Plenary Session IV

Beijing’s Export of Political Control

China’s export of political control manifests itself in different ways around the world—smart cities, grid technology, thugs for hire, and corporate ties all present themselves as paths for influence. As China trends towards employing Leninist control tactics at home, individuals increasingly are concerned that Beijing could seek to export its methods. Technological advancements have played a huge role in this shift, enabling new forms of monitoring. Panelists suggested questions about Chinese influence on global surveillance be tested empirically to fully examine the strength of its effects. Although Chinese surveillance technology has diffused around the world, this is partially due to preexisting demand for this technology rather than simply Chinese coercion. It is also necessary to look at potential Chinese exports’ effects on world democracy more broadly. Finally, human elements to surveillance, such as bureaucratic implementation, need to be considered to understand how these technologies are applied in a governance context. Therefore, panelists expressed a need to disaggregate the causes of implementation successes and failures.

Beijing’s export of political control is extremely apparent in Hong Kong. Although memories of the international community’s reaction to the Tiananmen Square massacre deter Beijing from using military force in Hong Kong, the Chinese government has managed to co-opt Hong Kong’s police force to carry out intimidation techniques. This example speaks to the Chinese government’s ability to outsource coercion when necessary. More importantly, Hong Kong demonstrates how Beijing does not demand that issues are immediately resolved and takes an incremental approach to exporting political control.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) involvement in the BRI and other international efforts has aroused suspicion about whether China is trying to export political control with its development efforts. Here, panelists noted that the CCP needs to contend with controlling the PLA itself in addition to its governance responsibilities. Most leaders of the reform era have been able to select the top 100 PLA officials for their tenure, making the PLA a politicized institution as well as an army.

Panelists also noted that concern about China gets sensationalized due to the country’s label as an authoritarian state. For example, popular discourse tells the public to be wary of Huawei because it is Chinese, not because of issues with its technology or regulatory environment. This example represents the increasingly ideological bend in conversations on China that often impede considering underlying events.

China also influences the world through firms that modify their rhetoric and actions to appease the Chinese state. Due to China’s large market and authoritarian system, there is a huge risk of self-censorship among companies and individuals that work closely with China. This is immensely troubling because it highlights the degree to which China’s domestic preferences are successful in influencing multinational actors.

Another notable factor in the conversation on Chinese political influence abroad is the degree to which Chinese national students at U.S. universities are present in these debates. Although there have been incidents where Chinese students objected to campus events critical of Beijing, the vast majority of university events on China go smoothly. Additionally, it is hard to determine which universities have self-censorship problems versus which ones do not hold events on China due to lack of expertise or funding. However, panelists noted that researching which opinions stem from state policy versus personal inclinations among Chinese students would be an interesting way to better understand their effects on campus dialogues about China.