Mapping Global Populism — Panel XII: Populist Authoritarianism in China – National and Global Perspectives

Photo: Shutterstock.

Date/Time: Thursday, April 25, 2024 — 10:00-12:00 (CET)

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Moderator

Dr. Rune Steenberg

(Anthropologist Researching Uyghurs and Central Asia, Principal Investigator at Palacký University Olomouc).

Speakers

“Who Are the People, Populist Articulation of the People in Contemporary China,” by Dr. Kun He (Postdoctoral Researcher at the Computational Linguistics Group within the University of Groningen).

Religion with Chinese Characteristics – Regulating Religions under Xi Jinping,” by Dr. Martin Lavička (Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, Lund University).

“Unveiling China’s ‘Global Populism’: Sharp Power Politics Along the Belt and Road Initiative,” by Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk (Professor of Economy and visiting fellow at the University of Duisburg-Essen).

The Expanding Reach of China’s Authoritarian Influence: Shaping a New Illiberal Digital Order,” by Dr. Yung-Yung Chang (Assistant Professor at Asia-Pacific Regional Studies, National Dong Hwa University, Hualien, Taiwan). 

 

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Brief Biographies and Abstracts

Dr. Rune Steenberg is an anthropologist researching the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Uyghurs. He has conducted extensive fieldwork in Xinjiang, Central Asia, China, and Indonesia and has published widely on topics ranging from kinship to cross-border trade, narratives, and mass incarceration. Rune received his PhD from Freie Universität Berlin in 2014 and is currently a researcher at Palacky University Olomouc. Since 2018, he has also worked as a Uyghur interpreter for asylum seekers, activists, journalists, and human rights organisations, and has participated in producing several documentary films on the tragedies in Xinjiang. 

Who Are the People, Populist Articulation of the People in Contemporary China

Dr. Kun He is a postdoctoral researcher in the Computational Linguistic Group of the University of Groningen. His academic journey has been characterized by an interdisciplinary approach, encompassing fields such as populism, humane AI, media and communication studies, and computational social science. Presently, his research mainly focuses on three main areas: Populist multimodal and multiplatform communication (PhD project), particularly in the context of Chinese populism; the exploration of humane AI (postdoc project), emphasizing human-AI interaction, AI ethics and the geopolitics of AI; and the study of visual disinformation. All his research activities are conducted within the framework of computational social science, applying computational methods to analyze extensive datasets.
 
Abstract: Discerning what populists mean by the people is crucial for understanding populism. However, the appeals populists make to the people differ across political systems, with distinctions particularly evident between democratic contexts and one-party states such as China. Articulations of the people in Chinese populist communication remain underexplored, which is a gap this paper addresses by clarifying how the people is constructed in the discourses that underpin Chinese populism. A total of 61 populism cases were examined through discourse and meta-analyses, from which three manifestations of the people emerged. First, the Chinese nation serves as an ideological glue to mobilize people to protest against those seen as betraying their Chinese identity or violating the sovereignty and dignity of China. Second, the mass is associated with an affective aversion to scientists and experts, but also with mass support for a satirical subculture that challenges the hegemony of elite-dominated cultural production and cultural institutions. Finally, socially vulnerable groups assemble powerless people in situations of economic impoverishment, political marginalization, and social vulnerability. The analysis reveals how these three conceptualizations of the people drive online Chinese bottom-up populism, allowing netizens to serve as mediators and pitting the people against corrupt elites and the establishment.

Religion with Chinese Characteristics – Regulating Religions under Xi Jinping

Dr. Martin Lavička studied Chinese and Japanese philology (BA), International Relations (MA), and Political Science (Ph.D.). He is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Asian Studies at Palacký University Olomouc, Czech Republic, teaching courses about modern Chinese history, Taiwan history, and Chinese politics. His research focuses on the socio-legal aspects of China’s ethnic policies, religious freedoms, and the rule of law. He is a visiting research fellow at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies at Lund University, Sweden, working on his two-year OP-JAC MSCA-CZ project titled Chinese Conceptualisation of the Rule of Law (CLAW): Challenges for the International Legal Order. 

Abstract: In China, freedom of belief is officially protected by the Constitution and legal documents. However, in practice, the government often restricts religious activity and discriminates against religious minorities. Five major religions have been tolerated but regulated by the Communist Party-led state since the end of the Cultural Revolution. The government regulates religious activity by requiring religious groups to register with the state, approving religious leaders, and monitoring religious activities. Additionally, under the current leadership, religions are increasingly pressured to reflect Chinese characteristics and include, for example, Xi Jinping Thought in their teachings. The Communist Party views religion with suspicion and believes that foreign forces can use it to undermine the government. Therefore, it is the Communist Party’s long-term goal of gradually reducing religion’s role in Chinese society. In recent years, we have witnessed an increasing number of religious restrictions targeting not only Uyghur Muslims, but also increasingly encompassing a wider range of religious practitioners across China. My presentation will address some of these recent policies and laws, examine the so-called "Chinafication" of religions, and show the shrinking space for religious believers in today’s China.

Unveiling China’s ‘Global Populism’: Sharp Power Politics Along the Belt and Road Initiative

Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk is a Professor of Economy and visiting fellow at the University of Duisburg-Essen since 2017. He is studying developmental, institutional, and international economics. His research focuses on the Japanese, Turkish, and Chinese economies. Currently, he is working on emerging hybrid governance models and the rise of populism in the Emerging Market Economies. As a part of that interest, he studies the institutional quality of China’s Modern Silk Road Project /The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its governance model, and implications for the global system. He also teaches courses on business and entrepreneurship in the Emerging Market Economies, such as BRICS/MINT countries. Email: iozturk@populismstudies.org, https://orcid.org/0000-0002-8069-4721

Abstract: This paper underscores the pressing need to understand the intersection of populism, which is currently being rigorously developed to explain contemporary political divisions worldwide, with the emerging concept of "sharp power politics" (SPP). It argues that as populist governments increasingly lean towards authoritarianism over extended periods, they are prone to engage in international power politics, mainly through SPP. This involves creating new scapegoats and manufacturing national threats to mask internal shortcomings or further consolidate the ruling party’s authority. The paper supports this argument by examining China’s adoption of a robust global populist rhetoric after decades of accommodating economic and political strategies. China strategically employs this rhetoric to exploit weaknesses in the multilateral world order, aiming to expand its influence through initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

When Technology Meets Authoritarianism – The Expanding Reach of China’s Authoritarian Influence: Shaping a New Illiberal Digital Order?

Dr. Yung-Yung Chang is an Assistant Professor in the Asia-Pacific Regional Studies Program at the National Dong Hwa University, Taiwan. Her main research interest deals with China’s discourse power in digital governance, regional integration in East Asia, China’s external relations/foreign policy and politics & security of the Indo-Pacific region. She has researched in the UK, Austria, Germany, and Taiwan. She has published in Journal of Chinese Political Science, European Journal of East Asian Studies, Politics & Policy and so on. Her recent publication is ‘China beyond China, establishing a digital order with Chinese characteristics. China’s growing discursive power and the Digital Silk Road.’

Abstract: In recent years, China has emerged as a prominent figure in the global digital arena, exerting its authoritarian influence far beyond its territorial borders. This presentation examines China’s role as a surveillance dictatorship and technological pioneer in shaping a burgeoning authoritarian digital order.

The focus of the presentation is to analyze how China’s digital authoritarian practices are spreading and gaining traction abroad, reshaping the global landscape of digital repression and control, and challenging conventional notions of digital freedom and democracy.

The presentation will begin by scrutinizing the ongoing debate surrounding the impact of digital technology on authoritarian governance. Following this, the presentation elucidates key concepts such as digital authoritarianism, digital order, state capacity, and legibility to provide a solid foundation for further discussion. It will then pivot to analyze China’s ambitious national strategy aimed at establishing itself as a dominant cyber power, while also examining its trajectory toward becoming a burgeoning surveillance state.

Empirically, the presentation will utilize the Digital Silk Road as a case study to demonstrate how the CCP strategically employs digital infrastructure projects to propagate its high-tech, surveillance-oriented model on a global scale, thereby offering a blueprint for international emulation.

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