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China’s threat to democracies around the world

40 minutes

Larry Diamond joins us this week to talk about the threat China’s model of authoritarian capitalism poses to liberal democracy in the United States and around the world. Economics drives politics, and it’s easy to admire China’s growth while looking past things like increasing surveillance and lack of respect for norms and the rule of law.

We’ve wanted to do an episode on China for a long time, and we are very excited to have Larry Diamond with us to discuss it. China plays an integral role in his new book, Ill Winds and he’s studied the region and its politics for decades.

Larry is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. For more than six years, he directed the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford, where he now leads its Program on Arab Reform and Democracy and its Global Digital Policy Incubator. He is the founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy and also serves as Senior Consultant at the International Forum for Democratic Studies of the National Endowment for Democracy

If you live in the Washington, D.C. area, we are having an event at the National Press Club in October and would love to meet you! It’s not a live Democracy Works recording, but the evening’s featured speaker will be Abe Khan, the guest from our very first episode. He will be talking about the renaissance of athlete activism. Learn more and register at

Additional Information

Larry Diamond’s book, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency

Interview Highlights [6:15] How does China pose a threat to liberal democracy?

China is increasingly trying to become, I think, the dominant power in Asia, the dominant economic, power in the world, the technological leader of the world, and, the geopolitical shaper of the future direction of the world. China is becoming more authoritarian even neo-totalitarian  with its social credit system, it’s intense repression of religious and cultural minorities, its tightening repression and concentration of power under Xi Jinping and it’s domineering claims to the South China Sea and other Asian countries buying up ports and, and infrastructure and frankly politicians as well. I think all of these trends, um, have gone from being concerning to being alarming.

[11:24] Why might other countries find China’s model appealing?

I think what appeals to people around the world, our public opinion data show, is China’s rapid economic growth, not it’s suppression of religious freedom, freedom of expression, the internet and so on. There’s no way you can sell that to ordinary people as an appealing model, that they want to live under themselves. But the allure is that, somehow, if countries can achieve China’s rapid economic growth and if China can downplay, minimize or mask, which it is certainly trying to do, uh the intensely authoritarian and in the technological elements I’d say, Orwellian aspects of it’s increasingly authoritarian rule, then that model can be appealing to people around the world because people want to get rich fast, like China did.

[14:10] How is China trying to control the narrative about how it’s perceived?

One of the most alarming elements, of China’s rising international profile is its accelerating efforts to project sharp power, not the soft power of open and transparent persuasion to it’s culture and it’s model and it’s institutions, but the sharp power of disinformation, deception, uh coercion, bribery, and penetration of the political and civil institutions of open societies to try and shape the narrative about China. To sensor any mention of the dark side of what it’s doing and where journalists and professors are increasingly under rigid monitoring and ideological control. They don’t want people to know about any of this.

[23:12] Are western democracies prepared to deal with these threats from China?

I think it’s very hard for Americans to get their arms around this, and there are a lot of people who sincerely have a more benign and sympathetic view of, of China and think those of us who are ringing these alarm bells now are new Cold Warriors. We don’t want a Cold War, we just want a fair, balanced, and transparent set of relations, trade relations, political relations, based some minimal degree of respect for the international rule of law and the human rights and privacy of our own citizens.

[26:20] Will the protests in Hong Kong impact how the west perceives China?

I think we’re really reaching a crunch point now on Hong Kong, as the world wakes up to the desperation and passion and commitment of the more than two million people in Hong Kong who’ve come out at one time or another to protest for democracy and against Beijing’s encroachments on the civil liberties and rule of law that, um, have made Hong Kong a distinctive part of the Chinese, firmament. I think the world is waking up to how serious the situation is.

I think the real question now is to what extent ordinary Americans in a variety of institutions that have never found the need to worry that China might be a threat or that China might be seeking to compromise the integrity of our values and institutions. People in local government, state legislatures, universities, the mass media, think tanks, businesses, whether they are going to come to a sufficiently clear-eyed, knowledgeable, and resolute understanding of the rising risks coming from relations with the Chinese Communist Party state, and insist on educating themselves about these risks.

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