All Leninist autocracies are equal, but some are more equal than others

Peter Jennings has set out a disturbing but compelling vision that Leninist autocracies with nuclear weapons pose new risks to global peace. He’s right that common threads among the Chinese, Russian, North Korean and Iranian regimes add up to a disturbing challenge to Western states’ power and stability.

The parallels between Russia under Vladimir Putin and China under Xi Jinping are pretty striking: both leaders have recently re-cemented their grip on power; both have purged internal challengers and critics; both are willing to use military, corporate, intelligence, economic and diplomatic tools to advance their own interests and to disrupt other governments and societies; and both use nationalism to reinforce their control and appeal with their own people, while escalating tensions with others.

Despite the parallels, the nature and scale of the challenges posed by China make it a different kind of problem.

China’s authoritarian model is different in five main ways to the Russian, Iranian and North Korean regimes:

  1. Its active plan to build political influence internationally—to secure regime stability, project power and popularise its model of government
  2. Its domestic reach and ambition
  3. Its capacity and willingness to resource people in Western democracies to champion Beijing’s agenda and to criticise those who oppose it
  4. The ruthless orchestration by the Communist Party of ‘Team China’—government, corporations, academia, the courts and media in pursuit of China’s national interests
  5. The fact that China’s economic scale and wealth allow it to resource these activities at a level unmatched by Russia, Iran or North Korea.

Like the leadership in Putin’s Russia, Ali Khamenei’s Iran and Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, the Chinese Communist Party under Xi wants to perpetuate its rule. The difference is that the Chinese regime seeks to do this in part by creating favourable international conditions that reinforce the party’s rule and legitimacy.

Russia under Putin, by contrast, seeks to reinforce regime legitimacy by disrupting other societies and showing its people that Russia is embattled. North Korean and Iranian leaders seek to maintain sovereignty by showing they have the means to do so, not by re-engineering other societies and institutions to accommodate them.

Then there’s the novelty of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) domestic reach and ambition for social control. A large part of Xi’s China Dream is making the control of 1.4 billion Chinese people at the level of individual behaviour a reality through the pervasive physical presence of the 1.9 million–strong Ministry of Public Security, enabled and empowered by ‘big data’ and next-generation internet technologies—notably artificial intelligence, machine learning and widespread data collection.

The trialling of a social credit score system that’s based on layers of surveillance is the best example of this. No other state has the ambition, the means, the will, and the lack of internal checks and balances in its society to aim for the comprehensive kind of technology-driven authoritarian control of its citizens that the CCP has outlined and begun to implement.

The idea that every one of China’s 1.4 billion citizens will, by 2020, start with 100 social credits and risk losing them if they’re identified and penalised for jaywalking, if they don’t welcome a speech by President Xi or if a close family member protests at a police station, would have been ridiculed five years ago. Now it seems eminently feasible. This level of social control may speak volumes about the regime’s paranoia, but it also gives China greater ability to focus on building power and influence globally.

The regime’s reach into other societies to promote its interests and prevent criticism is another outlier. In a blast from the Comintern and the days of Lenin and Stalin fomenting international revolution through sleeper cells, fellow travellers and Soviet-funded travel, we now have China’s United Front Work Department, the Central Propaganda Department and the Overseas Chinese Affairs Council.

These organisations may have clunky, opaque names but together they fund and build connections with current and former Western political elites, distribute Chinese government news through paid supplements in Western media, and organise and fund student movements that can give voice to pro-Communist Party views in other societies.

Those activities are aimed at building pro-Communist Party constituencies and reducing the space for voices critical of the one-party state over the long term. It seems to be working in Europe and Australia.

A further distinction is the party’s ruthless use of government, military, corporate and academic resources to build comprehensive Chinese national power and project it internationally. An example is the regime’s plan to create the next wave of internet technologies that it hopes will serve as a core plank in China’s power and influence.

None of that is constrained by independent courts, civil liberty organisations or parliaments. The party, under Team China, aggressively aggregates all data for state purposes, and makes it available at scale to all those who help it—tech giants like Alibaba, TenCent and Huawei; academic organisations like the Harbin Institute of Technology; and the Chinese military and the Ministry of State Security.

In President Xi’s China, there are no tetchy US-style Congressional Armed Services and Intelligence Committees; no inquisitive and forensic Inspectors General of Intelligence and Security to keep intelligence agencies honest; and no independent courts that hear challenges from civil liberties groups and NGOs—and often find against the government. All roads end with the Leading Group for Cyber Security led by—that’s right—a smiling President Xi.

The last major difference between China and the other Leninist regimes is GDP. China’s forecast GDP for 2018 is $US13.1 trillion. Compare that with Russia’s $1.5 trillion, Iran’s $398 billion and North Korea’s $16 billion.

While per capita GDP for China is still low, the regime’s control means it can allocate high levels of funding to activities that are part of its longer-term plan for building influence and power. Its level of resourcing can’t be approached by the other three regimes.

By contrast, Russia is more of an authoritarian kleptocracy, built on a small number of siloes of excellence that have received investment despite long-term economic decline. These include:

  • Intelligence agencies with operational mindsets from Soviet times
  • Maths and science, which enables capabilities in cyber, aeronautics, nuclear and space technologies (bringing us Novichok, nuclear torpedoes, the NotPetya malware and a huge nuclear arsenal)
  • A military that has been reinvested in and which has recent operational experience.

Russia’s reach into our domestic societies and debates is destructive—just consider the US elections and Russian bots—but it’s not resourced and peopled like China’s. In addition, the CCP has the goal of creating favourable conditions for its continued rule at home and influence abroad, while Russian influence operations seem to prioritise immediate disruptive effects with less focus on the longer term.

Russia will distract Western governments while Team China gets on with the business of ruthless dominance through technology and political manipulation. Other leaders may admire Putin, but they don’t dream of emulating Russia’s economic success or growing international appeal.

Kim Jong-un’s North Korea is like a Russian ‘mini-me’, but dangerous because it has even lower limits on its behaviour owing to its much smaller stake in the global economy. Kim Jong-un has demonstrated that he can build two siloes of excellence—nuclear weapons and cyber capabilities. His model of governance and economic management, however, is not an export brand.

Iran is hard to fit into the same absolutist camp because it still seems to have real debates within its leadership, and to have a level of public debate and dissent. The Iranian leadership is more a theocracy than a Leninist regime, although it also maintains a ruthless focus on regime stability and is willing to use its powers and institutions to repress its own population. Unlike China or Russia, it’s probably going to face a leadership transition in the next few years, given that its supreme leader is 79.

So, while in some ways these four autocracies are all equal, China is more equal than the others.