In 1982 term limits were imposed on the office of the President of China. They were created by Deng Xiaoping (then president of China) to prevent another Mao-style autocrat from coming into power and dominating Chinese politics. Xiaoping did not blame Mao himself for becoming a brutal autocrat, he blamed Chinese institutions for allowing such a person to rise to power. He hoped to place limits on the president and increase the efficacy of government institutions to prevent such a thing from ever happening again.
At the time, it appeared as though China was entering a period of reform and some democratization. Deng Xiaoping and his administration introduced fixed terms of office, term limits, and mandatory retirement ages. All in all, authority was delegated away from the President and Communist Party higher-ups to Chinese government institutions. This period of reform continued even after Xiaoping left office. Both Jiang Zemin and his successor, Hu Jintao, peacefully left the top three most important political offices in China (Chinese Communist Party General Secretary, President of China, and Chief of the Military). This was an incredible showcase of the power of Chinese institutions in the face of potential authoritarians. But this period of reform and increase of institutional power was not to last.
When Xi Jinping, the current president came to power, it was clear that Deng Xiaoping’s legacy of reform has ended, and that his fears of another chairman Mao coming to power had been realized. In his most audacious exercises in autocracy, Jinping had not promoted a successor in front of the People’s Congress, had abolished the term limits for president, and had even promoted his form of Chinese socialism as the officially recognized state ideology (the very aptly self-titled “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era”). While these are some of the most blatant displays of authoritarianism that Xi has employed, he has also utilized many of the more subtle strategies of stealth authoritarianism outlined by Ozan Varol.
But before the relation of stealth authoritarianism to modern-day China is explored, the concept of stealth authoritarianism should be defined, especially in its difference to traditional authoritarianism. Varol defines stealth authoritarianism as “…a way to protect and enrich power when direct repression is not a viable option.” Stealth authoritarianism hides an autocrat behind laws and makes their actions look like legal acts of policy instead of repression. A regular autocrat would have his cronies arrest or kill a rival journalist, but a stealthy autocrat would arrest or fine them for an unrelated charge. While China is an openly autocratic state, Xi Jinping still employs measures of stealth authoritarianism.
Stealth authoritarianism exhibits itself through using allegations of non-political crimes against political rivals. Varol explains that the purpose of this is to reduce the costs associated with direct oppression which may stem from domestic and international criticism. However, Jinping has another reason for doing this. He made a promise in his first term to eliminate corruption in China; corruption was a major criticism of his predecessor, so he had the support of the people. This gave Jinping carte blanche to go after any of his political rivals under the guise of them being corrupt politicians. So not only did he eliminate his opponents and further centralize power, but he also won the support of the people while doing so.
The most infamous use of stealth authoritarianism in China which has been garnering more and more media attention is the use of surveillance laws and institutions to support autocracy. As Varol notes, these laws and institutions are implemented under the guise of combatting terrorism and crime and are recognized internationally as legitimate state security agencies. Then, they are used to watch, scare, harass, blackmail, and spy on political opponents or other enemies of the autocrat. China has all but perfected the concept of mass surveillance. Using their Uyghur population as guinea pigs and the coronavirus pandemic (though mass surveillance was already used before then) as their casus belli the Chinese government unleashed an incredibly sophisticated surveillance system. AI was used in conjunction with security cameras and internet data gathering, then this information was fed to the police. This allowed the state to monitor any person to a level that has never been seen before.
The use of technology and mass surveillance in China brings us to another characteristic of stealth authoritarianism, space for discontent. The reason authoritarians allow for space for discontent is so that on paper they can continue to claim that they rule in a democracy, and controlled discontent allows for the autocrat to control the political narrative. Jinping’s China takes this one step further, in both providing a space for discontent in special Chinese social media and creating a space that will track the discontent dissidents on it.
Chinese mass surveillance is also concerning because of its spread around the world. China has proven that its system of technological autocracy works and is now exporting it to other governments. Chinese firms have worked with the Malaysian, Sri Lankan, Mongolian, Serbian, and numerous African governments to establish Chinese-style surveillance systems and methods in those nations. This is especially concerning from the standpoint of worldwide-democratic erosion. This exportation of tools for autocracy means that struggling democracies will now have a greater potential to backslide further into autocracy. For example, Malaysia (one of the states to which China has been exporting mass surveillance) is already rated as only partly free by Freedom House. If Malaysia now can further restrict and monitor the actions of its citizens, democracy will likely suffer.
On paper, China still claims to be a democracy, albeit a different democracy than the world is used to. Jinping’s predecessors experimented with democracy on a regional level, this democratization allowed them to claim that they rule by the will of the people. Xi instead sought to portray China as a meritocratic democracy ruled by a ‘vanguard of the people.’ This rhetoric allows Jinping to claim democratic rule by the will of the people, and at the same time calls for increased autocratic measures. Jinping style autocracy has proven itself to be attractive to other nations and successful. It will be dangerous when, not if, other aspiring autocrats follow his lead.
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Qin, Bei, David Strömberg, and Yanhui Wu. 2017. “Why Does China Allow Freer Social Media? Protests versus Surveillance and Propaganda.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 31(1): 117–40. doi: 10.1257/jep.31.1.117.
Varol, Ozan O. 2014. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100(1673).
Wong, Brian. 2021. “Why Is China Insisting It Is a Democracy?” – The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2021/12/why-is-china-insisting-it-is-a-democracy/ (March 10, 2022).