I wish I was as sanguine about the future of authoritarianism as Anne Applebaum, who breezily predicts that repressive regimes not named the People’s Republic of China will have a rough go of it in the coming decades. China, of course, is a pretty glaring exception, and I think Applebaum’s prognosis misses an important aspect of the relationship between authoritarianism in China and the vitality of other authoritarian regimes.
A smart person (whose identity, despite repeated Google searches, remains shrouded in mystery) once observed that China’s efforts to stay ahead of the new media curve are easily exportable to other, less technically adept authoritarian states, who can then free-ride off Chinese “innovation” to keep dissidents in line. Zimbabwe, Iran or Turkmenistan may not have the capacity to keep up with the social media revolution, but China certainly does, and I doubt the PRC will have any qualms about selectively sharing the architecture of repression.
It’s also worth noting that China has a pretty big incentive to disseminate the latest in repressive technology to like-minded despots. Foreign revolutions often inspire dissidents closer to home, and exporting the tools of authoritarianism to friendly regimes sounds eerily similar to China’s current relationship with client states across sub-Saharan Africa. Applebaum’s optimism notwithstanding, I think authoritarianism is here to stay, and not just in mainland China.