DOSSIER | Export: Digital Authoritarianism. A Kaleidoscope of Russia, China, and the Contemporary World Order

*Anna Lena Menne

Despite Francis Fukuyama’s famous proclamation that liberal democracy would form the ultimate result of history after the Cold War, as various crises mar the socio-political horizon, authoritarianism is rising globally. The latest report by the US-funded watchdog organization Freedom House observes global freedom declining for the 16th year in a row, while internet freedom has deteriorated for the 11th year. As scholars grapple with the rise of global authoritarianism and its various causes and effects, the digitization process, despite its initial liberating reputation, is increasingly criticized for facilitating civic and global control by authorizing domestic and transnational surveillance and manipulation mechanisms in both authoritarian and democratic countries alike.

Digital authoritarianism—the application of digitization for monitoring, manipulating, and repressing domestic and foreign populations—has become a trend in many regimes worldwide. Moreover, it is rebalancing power between democracy and autocracy since its leading practitioners, the Russian Federation (Russia) and the People’s Republic of China (China), have started to export digital authoritarian practices and technologies to nation-states around the world, motivated to learn from or adapt to digital mechanisms of control. Nevertheless, approaches to information and communication technology (ICT) as a socio-technical phenomenon are contextual, complex, and distinct. Hence, the pending question of how digital authoritarianism relates to the current configuration of worldly (dis)order and its trajectory requires a contextualized reading of the Russian and Chinese models of digital authoritarianism.

Boike Rehbein’s concept of a kaleidoscopic dialectic offers a critical approach to bridging dichotomies by drawing a theoretical constellation in a complex, crisis-ridden, post-modern, and multicentric world. Accepting the inevitability of a kaleidoscope’s blind spots helps manage complexity and avoids theoretical self-affirmation, ensuring the generation of thought-provoking knowledge. Furthermore, thinking in constellations implies searching for the historical and present relations of the objects in question to perceive them beyond their naturalized self-evidence. The point of this petite kaleidoscope is to account for the Russian and Chinese models of digital authoritarianism and their complex ties to the international liberal order by uncovering their relations, resemblances, and differences from a historical perspective.

World Order after Digitization
Historically, authoritarianism has been the dominant form of government. In contrast, democracy only rose to prominence after WW2 and the Cold War, a period in which the establishment of pseudo-democratic institutions for global political reputation marred the authoritarian character of many regimes worldwide. Thus, authoritarianism is routinely opposed to democracy, although regimes are empirically diverse, comprising differing practices and concentrations of power. Furthermore, following the rise of global capitalism and neoliberal ideology, the world order came to embody a multicentric structure alongside old and new economic power centres, like China and Russia, in which globalization-induced crises and the power of capital were supposed to lead to decaying nation-state politics.

In line with this argument, unilateral imposition of one particular ethnocentrism, as in the era of European colonial empires and the subsequent global US-Empire under the United Nations (UN), would become impossible, and control was to be negotiated. However, digitization processes have (re)enabled the possibility of imposing the values and norms of one culture on another. The conjuncture of global capitalism and neoliberal ideology has aided in the discovery of human life in the form of digitally collected data as a socioeconomic resource for behavioural prediction and creation that generates economic profit. Thus, today, quasi-sovereign platform corporations make up most of the ICT infrastructure in a planetary but humanly-authored computational network with global reach.

Moreover, Shoshana Zuboff, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, claims that the absence of market regulation in the North American ICT network and its global diffusion from the 1990s onwards has established “the basis for a new social order and its moral content”. Whoever owns or controls the most significant part of this planetary ICT infrastructure can consciously exert partial control over its users’ social reality and the people they symbolically engage with. The Snowden Revelations in 2013 and the Cambridge Analytica Data Scandal in 2019 are just two of the most prominent examples illustrating how information warfare is waged beyond economic profit. Thus, a tiny elite of private, institutional, and state actors compete for the prime data, information, and ICT infrastructure repository to guarantee having the most extensive stake in global knowledge production.

Zuboff asserts that surveillance capitalism reproduces “the social pattern of a pre-modern and pre-democratic era when knowledge and power were restricted to the absolute power of a tiny elite”, with its mechanisms intentionally hidden from the wider public to prevent resistance. Despite its inability to capture the transnational private-public multipolarity of ICT governance, this rudimentary comparison helps us understand how surveillance capitalist mechanisms relate to and aid authoritarian governance. Here the key actors are typically defined as the leader, a tiny elite of supporters, and the masses. Engaged in the twin problem of authoritarian power-sharing and control, the leader faces a trade-off between the violent repression of political opponents and expensive co-optation, such as universal welfare provision, to control the masses and elites.

Observably, digitization enables authoritarian regimes to counter the traditional problem of power-sharing and control. By employing tech-facilitated surveillance mechanisms to control and shape citizen behaviour via censorship, manipulation, and repression to preserve and increase political control, digital authoritarianism holds the potential for governments to shape citizens’ social realities in ways that are favourable to the regime and their opportunity structures for online and offline mobilization. The more technologically sophisticated, the better and the quieter the networked authoritarian state can operate. Hence, its netizens tend to paradoxically retain a greater sense of freedom than before the digital transformation.

In the pre-digital authoritarian state, innermost anti-regime sentiments were usually hidden under false pretence to avoid repression. However, surveillance capitalist mechanisms encourage diverse conversation, including regime critique, generating more refined information for data collection and subsequent manipulation. As such, digitization relieves authoritarianism’s traditional informational deficit, enabling regimes to increasingly replace universal welfare provisions that would ensure regime stability with preventive targeted repression and to deter conflicts by targeting radical opponents before they gather in a critical mass for protest.

Russia and China Contextualized
State approaches to digital authoritarianism vary and are practised in line with a regime’s particular toolbox for governing technologically, through software and hardware, or regulatory, in designing policies that shape behaviour and are affected by national particularities and history. Thus, threatened by the supposed liberating effects of digitization in the 1990s, China, in line with its pragmatic authoritarianism, i.e. flexible to adapt governance to maintain one-party rule when crises occur, was early to invest in content-blocking capabilities, creating a centrally controlled censorship invention that pre-filters information, known as the Great Firewall of China.

In contrast, Russian ICT was built according to ‘western principles of openness,’ which complicates demarcating the Russian networked sphere today and characterizes its ‘ad hoc’ digital authoritarianism. After the breakdown of the USSR within a more liberal authoritarian regime under economic reform, the Russian state firmly controlled traditional media while leaving the tech sector to prosper economically, establishing new media outlets geared to a critical audience seeking to escape state propaganda. Russia notably transformed into an oligarchic capitalist state under the autocratic leadership of Vladimir Putin, preserving inequality and regime control via repression and co-optation while maintaining a democratic façade.

Thus, in 2012 when Putin’s second spell commenced, he established a regulatory maze to repress and control domestic and international platform companies, requiring them to install surveillance equipment that forwarded all domestically trafficked data to governmental agencies. The critical online audience born out of the 1990s led to the sophistication of Russia’s digital propaganda tools, combining the capabilities of bots and online trolls to manipulate the established global ICT infrastructure, in which bots numerically subdue the antagonistic and boost regime-friendly content through views, likes, and comments. At the same time, so-called troll factories provide highly believable disinformation to appease critical online audiences and to be shared by the bots.

In contrast, the Chinese state can obscurely monitor, control, and shape the domestic information consumption of its citizens while identifying, targeting, and repressing online activists, as well as increasing the cost of defying the regime but not entirely controlling or banning defiant behaviour. Through strategic ‘porous censorship’, masses engage in discourse, including regime critique, while simultaneously fearing physical and technological repression, investing money and time to endure calculated throttling of connection speeds, and tolerating manipulation through bots, commentators, and fabricated content. However, while Chinese domestic ICT infrastructure comprises a sophisticated surveillance network, its capabilities are often blown out of proportion, like ignorance of the state combining technological and in-person monitoring in the Xinjiang region.

Exporting Digital Authoritarianism
Democracy watchdog Freedom House has observed that authoritarian regimes increasingly extend their digital tools beyond national territory “to silence critics, subvert democratic governments, and reshape international norms and institutions to serve their own interests”. China and Russia have similarly commenced operations that go beyond domestic affairs. While Russia has garnered attention for meddling in the 2016 US elections, China is regularly placed in a resurging Cold War rhetoric, supposedly threatening US hegemony in the digital sphere by internationalizing its technology corporations.

Despite its transnational multipolar character, the cloud still gravitates to territorial law as nation-states continue to exercise their legally established role in the social contract with their citizens domestically and the UN internationally. Moreover, ICT businesses remain located and concentrated within certain territories and, as such, can be weaponized by state actors to geopolitical ends. Consequently, the institutionally led liberal ethical consensus formed around global computation, adhering to international law and capitalist sovereignty, is commonly fractured by ‘attempts of interest-capture’. States like Russia and China seek increased regulatory control through installing decoupled digital spheres under the umbrella term digital or cyber sovereignty.

After the economic reform era under Deng Xiaoping, the current party leader Xi Jinping induced a neo-political turn to centralized government, increasing surveillance and repression and reutilizing ideology to assert global capitalist fantasies of authoritarian nationalism, i.e. the ‘Chinese Dream’. Accordingly, China strives to establish a technologically sophisticated self-image in international discourse, carefully guarding the multicentric world as a counterhegemonic effort and positioning itself as a viable alternative to the international liberal order. Xi previously stated: “to realize a transformation from running at their heels to running abreast with or even ahead of them”, presenting socialism with Chinese characteristics as “a new option for other countries and nations that want to speed up their development while preserving their independence”. Hence, the Chinese strategy to reshape the international ethical consensus on cyber governance promotes digital sovereignty as global developmental rhetoric.
Other strategies to achieve Xi’s goals are the global soft power expansion of state media through establishing an international social media presence with fake social media accounts and content farms, and the Chinese Digital Silk Road Initiative (DSR). The DSR is the technology component of China’s global Belt and Road infrastructural development strategy, binding ICTs like smart cities in bundles and exporting surveillance technology or governmental training in digital information management. The initiative, thus, currently ensures China’s largest possible stake in the production of meaning within recipient countries, not only through centrally controlling its own tech companies but also by leading the implementation of surveillance and security platforms in the Global South while creating loan based dependency.

Similarly, Russia has tried to assert its sovereignty by influencing the international ethical consensus. In contrast to the Chinese model, Russia operates more loudly, fabricating content or reverting to digitally targeted but mass-alerting traditional domestic repression via legal measures or physical attacks. Hence, instead of global developmental rhetoric, Russia employs a security notion of digital sovereignty in which central information management and control over data, filtering, and infrastructural monitoring are arguably vital in replicating the Chinese model by installing a decoupled Russian sphere retrospectively.
Further similarities in the core objectives of the Russian and Chinese global authoritarian strategies unfold in direct comparison. First, the Russian model of digital authoritarianism appeals to governments internationally as it is cheaper than the Chinese model since it employs the existing globally connected ICT infrastructure and does not require the construction of a centralized network. Second, while Russia, similar to China, initially focused on improving its global reputation and economic cooperation in the Global South, its outbound strategy transformed to explicitly destabilize the international liberal order through coordinated operations, by using fake social media accounts targeting the social realities of geopolitical rivals’ citizens, for example.

Finally, although Russian propaganda receives less financial backing than Chinese operations, its mis- and disinformation campaigns are more sophisticated and widespread. Russian cyberattacks have successfully amplified protest movements in the United States and have likely intensified, considering the current war in Ukraine. Thus, while both China and Russia utilize covert propaganda practices to influence politics beyond their borders, in contrast to Chinese operations, Russian attacks, often blunt and easily exposable, target the liberal order at the expense of their reputation on the international institutional stage.

Kaleidoscopic Conclusions
The current multicentric world order, marred by the uncertainties of globalization and global capitalism, poses optimal conditions for normative intervention in the international ethical consensus and is (re)engaged by digitization and the mechanisms of surveillance capitalism facilitating the imposition of values and norms on global discourse. As a result, states increasingly (re)emerge as influential actors legally negotiating ownership of ICT infrastructure yet are potentially already bypassed by those states fit to weaponize multilateral tech corporations or able to influence normative policymaking on cyber governance at the UN level. Among others, Russia and China, two digitally sophisticated authoritarian states, are at the forefront of current negotiations regarding world order.
A kaleidoscopic perspective, taking into account the historicity and complexity of global order and governance, emphasizes that Russian and Chinese tools and applications of digital authoritarianism were born out of historical contextual domestic circumstances, instead of comprising a nascent strategic effort ‘against the West’. Hence, both models of digital authoritarianism diverge. China centrally controls its domestic ICT infrastructure as a decoupled digital sphere, utilizing preventative targeted repression via technological tools like shaping ICT infrastructure through their firewall or throttling connection speeds. On the other hand, Russia has to overtly control its largely privatized and globally connected ICT infrastructure, able to individually target through surveillance but reverting to traditional, more violent forms of repression. Naturally, the Russian regime strives to emulate the Chinese model of centralized domestic control as China can operate more covertly both domestically and internationally.
Ultimately, this small kaleidoscopic constellation exposes the centrality of global capitalism and, almost paradoxically, liberal ideology to the relationship between Russian and Chinese digital authoritarianism. Capitalist sovereignty and economic changes played a big part in the distinct trajectories of both states’ digital authoritarian models. Moreover, only economic reforms established Russia and China as centres in the multicentric world, able to enter normative international legal negotiations, like discussions on digital sovereignty. Likewise, only the multicentric world order as a result of global capitalism, accompanied by declining trust in liberal institutions such as the UN or the World Bank and a global division of labour, has facilitated export opportunities such as the DSR.

From this text alone, the landscape of worldy (dis)order comprises a multiplicity of actors and a variety of complex dimensions. Thus, predictions about the normative direction of world order cannot be answered in this short piece and favouring a particular ethnocentrism would downplay the dynamic interplay of forces typically marred by popular narratives. Nevertheless, honing in on the Chinese and Russian models concerning world order alone, Russian destabilization could aid the Chinese initiative, driving states to adopt Chinese technologies and socialism with Chinese characteristics as viable alternatives to centuries of liberal domination. Moreover, as authoritarian capitalism advances, the illusion of authoritarian market despots will likely support a security notion of digital sovereignty, encouraging centralized ICT control and digital authoritarianism around the world. ICT is slowly playing its part in the contemporary web of socio-political dynamics, guiding world order back to its diverse authoritarian roots.

*This text is part of the Dossier IRGAC LECTURE SERIES – New Faces of Authoritarianism: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from the Global South

**All footnotes and references can be found in the PDF version