The Bernstein Symposium began in 1997 in honor of Robert Bernstein, the founding chair of Human Rights Watch, for his extraordinary contributions to the international human rights movement. The symposium is an integral part of the Robert L. Bernstein Fellowship in International Human Rights, which was established the same year. Each year, current and past fellows are invited back to Yale Law School to engage in human rights discussions and to connect with each other and with symposium participants. 

The 2023 Bernstein Symposium was held on April 13-15. Read about the symposium

Robert L. Bernstein International Human Rights Symposium

Digital Dictatorship: China’s 21st Century Authoritarianism

China defied Western expectations in its successful melding of a market economy with authoritarian politics.  Contrary to the hopes of many inside and outside of China, economic success did not lead to liberalization.  Neither has the arrival of new forms of digital communication.  Just as China turned market participation into support for authoritarianism, it has turned the digital revolution into support for the regime.   China has become a leader in a new form of political practice: digital authoritarianism.  Mastering cyberspace is, today, as important as mastering territorial space.

Although surveillance has always been a technique of authoritarianism, China has created a surveillance society – that is, one in which even the most routine activities of life are monitored and recorded by the state.  China’s unique response to the Covid crisis was made possible by its capacity for digital surveillance and control.  The rebellion against the Covid lockdowns, however, suggests that there may be political limits on what digital control enables a state to do.  A new space may be opening for challenging digital authoritarianism.

This year’s Bernstein Symposium proposes to examine the new forms of authoritarianism in China.  Panels will consider the method and extent of digital control, possible points of resistance, including universities, courts, and media, and the potential consequences of digital authoritarianism as China pursues its interests around the world.

April 13-15, 2023



Thursday, April 13

4:10 – 6:00 pm        


James Silk, Binger Clinical Professor of Human Rights, Yale Law School

Opening Conversation:  China’s 21st Century Authoritarianism

  • Xiao Qiang, Research Scientist, Berkeley School of Information

  • Muyi Xiao, Journalist, The New York Times

  • Moderator: Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations, Asia Society


Friday, April 14

10:00 - 12:00 pm      China’s Digital Dictatorship

China’s pioneering use of new technologies to surveil and control its citizens is a hallmark of authoritarianism in the contemporary era. This session will examine this new system of rule and its impact on longstanding areas of social unrest: democratic movements (Hong Kong), minority rights (Xinjiang), and women’s rights. The pandemic provided yet another proving ground for new surveillance technology, which exists alongside more long-standing forms of social control.

  • Maya Wang, Associate Director, Asia Division, Human Rights Watch

  • Lü Pin, Founder of Feminist Voices and PhD. candidate in Gender & Politics, Rutgers University

  • Ho-Fung Hung, Henry M. and Elizabeth P. Wiesenfeld Professor in Political Economy, Johns Hopkins University

  • Moderator: Paul Kahn, Robert W. Winner Professor of Law and the Humanities, Yale Law School


12:00 - 1:00 pm        Lunch (Room 122)


1:00 - 2:45 pm          Transnational Dimensions of Digital Dictatorship

China offers other countries a model for how technology can solidify control over civil society. Through foreign investment and other means, China is making social control technologies widely available while building a constituency among nations in favor of digital dictatorship. At the same time, private companies based in the U.S. and other democratic nations have faced no repercussions at home for exporting surveillance and other social control technologies abroad. This session will consider the potential consequences of the global spread of digital dictatorship.

  • Chinmayi Arun, Research Scholar in Law, and Executive Director, Information Society Project

  • Olufunmilayo B. Arewa, Shusterman Professor of Business & Transactional Law, Temple University Beasley School of Law

  • Steven Feldstein, Senior Fellow, Carnegie International Endowment for Peace

  • Angeli Datt, Research and Advocacy Lead, China, PEN America

  • Moderator: Hope Metcalf, Lecturer and Executive Director, Schell Center for International Human Rights


3:15 - 5:00 pm          Resisting Digital Dictatorship

The recent anti-lockdown protests in China demonstrate the potential for backlash against a surveillance state: widespread rebellion. Indeed, citizens are using technology to mobilize against the state and transnational corporations. This session will consider strategies employed in China and beyond to regulate emerging technologies and to resist digital dictatorship.

  • Nathan Law, Author, Activist and Democratic Movement Leader [REMOTE]

  • Michael Posner, Jerome Kohlberg Professor of Ethics and Finance, NYU Stern School of Business

  • Xiao Qiang, Research Scientist, Berkeley School of Information  

  • Nate Schenkkan, Senior Director of Research, Countering Authoritarianism, Freedom House

  • Moderator, Claudia Flores, Clinical Professor of Law, Yale Law School