendly thinking. State-backed media is squeezing out independent media, and foreign journalists are constantly being arrested or deported. China’s systems of control like social credit and pervasive digital and citizen-on-citizen surveillance eliminate opportunities for deviation from Party dictates. But as China “goes global,” these same tools of the Party are put to work on the international system. Globally, an incredible amount of research paints a picture of self-censorship by foreign universities and academics, a Chinese diaspora under pressure by the moirés of the Party-state, buyouts and content-sharing arrangements between China’s state media giants and foreign media, covert disinformation campaigns to highlight China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy, content control and espionage worries about Chinese tech companies, the co-opting of foreign political elites through the CCP’s Party exchanges, and the corrupting influence of PRC capital. These cases aren’t bugs of China’s international engagement; they’re features.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

What is the impact of great power competition on China’s challenge to democratic governance? 

China’s challenges to democracy predate the current emphasis on great power competition. Reports of pressure on the political and information environment by Confucius Institutes, PRC embassies, United Front Work-affiliated groups have been well-documented for years. Even Mao spoke of “making the foreign serve China.” These trends, however, accelerated as China grew more powerful, globalization shrank the world, and the fusion of the Party and State entered a new stage. The concept and practice of great power competition infuses these systemic debates about democracy and values with nationalism and geopolitics. Citizens and leaders in regions like Africa and Asia, which I would argue suffer most from the PRC’s malign influence, don’t want to get caught in the middle among the great powers. Within these regions, this dynamic could ultimately conflate support of democracy with support of the West. 

Can you speak to the importance of allies and partners in managing the China challenge? 

Team up with other democracies. Anytime you can. At all levels. China has proven adept at dividing democracies. One study found that, in each of the 100 cases of China’s coercive diplomacy, China targeted an individual country instead of groups. Disappointingly, allies and partners showed up either too late or too little with their support. The Summit for Democracy, D10, and T12 are all smart proposals at the government-to-government level, but these forums must be backed up by the connective tissue among non-governmental institutions such as media, activists, industry associations, and research institutions. Civil society often learns better, moves faster, and collaborates more effectively than governments. These institutions are less bounded by political or bureaucratic considerations, and, after all, are the primary targets of China’s sharp power. 

Assess key challenges and opportunities where policymakers can mitigate geopolitical risks to global democracy. 

Democracies must educate their citizens and institutions through extraordinary transparency measures about these challenges from China, Russia, or other authoritarian actors. The impactful work being done by the thousands of international and local NGOs to build good governance is table stakes. Greater investments must be made in investigative journalism and a much stronger partnership between platforms, regulators, activists, and researchers to combat disinformation. Current laws against foreign money and agents in U.S. politics are a good baseline, but democracies should expand on them to include measures like foreign investment screening and transparency of foreign funding in think tanks and universities. In an era of less independent media, rampant disinformation, and a sanitized view of China provided by its state media giants, China’s model of governance can be opaque. But when democracies peak behind the curtain, they usually don’t like what they see… and institutions often organically adjust in profound, innovative ways.