Digital Authoritarianism and Regime Type: Measuring the Impact of Chinese Surveillance Technologies on Types of US Alliances
Damianos, Nicholas Evangelos
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Digital authoritarianism–the use of digital tools to repress and influence domestic and foreign populations–has become a fixture of the authoritarian playbook. China’s extensive use of digital technologies to surveil its citizens and quell dissent has received significant attention from national security practitioners. Countries across the world, including US allies, are incorporating aspects of China’s digital authoritarianism by importing Chinese surveillance technologies. This development raises important questions about their postures towards China, the overall status of their relations with the United States, and whether regime type is predictive of alliance strength. The import of these technologies could threaten US alliances if their implementation is followed by deeper collaboration with China. The incorporation of these technologies could signify a shift away from Washington and towards Beijing. This study reviews the central arguments regarding alliances before reviewing the literature on digital authoritarianism. The scholarship emphasizes China’s utilization of digital tools, its potential links to economic development, and China’s spread of authoritarianism. This study seeks to analyze these two concepts by measuring the effect that Chinese surveillance technologies within US-aligned countries have on US alliances with democratic and authoritarian states. The study includes four case studies–France, Germany, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia–to address this topic. These countries are US allies who have imported Chinese surveillance tools. Following the implementation of these technologies, this paper analyzes economic indicators, security cooperation, and public opinion polls to evaluate changes in cooperation with and perception of China and the United States over time and whether these countries are merely imitating China or shifting towards China. The data reveals that US alliances with its democratic allies–France and Germany–are not threatened by the presence of Chinese surveillance technologies, and that their business dealing with Chinese firms do not signify a shift away from Washington. However, the evidence does demonstrate that the US’ authoritarian partners–Egypt and Saudi Arabia–may be willing to explore strengthening their ties to China. To close, the study reiterates the minimal threat to US alliances but also warns against the broader danger that digital authoritarianism presents to democracy and civil liberties.