China's Addiction to Short-Term Thinking

In an article for Political Violence @ a Glance, Batten's Phil Potter, director of the National Security Policy Center, and co-authors Chen Wang and Claire Oto discuss China's transparency problem, as well as the risks and rewards of transparency. 

President of China Xi Jinping. (Wikimedia Commons)
President of China Xi Jinping. (Wikimedia Commons)

The ability to control information has long been one of the most powerful tools at an autocrat’s disposal, but today’s institutionalized autocracies struggle to wield it in modern media environments. Thanks to Internet access and social media, salient events can quickly become common knowledge, pressuring authorities to acknowledge what happened—even when they would rather not. Recent protests in Russia are a prime example, with social media and independent news galvanizing more than 100,000 people to take to the streets. Something similar occurred last year in China, when slow acknowledgment of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan temporarily undermined authorities’ legitimacy, especially after Chinese citizens took to social media to share independent information. 

Transparency about high-profile events can legitimize an autocrat in citizens’ eyes and on the global stage—but potentially at the expense of domestic control. So how do autocratic leaders strike a balance?

China’s efforts to control information about political violence in Xinjiang demonstrate this balancing act in action. China is often credited with having a long-term strategic perspective, but their handling of information on political violence reveals an addiction to the short-term prioritization of social control.

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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