Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping
Credit: GovernmentZA/Flickr

In May and July of 2018, the citizens of Malaysia and Cambodia went to the polls. Both states were longtime autocracies. Malaysia had been run by essentially the same coalition since it gained independence. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had dominated the country for more than three decades. 

Both are also strategically and economically critical to China, and while leading democracies blasted Hun Sen and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak for the not-free run-up to their 2018 races, Beijing backed them. In Cambodia, China allegedly used everything from state media to hacking campaigns to support the prime minister. In Malaysia, it sent diplomats to the governing coalition’s campaign events and reportedly pressured other states to stop investigating a major fraud scheme involving the government. 

China’s approach to Cambodia and Malaysia offers important lessons for the relationship between China and the power of autocracy. Larry Diamond, an esteemed political scientist at Stanford University, recognizes one of them—that China is actively trying to interfere in other states’ domestic politics. Diamond argues in his sweeping new book, Ill Winds, that while there are multiple major threats to democracy today, the greatest is the rising influence of China and Russia. “The most threatening feature of the current global order is the surge in power and initiative of these giant autocracies,” he writes. 

But there is a second lesson from the experiences of Malaysia and Cambodia: Autocratic foreign meddling can backfire. Hun Sen cruised to reelection in Cambodia. But in Malaysia, the public grew angry about the Chinese ambassador’s efforts to intervene in domestic politics. They protested the seemingly unequal terms of economic deals between Malaysia and China, like a proposed rail line that would have heaped debt on their state. The opposition took advantage of China’s unpopularity and strongly criticized Najib for his warm relationship with Beijing. It worked. Come election day, the prime minister lost dramatically.

That’s not to say Diamond is wrong that Beijing and Moscow present dangers, or that the United States should not confront them. But in deeming China and Russia the greatest risks to democracy, he fails to recognize that these countries’ efforts sometimes have the opposite impact. As the U.S. has long known, even the most powerful apparatus of influence does not always succeed.

Diamond was one of the first people to predict that authoritarianism would make a global comeback. In his January 2008 book, The Spirit of Democracy, Diamond warned that narratives of worldwide liberal triumph were mistaken. “Beneath the headlines of continuing democratic progress,” he wrote, “a new and sinister trend has been gathering: a democratic recession.” The book was prescient. Today, there are fewer democracies in existence than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

Given Diamond’s track record, Ill Winds deserves careful thought, and, as one might expect from one of the most distinguished scholars of democracy, the book is sweeping. After briefly offering an overview of how effective democracy should work, Diamond ticks off a list of the threats democracies face. He pays some attention to the internal decay of established democracies like the United States. But he counts China under Xi Jinping and Russia under Vladimir Putin as the greatest two dangers because they have expanded their ability to wield power within other countries’ political systems and societies. “Any campaign to defend and revive democracy around the world must thus be defined by a strategy to confront and contain the authoritarian thrusts of Russia and China,” he writes. 

It is true that China and Russia are major threats. China’s challenges increasingly involve what researchers at the National Endowment for Democracy call “sharp power.” These are efforts to pierce, manipulate, undermine, and distract other countries, including by covertly influencing everything from their university campuses to their leaders. With these tools, authoritarian states can sow chaos within democratic political systems. 

China has been at the forefront of using sharp power. In the past decade, top Chinese leaders have repeatedly stated that Beijing needs to use information to bolster China’s “discourse power” and have poured money into modernizing and expanding state media overseas. Beijing has spread disinformation during Taiwan’s elections. It has established Confucius Institutes—China-funded educational institutions—on international college campuses, including in the U.S. 

But those efforts have generated widespread backlash. According to a 2019 study by the Economist, between 2006 and today, views of the Chinese leadership have fallen from largely positive to close to zero. Beijing has generated rebukes in neighbors with political systems that are partially open, like Singapore. In full-blown democracies, the country has prompted more opposition. Chinese efforts to influence Australian politics led parliament to pass tough new laws on foreign interference. The U.S. Justice Department now forces Chinese state broadcasters to register as foreign agents.

Russia presents a more complex picture. To some, Putin is a mastermind. He surely has demonstrated that authoritarian states can sow disinformation and distrust within democratic states and assist favored candidates. Putin has done so not just in the United States, but also across Europe.

It’s important, however, to be circumspect. Russia has only a limited sphere of influence compared to China. It has focused on activities that can deliver short-term political gains. These are the actions of a modest power that does not have much to lose by gambling. But Russia’s bets don’t always pay off. Opinion against Moscow is hardening among governments in many countries, including in the Nordic states and in the United Kingdom. And while the U.S. certainly needs to improve its elections defenses from foreign interference, Washington should recognize that Russia is ultimately weak. It has falling life expectancies, fleeing entrepreneurs, and a sclerotic petro-economy. No one is looking to copy its model of development.

Instead of foreign meddling, the core of today’s authoritarian resurgence stems from something that’s largely internal: illiberal populists. These include leaders like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and India’s Narendra Modi. They are not the products of Chinese or Russian propaganda. Instead, they win free elections and then slowly suffocate democratic institutions from the inside. These illiberal populists have caused at least as much recent damage to global democracy as anything done by Beijing or Moscow. 

While the U.S. certainly needs to improve its elections defenses from foreign interference, Washington should recognize that Russia is ultimately weak.

For starters, studies show that illiberal populists tend to stay in power for an unusually long time, giving them more time to damage political systems. As I noted in a piece for the Washington Post in 2018, even after the leader is ousted the country may never be the same. For instance, in Italy the long rule of Silvio Berlusconi, an authoritarian populist, corroded the political system and paved the way for the rise of the Five Star Movement and League parties.

Indeed, illiberal populists are likely even more internationally corrosive than the two autocratic giants Diamond writes most about. China and Russia meddle, but illiberal populists model—even more so than China. Other Southeast Asian leaders are copying Duterte’s strongman tactics. Hungary has proved to be an example for other central and eastern European states, like Poland. Modi has paved the way for other Indian leaders, including in the once secular Congress Party, to mimic his demonization of minorities. 

Diamond doesn’t ignore these leaders entirely. He briefly acknowledges that today, democracy is not usually overthrown outright but instead dies of “a thousand cuts” as elected leaders attack the “deep tissues of democracy.” He chronicles America’s polarization, collapsing media landscape, declining civility, and multiple other problems. In the case of the U.S., he offers a laundry list of solutions that include ending gerrymandering and the Electoral College; boosting political transparency; and protecting online privacy. These reforms will be difficult, and Diamond is appropriately cautious about whether the United States will be able to make them. 

It’s unfortunate, then, that Diamond argues that a pro-democracy, internationalist America is the key to stopping autocracy. He’s right that the United States historically played an important role in promoting democracy, both during the Cold War and in the initial post–Cold War era. But while the U.S. ideally could play such a role again, Diamond downplays the limited ability Washington has to spread liberalization today. Even if the U.S. were not so divided, the public wants a more restrained approach to the world. Recent missteps, like the Iraq War and its link to the promotion of democracy in the region, have also clearly tarnished the American brand. 

Still, the case of Malaysia provides a hopeful reminder that the global democratic decline is not irreversible. But it also offers a sobering lesson: Malaysia was one of the only countries in the world to make democratic progress last year.

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Joshua Kurlantzick

Joshua Kurlantzick (@JoshKurlantzick) is Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article is adapted from his new book Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World