Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday, 13 August 2020



How Far Will China’s Surveillance State Stretch?

American lawmakers are the latest to find that Beijing is increasingly aiming to clamp down on critics in the democratic world.

Always watching.
Always watching. Photographer: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

It’s no secret, of course, that the People’s Republic of China has been building a high-tech surveillance state at home, in hopes of achieving unprecedented control over what its population does and says. Yet the Communist Party’s ambitions for political control do not end at its own frontiers. For years, Beijing has been waging an audacious campaign to set the limits of political speech not just in China but also in countries around the globe. That campaign, in turn, testifies to the mix of hyper-insecurity and hyper-assertiveness that drives Xi Jinping’s China, and it poses a profound strategic challenge to the democratic world.

For Chinese leaders, language is power, and the ability to shape the way the world talks about China is critical to the regime’s domestic security and international influence. For decades, the Chinese Communist Party has worried that foreign criticism of its illiberal rule and systematic human-rights violations might strengthen “subversive” elements within Chinese society. As China has become more geopolitically ambitious, its leaders have recognized that such criticism also stands in the way of Beijing gaining the global prestige and deference it desires.

The party has thus emphasized the importance of “discourse power” in international relations — the idea, as Nadege Rolland of the National Bureau of Asian Research writes, that “whoever rules the words rules the world.” And as Beijing’s coercive leverage has grown with its economic power, the CCP has increasingly used that leverage to constrain what people who live far beyond China’s borders can and cannot say about how the government runs its affairs.

In June, Zoom Video Communications Inc. censored — reportedly at the request of Chinese authorities — online discussions of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. When a Marriott International Inc. employee liked a tweet about Tibet that the CCP deemed injurious in 2018, Beijing complained and the employee was fired. Around the same time, the CCP forced international airlines to begin referring to Taiwan as part of the People’s Republic of China on their websites, by threatening to constrict their access to the Chinese market unless they complied.

The list goes on and on. Chinese government agents have worked to prevent Uighurs in Europe from raising awareness of the regime’s industrial-scale repression in Xinjiang. It has used a mixture of economic largesse and diplomatic intimidation to dissuade foreign countries — including Muslim-majority countries — from denouncing its abuses of its own Muslim population. The Chinese security services have sought to mute dissidents in Australia and other democratic countries by harassing or threatening their families back in China. For years, Beijing has withheld or threatened to withhold trade, investment and other economic ties to punish countries — in Oceania, Scandinavia and beyond — that dare to critique its human-rights violations or foreign policy misconduct.

These are just the instances in which Beijing has had to resort to outright coercion to suppress or punish international speech it considers offensive. There are presumably many others in which the implicit threat of sanctions causes countries or corporations to do Beijing’s work for it. And Beijing is now exporting the same advanced surveillance technologies it uses at home, allowing illiberal regimes from Latin America to sub-Saharan Africa to better limit the speech and activism of their own citizens.

Collectively, these episodes offer a worrying reminder that a world shaped by Chinese power will be a world shaped by the CCP’s political values. They also reveal the strategic schizophrenia that motivates China’s behavior. There is no better example of the unshakable fear that Chinese leaders feel about the security of their own regime than their belief that tweets written and statements made by individuals half a world away could imperil the domestic stability and diplomatic legitimacy of the state. There is no better example of the vaulting confidence the regime currently feels than its leaders’ belief that they can and should set the contours of political discourse in democratic societies.

For all the problems that a rising China is causing, this one may be the most insidious. If citizens or leaders of the democratic world are dissuaded from speaking honestly about what the CCP is and what it does to its own people, the democratic world will have little success in addressing the larger, more comprehensive threat Beijing poses.

Steps that the U.S. and its allies have taken all point to a constructive strategy: continuing to speak out strongly against Chinese repression, making clear that it is not acceptable for Chinese diplomats to engage in intimidation of dissidents or other overseas critics of the regime, and providing greater support for the think tanks and NGOs that detail Beijing’s misbehavior. The Trump administration’s decision to begin sanctioning companies that are contributing to China’s pervasive surveillance and abuses in Xinjiang may also get some traction.  Likewise, the willingness of senators such as Josh Hawley to single out companies that toe Beijing’s line may also prove effective. Hawley, along with Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and other U.S. lawmakers, were sanctioned on Monday by China for having “behaved egregiously on Hong Kong-related issues." 

But the most critical element of any successful strategy may well be continuing to fortify the solidarity of the democratic world. The more united a front the democracies present, the less ability Beijing will have to play divide-and-conquer. Similarly, building on existing  democratic partnerships — such as the expanded G-7 proposed by Britain’s Boris Johnson — could serve as a counterbalance to China’s technological dominance. Finally, while wholesale economic decoupling is still a mistake, reducing the reliance of democratic societies and their private-sector entities on Chinese money and markets is a strategic necessity. And the only way of mitigating the costs of that approach — as the U.K. and a number of allies seem to have figured out — is to simultaneously promote greater coordination and integration among like-minded countries.

That may seem like an ambitious agenda amid fratricidal trade spats and poisonous political disputes among the world’s leading democracies. But the alternative may be watching helplessly as China spreads its illiberal norms to the world.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Hal Brands at

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