Populist Authoritarianism in China: National and Global Perspectives

Please cite as:

Pretorius, Christo & Valev, Radoslav. (2024). “Populist Authoritarianism in China – National and Global Perspectives.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). May 2, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0055      

 

This report provides a summary of the presentations delivered during the twelfth installment of ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism (MGP) panel series, titled “Populist Authoritarianism in China – National and Global Perspectives.” The event, held online on April 25, 2024, undertook a comprehensive examination of China’s dynamic political terrain. Dr. Rune Steenberg, an esteemed anthropologist and Principal Investigator at Palacký University Olomouc, adeptly moderated the panel, which featured a distinguished lineup of scholars. Each expert contributed unique insights into China’s populist authoritarianism, drawing from diverse disciplinary perspectives.

By Christo Pretorius Radoslav Valev

The twelfth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism (MGP) panel series, titled “Populist Authoritarianism in China – National and Global Perspectives,” convened online on April 25, 2024, delving into a multifaceted exploration of China’s evolving political landscape. Moderated by Dr. Rune Steenberg, an esteemed anthropologist and Principal Investigator at Palacký University Olomouc, the panel assembled a distinguished line-up of scholars, each offering unique insights into China’s populist authoritarianism from diverse disciplinary lenses.

Dr. Steenberg initiated the discussion by contextualizing the rise of populism within China, tracing its trajectory over the past decade under Xi Jinping’s leadership. Highlighting themes of nationalism, surveillance, and internal suppression, Dr. Steenberg elucidated the complex interplay between populist rhetoric, state power, and societal transformation, emphasizing China’s assertive global posture and its implications for domestic governance.

Subsequent presentations delved into specific dimensions of China’s populist authoritarianismDr. Kun He, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Computational Linguistics Group within the University of Groningen, scrutinized the intricate dynamics of populism within China’s socio-political landscape, delineating its manifestations and distinguishing features. Dr. Martin Lavička, Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies at Lund University, illuminated the state’s regulation of religion under Xi Jinping, underscoring its implications for religious practitioners and broader societal dynamics. Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk, Professor of Economy and visiting fellow at the University of Duisburg-Essen, elucidated China’s global populist endeavors through the lens of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), unraveling its geopolitical implications and coercive strategies. Lastly, Dr. Yung-Yung Chang, Assistant Professor at Asia-Pacific Regional Studies at the National Dong Hwa University, explored the intersection of technology and populism, shedding light on China’s digital authoritarianism and its ramifications for global governance.

Through nuanced analyses and interdisciplinary perspectives, the panelists navigated the contours of China’s populist authoritarianism, unraveling its complexities and global reverberations. As geopolitical landscapes continue to evolve, understanding China’s populist authoritarian trajectory assumes paramount importance, offering critical insights into the unfolding dynamics of global politics and governance.

Dr. Rune Steenberg: “Rise of Populist Authoritarianism in China”

Although the global-oriented policies of Deng Xiaoping played a part, according to Dr. Rune Steenberg, the pivotal moment that has put China on its current path was the economic crash of 2008. Furthering this theory, he highlighted that the hardening of borders, refugee crises, the environmental crisis, rising global inequality, and the attack on personal freedoms and liberties globally, have all been the context for both other populist leaders to gain popularity and power across the world, and the breakdown of the liberal world order. This has allowed power to shift towards China and its interests and offers scholars a wealth of avenues from which they can investigate the minute details of how and why this shift is occurring.

The panel moderator, Dr. Rune Steenberg, started the session by stating that he has seen the rise of populist authoritarianism in China during his work as an anthropologist, which has allowed him to investigate the issue from a broader anthropological perspective. He indicated that populist authoritarianism in China has been on the rise for at least ten years, often connected to Xi Jinping’s rise to power and his ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy,’ certain forms of nationalistic propaganda, competition to the United States, which all coincided with internal suppression of individual rights, freedom of expression, and the expansion of surveillance. Dr. Steenberg also noted that there is a popular support for ‘imperial ambitions’ on Hong Kong, Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang that is often hard for outside commentators to understand. 

Highlighting one strain of analysis, Dr. Steenberg notes that the use a Chinese historical perspective to explain China’s rise to power is often used – notably the economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s, which emphasized hiding one’s strength until become strong enough to assert oneself on the global scene. Commentators, such as Andre Gunder Frank, state that China is currently emerging from the shadows, a narrative often linked to the reversal of the ‘Century of Humiliation.’ In connection to this is China’s policies to go abroad, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its connection and cooperation with Latin American and African countries, and the framing of China as an anti-colonial power, all while furthering its own colonial policies in the process. 

Dr. Steenberg questioned how much of these policies come from grassroot elements compared to state elements. To frame this question, he indicated that there are certain reminders of the joint state and grassroot “Cultural Revolution” that can be found in the re-education camps in Xinjiang, which can be coupled with the breaking up of traditional society to the advantage of a modernization policy pursued by the Chinese government. Scapegoats, both internal and external, are a major part of populism, and in China modern scapegoats take on a different context than they did during the “Cultural Revolution,” especially as China becomes a major global power both economically and militarily. 

Although noting that the global-oriented policies of Deng Xiaoping played a part, according to Dr. Steenberg, the pivotal moment that has put China on its current path was the economic crash of 2008. Furthering this theory, he highlighted that the hardening of borders, refugee crises, the environmental crisis, rising global inequality, and the attack on personal freedoms and liberties globally, have all been the context for both other populist leaders to gain popularity and power across the world, and the breakdown of the liberal world order. This has allowed power to shift towards China and its interests and offers scholars a wealth of avenues from which they can investigate the minute details of how and why this shift is occurring.

Dr. Kun He: “Who Are the People, Populist Articulation of the People in Contemporary China”

According to Dr. Kun He, three categories exist in China to define the ‘people.’ First it is the group that fight against those are defined as ‘foreign others’ and the elites who betray Chinese identity, whilst the idea of a Chinese nation functions as an ideological glue to unite those of the Chinese nationality. These ideas tie into historical contexts of China as ‘victor’ and ‘victim’ to mobilize and protest against the external ‘others.’ The second category of mass resistance is an anti-intellectual emotional appeal, with people rejecting elite dominated cultural production and their institutions, as well as established norms and values. The third category of the people are the netizens who are impoverished, vulnerable, and marginalized in society.

To start his presentation, Dr. Kun He gave examples of successful populist campaigns across the world, stating that ‘populism’ itself is, however, a contested concept. He goes on to give examples used to define populism, including: the ‘pure people’ vs. the ‘elites,’ criticism of established power structures, and its rhetoric and left- and right-wing orientations. Because of the diverse understanding of what populism is, multiple approaches to its study can be found, including populism as an ideology, strategy, discourse, and social movement. Populism’s ability to adapt to changing political and socio-economic circumstances further makes it difficult to pin down an all-encompassing definition. 

Continuing, Dr. He demonstrates that in democratic countries populism often takes a top-down approach, with populist leaders acting as mediators in the name of the people against the elite. However, in China populism takes a more bottom-up approach, with grassroot movements often using collectivist languages – such as ‘we are the 99%.’ According to Dr. He, this difference of perspective is what was needed to pin down a more precise definition of populism, which, according to him, can indeed be understood as ‘the people’ vs. ‘the elite.’ Within China, populism has adapted to fit a Chinese context. By using the anonymity of the internet, Chinese netizens can collectively express their grievances towards the government, which they perceive as corrupt elite with established power. A key characteristic of this approach to populism is that it is decentralized, unlike what is found in democracies. Populism therefore relies on spontaneous and collaborative efforts for collective actions such as disseminating contested information.

By using a video example of Donald Trump’s inauguration speech, which itself is steeped in populist rhetoric, Dr. He demonstrated how Trump managed to tap into a general feeling of discontent that many voters felt – the political system was broken, and the government was not serving the people. He goes on to discuss generalities in western populism: a vertical axis of power, and a horizontal axis of boundaries. Modern democratic theory proposes that legitimacy of political power rests on the ‘sovereign people,’ which is why populist leaders can argue that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people. The populist leader therefore represents this will against the corrupt elite who have leading positions in every aspect of society. The ‘people’ is also, therefore, an inclusive and exclusive concept, and contributes to the ambiguity of where the line can be drawn between elites and the people. Dr. He highlights that on larger scales of investigation ‘the people’ should therefore be seen as a united abstract construct. 

According to Dr. He, three categories exist in China to define the ‘people.’ First it is the group that fight against those are defined as ‘foreign others’ and the elites who betray Chinese identity, whilst the idea of a Chinese nation functions as an ideological glue to unite those of the Chinese nationality. These ideas tie into historical contexts of China as ‘victor’ and ‘victim’ to mobilize and protest the external ‘others.’ The second category of mass resistance is an anti-intellectual emotional appeal, with people rejecting elite dominated cultural production and their institutions, as well as established norms and values. The third category of the people are the netizens who are impoverished, vulnerable, and marginalized in society.

Dr. Martin Lavička: “Religion with Chinese Characteristics – Regulating Religions under Xi Jinping’’

Dr. Martin Lavička emphasized that the Chinese government regards religion with suspicion, fearing its potential exploitation by foreign entities to undermine central authority. Consequently, China pursues a strategy of “dereligionizing” religious practices and restructuring religious institutions to conform to the CCP’s centralized control. These regulatory efforts are geared toward preserving the dominance of communist ideology and preempting both internal and external challenges to the party’s power. Moreover, China not only seeks to exert control over religion but also aims to leverage it for its own strategic advantage.

Dr. Martin Lavička began his presentation by arguing that the steady rise of religious believers in China not only poses a significant challenge but also an opportunity for the central government’s leadership. Therefore, the purpose of the presentation was to uncover the Chinese regulatory policies aimed at religious practitioners in China.

Dr. Lavička stated that the Constitution of the Chinese People’s Republic (CPR) prohibits any discrimination based on nationality or religious affiliation. Furthermore, as part of the UN Security Council, China should have a leading role in promoting the UN Bill of Rights. Despite these legal obligations, independent observers such as UN bodies or NGOs have consistently found a more troubling reality regarding religious freedom in China. What is reported specifically is the mistreatment of Uyghurs (a predominantly Muslim ethnic group living in the Xinjian Autonomous region). In 2022, the UN Human Rights Office concluded that China might be responsible for committing crimes against humanity. However, it seems that the strategy of blaming and shaming someone to make them comply with international obligations does not work, especially when it comes to global powers such as China. 

According to Dr. Lavička, even though the majority of the media attention goes to the Muslim Uyghurs, that does not mean that the other religious groups in China are free from oppression and control. The religious restrictions from the Chinese government have intensified since Xi Jinping took office. However, Chinese leaders have not really changed their attitude since the 1980s. Document 19 which was published in 1982 from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) stated that religion is a tool for oppression by feudalists and capitalists and the eradication of religion in China would be a lengthy process. However, it appears that the Xi Jinping administration would like to accelerate that process of eradication. In 2016, in a conference relating to religious affairs, Xi Jinping stated that CCP members must consolidate their believes and remain unyielding Marxists and atheists which stands in contrast to the Chinese Constitution and religious freedom. 

Dr. Lavička further argued that the Chinese government views religion with suspicion and believes that foreign forces could use it to undermine the power of the central government. Therefore, the government believes that religion should obey and respect the CCP and adapt to the path of the so-called Socialism with Chinese characteristics. This is also signified by the decision to incorporate the State Administration of Religious Affairs to the United Front Work Department which shows that the CCP wants greater control over religious affairs. However, China not only wants to control religion but also use it for its own benefit. 

According to Dr. Lavička, China has been increasingly attempting to regulate the religious institutions. One of the most important objectives is to ensure that the religious teachings do not undermine the party’s ideology. This means that the religious personnel are carefully selected to convey the right ideas to the religious followers. However, the central government is not only concerned with the religious content and the religious personnel’s loyalty but also with the materialization of the foreign influence. For example, the ban of religious attire such as the head coverings of Muslim women or the removal of architectural features of religious venues such as the domes and minarets of mosques. The central government views those features as bearing foreign influence and undermining the Chinese characteristics. 

Dr. Lavička concluded his presentation by examining the future trajectory of religion in China. He underscored China’s ongoing efforts to “dereligionize” religious practices and reshape religious structures to align with the CCP’s centralized administration. The regulatory measures implemented aim to safeguard the primacy of communist ideology and preempt internal and external challenges to the party’s authority. Ultimately, these initiatives seek to ensure that China’s purported 200 million religious adherents do not place any authority above that of the CCP.

Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk: “Unveiling China’s Global Populism – Sharp Power Politics Along the Belt and Road Initiative”

Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk highlighted several outcomes of the BRI, including debt-trap diplomacy and the transfer of strategic national interests. To exert influence over countries along the BRI, China employs sharp-power politics, utilizing manipulation, coercion, infiltration, and misinformation to shape societies. Dr. Ozturk emphasized the imperative for democratic nations to reject China’s flawed transnational populist rhetoric. It’s crucial to raise awareness among the populace to counter disinformation and reduce economic reliance on China.

At the outset of his presentation, Dr. Ibrahim Ozturk began by arguing that populism is defined by the enhancement of people’s representation in politics. Therefore, when discussing populism, there is an electoral and competitive aspect wherein the balance of power can shift due to both fair and unfair elections. However, this paradigm does not apply in China, given its one-party system, ensuring the perpetual dominance of the CCP. Consequently, discussing populism in China poses challenges. To effectively analyze the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a shift in perspective is required, moving from national populism to transnational populism.

In the transnational populist approach, the national citizens are replaced with transnational citizens and the national elite with transnational elite. Furthermore, the unit of analysis is on a global scale rather than the national level. There has been one such political effort in Europe, namely the political movement of the former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis. He wanted to construct a transnational left-wing project with the objective to democratize Europe which would decouple Europeans from their national identities and towards a European one. This European society would vote in European elections and would have a European constitution that would represent them. 

However, Dr. Ozturk aimed to adopt the approach of transnational populism and apply it to China, particularly within the context of the BRI. In this scenario, the ‘elite’ would encompass the capitalist West, namely the US and Europe. China employs critical rhetoric against global corporations and designates them as scapegoats. Additionally, China selectively critiques Western multilateral organizations, highlighting the absence of Chinese representation within them rather than acknowledging their status as global institutions.

Dr. Ozturk argued that there was a principal-agent problem, claiming that China criticizes the global economy and its principal institutions, however China was benefitting from those to a large extent and saw great success because of them. Therefore, it is not clear who China is blaming in terms of global elites. In terms of defining the transnational people, the Chinese approach also fails to conceptualize this idea. China does not advocate globally for the interest of the masses and its diplomacy is based on a state-to-state approach. 

In general, said Dr. Ozturk, China advocates for sovereignty and independence in the international affairs of each state while also promoting collaborative globalization through the BRI. China endeavors to shape discourse around a “global community with a shared destiny and harmonious society,” advancing a win-win nation-state approach encapsulated by “One Belt, Many Recipes.” The BRI stands out for its cooperation model, lacking clear-cut rules and established institutions like Western multilateral organizations. Instead, it operates through Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs), offering a flexible framework subject to continuous negotiations and adjustments.

The BRI primarily focuses on projects in extraction, construction, and transportation. However, the complexity and scale of these endeavors, coupled with government involvement and opacity, create opportunities for skimming, corruption, and money laundering. As authoritarian governments seek to benefit from the BRI, they often compromise their sovereignty, undermining their administration and ultimately harming global citizens.

In conclusion, Dr. Ozturk highlighted several outcomes of the BRI, including debt-trap diplomacy and the transfer of strategic national interests. To exert influence over countries along the BRI, China employs sharp-power politics, utilizing manipulation, coercion, infiltration, and misinformation to shape societies. Dr. Ozturk emphasized the imperative for democratic nations to reject China’s flawed transnational populist rhetoric. It’s crucial to raise awareness among the populace to counter disinformation and reduce economic reliance on China.

Dr. Yung-Yung Chang: “The Expanding Reach of China’s Authoritarian Influence: Shaping a New Illiberal Digital Order”

Dr. Yung-Yung Chang highlights China’s ambition to become a cyber superpower, noting its persistent efforts to regulate the digital space. China has promoted the “Digital Silk Road,” aimed at establishing digital infrastructure along the BRI participants and promoting Chinese tech giants. This initiative underscores China’s leadership in a novel form of digital governance, where digital technologies serve both economic advancement and the extension of political power. Consequently, the distinction between Chinese companies’ pursuit of commercial interests and the state’s pursuit of strategic objectives has become increasingly blurred. Some Chinese firms have received subsidies from the central government and collaborated on projects related to military and security.

Dr. Yung-Yung Chang’s presentation centered on delineating the intersection of technology and populism. Dr. Chang initiated by categorizing scholars’ perspectives on the crisis of the liberal world order into two camps. The first group perceives the crisis as temporary, advocating for the continued importance of US rule and influence to uphold the liberal order. Conversely, the second group contends that the crisis has persisted for an extended period and has undergone substantial transformation. According to this perspective, the liberal world order is irreversibly altered and unlikely to revert to its previous state. In this context, China’s influence emerges as pivotal, as a major power dissatisfied with the current global order and actively seeking to reshape it.

Dr. Chang specifically aimed to examine China’s impact on the digital order within the broader context of its emerging influence. The primary concern surrounding the new digital order revolves around whether it will bolster people’s freedom or amplify autocratic influence. Consequently, two main discourses emerge. On one hand, the liberal digital order posits that digital technologies can promote democratic values, freedom of expression, and individual autonomy. On the other hand, digital authoritarianism contends that digital technologies enable governments to exert control over their populace, manipulating and disseminating disinformation. In this narrative, state security and stability take precedence over internet freedom.

In China, according to Dr. Chang, we can already see upcoming ambitions that the country wants to become a cyber superpower. China has been attempting to continuously regulate the digital space. Furthermore, there has been the promotion of the so-called Digital Silk Road which establishes digital infrastructure along the participants of the BRI and promotes Chinese big digital companies. China has been the leader of a new form of digital governance where digital technologies not only advance the economy but also serve as a tool to extend political power. Therefore, the line between the pursuit of Chinese companies towards commercial interests and the state’s pursuit of achieving strategic objectives has been blurred. Some Chinese companies have been subsidized by the central government and have worked together on projects relating to military and security. Therefore, digital technologies can also be used for the advancement of military hardware and not only for economic advancement. 

Dr. Chang’s research delved into the case of Huawei’s “safe city” project, designed to enhance urban safety and reduce crime rates. Participating cities typically share similar characteristics: they are located in Asia or Africa, exhibit limited political liberalism, and fall within the lower-middle income bracket. This underscores China’s influence in establishing a digital authoritarian paradigm. The rationale behind Huawei’s safe city initiative is straightforward. Cities facing public order challenges and high crime rates demand solutions, prompting Chinese companies to offer digital technologies as a remedy. These companies are particularly attractive to states due to their ability to provide enhanced capacity and legibility.

A notable case study is Huawei’s sponsored safe city project in Nairobi, Kenya. In response to the city’s high crime rate, thousands of cameras were installed throughout the urban area to collect and transmit information to local law enforcement agencies. However, despite these efforts, there has been no significant reduction in the crime rate. Additionally, the absence of data protection laws in Kenya raises concerns about the relationship between the government and its citizens, potentially exacerbating tensions.

In conclusion, Dr. Chang asserted that the safe city project should be examined from both demand and supply perspectives, as China did not impose these technological assets on participating countries. Moreover, Dr. Chang contended that deploying surveillance technologies does not necessarily lead to the advancement of authoritarian leadership. Looking ahead, this digital order has the potential to facilitate not only authoritarianism but also democracy. However, it’s crucial to recognize that liberal and authoritarian digital ecosystems cannot coexist indefinitely within the same environment. Political leaders must make a decisive choice between the two paradigms. 

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