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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.
Schell Center for International Human Rights