The recent passage of a “foreign agents” law in Hungary is a disturbing reminder of the determination of the world’s autocracies to crush civil society activism. While Prime Minister Viktor Orban has justified the new measure on transparency grounds, the law’s clear purpose is to neutralize NGOs and think tanks as sources of independent thought about democratic renewal. The fact that an EU state adopted a law modeled on Russian legislation makes the matter all the worse.
Authoritarian regimes everywhere have sought to neutralize precisely those institutions that serve as the key instruments of democratic change. Civil society is one of a triad of institutions—free markets and the internet are the other two—that many believed would break down the structures of political repression in those parts of the world that had been bypassed by the democratic revolutions of the late 20th century. Instead, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and other strongmen have shown an impressive ability to suppress, regulate, and co-opt these institutions.
Historically, most civil society activists have been young, with little prior involvement in politics, and prone to neither corruption nor compromise. Some predicted that civil society organizations would play a more important role in securing democratic change than traditional political parties, which were often susceptible to both. In 2000, civil society activists organized a campaign that brought about the downfall of Serbian President Slobodan Milošević. In Ukraine, young reformers played a pivotal role in ensuring that the 2004 elections were not stolen.
But since Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, civil society has come under relentless persecution. With Russia as the model, country after country in practically every region has taken steps to limit civil society to social work and humanitarian missions and to silence its calls for honest government and civil liberties. Leading NGOs have been subjected to raids by the tax police, restrictions on foreign funding, and threats against domestic sources of funding. At the same time, autocracies have developed their own version of civil society through the establishment of amply funded government-controlled NGOs, known as GONGOS.
The second pillar of democratic change, free markets, has come under threat by autocratic regimes. During the Cold War’s waning years, many commentators asserted that it was “democratic capitalism”—a system that combined markets and free institutions—that had toppled the communist dictatorships. With communism’s end, there was no longer a bloc of countries that rejected capitalism, and practically every country sought to deepen its participation in the global trading system. However, in China, Russia, and elsewhere, the new leaders found ways to embrace state-propelled market approaches. They developed a form of managed capitalism, with a new class of oligarchs who were allowed to enrich themselves as long as they used their economic muscle to advance the political leadership’s strategic goals. Among other things, this hybrid form of capitalism allowed the authorities to ensure that the needs of the state and its leaders took precedence over the rule of law.
The introduction of the internet, the last of our triad, took place amid an explosion of all forms of independent media during the 1990s. But the internet in particular was seen as an irresistible force that could render censorship of any kind impossible. In 2000, President Bill Clinton famously compared China’s efforts to control internet content to “trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.”
While critical voices can still be found on the internet in China and other dictatorships, the authorities have been highly successful in suppressing material that might lead to any broad form of online protest or collective action. In addition to intrusive laws and regulations, the Chinese regime deploys armies of paid and volunteer commentators to flood social media with pro-government remarks, influence online discussions, report or attack those who make anti-government comments, and sow confusion about particular incidents that might reflect poorly on the leadership. Russia has rejected Beijing’s system of near-total control, instead shutting down sites or punishing online commentators who cross certain red lines. Both Chinese and Russian methods have succeeded in thwarting opposition that seeks to mobilize via the internet. After years of intense pressure, the Chinese internet is drawing closer to Xi Jinping’s ideal of a medium that is “clear and bright.”
There are, of course, downsides to the suppression of democratic institutions. By rejecting economic diversity, Russia has ensured that its economy will never rise above second-class status. China’s obsessive internet censorship has alienated a younger generation in nearby Asian societies, not to mention within China itself. But authoritarian powers are willing to tolerate these costs. Above all else, modern autocrats insist on domination of the economy’s commanding heights, suppression of critics before they form an organized opposition, and control over the political message.
The United States and other democracies need not accept modern authoritarians’ repressive features as immutable. We could, for example, impose trade sanctions on China for its restrictions on U.S. technology firms. But as we take action to advance our values, we should recognize that today’s autocrats understand that pluralism and dissenting ideas pose as serious a threat to their rule as they did to the one-party state of the previous century.