How dictators use our open society against us
© Greg Nash


Pro-Beijing outlets have gained a dominant share of the Chinese-language cable TV market in the United States.

Bodyguards of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan beat up peaceful protesters in our nation’s capital. And lobbying for dictators in Washington has become so routine as to serve the most repressive regimes, such as Azerbaijan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan, and include individuals like Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn who can re-enter American politics and government after representing corrupt, authoritarian foreign interests.

What do these developments have in common?

They all are examples of dictators exploiting our open society to weaken our democracy. Russian efforts to manipulate American media coverage during the U.S. presidential election last year were part of a broader pattern, as detailed in a recent Freedom House study.


Modern authoritarian rulers have gone global with their methods of political control. They learn from each other how to control the drivers of freedom, such as the internet and civil society, and extend their reach to America’s political system and that of our democratic allies.

Authoritarian regimes, particularly China and Russia, threaten American values and interests. Their influence often comes at our expense and leads to greater instability, as seen in the South China Sea and in Russia’s encroachments on Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

And they harm U.S. economic interests as well. Corruption and weak rule of law put U.S. businesses at a distinct disadvantage in relation to local competitors with political connections, and restrictions on media and the internet limit the access of American companies to overseas markets.

The United States needs to push back harder on the growing influence of authoritarian powers. There are several steps it can take without making American society less open.

First, while the United States advances its security and economic interests with authoritarian governments, it still should hold them to account for failing to follow their own laws and international human rights commitments.

The U.S. lives up to its international commitments. We should demand that others do the same. Senior U.S. officials should publicly criticize unfair elections, restrictions of press freedom, arbitrary detentions of dissidents, and other repressive measures.

In addition, full enforcement of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act will serve to spotlight individual perpetrators, document their culpability, and deter future abuses.

Second, the U.S. government should insist on reciprocal access for American business to overseas markets.

For example, it should press China to grant American internet companies the same access they have to the U.S. market and consider punitive measures if China fails to provide such access. Media and internet censorship are significant barriers to trade and should be treated as such.

Third, the U.S. government needs to more vigorously counteract media restrictions and propaganda without replicating authoritarian methods.

It should provide sufficient resources for U.S. international broadcasting to compete with Russia and China. The appointment of a new Chairperson of the Broadcasting Board of Governors will be critical. The person should be deeply committed to democratic values, supportive of U.S. engagement overseas, and open to innovative strategies.

The Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act enacted in December 2016 provides a mandate to step up monitoring of Russia’s and China’s information warfare, analyze trends, and identify new solutions. These solutions should emphasize expanding the international reach of balanced, fact-based news and increasing coverage of corruption and abuses of power.

The largest foreign propaganda operations, such as RT (formerly Russia Today), Sputnik, China Daily, and China Global Television Network (formerly CCTV), are insidious in presenting themselves as legitimate news outlets.

For example, China Daily purchases inserts meant to look like serious news coverage in the Washington Post and other leading newspapers, and RT content is now shown on the screens of gas station pumps. Members of Congress and senior executive branch officials should publicly shame these operations for being propaganda services.

Stronger measures may merit consideration.

The U.S. government might, for instance, consider requiring clear and prominent labels on content paid for by a foreign government or revoking broadcast licenses for RT and CGTN if Russia and China, respectively, continue to deny access by U.S. government-supported broadcasters to their country.

China has used its market power to blunt international criticism of its government and present a more favorable image of the country. Insidious efforts by Chinese firms to acquire American media and entertainment companies merit a resolute response.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States should prevent Chinese firms from buying their way into and thus gaining influence over the American media and entertainment industries.

Finally, the U.S. government should curb the influence of dictators’ Washington lobbyists by stepping up enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act and adding a requirement to label events and trips paid by a foreign agent.

The efforts of authoritarian rulers to extend their influence, including to use our open society against us, present a serious threat to our democratic system. The United States needs to counter these efforts with more vigor and urgency.

Daniel Calingaert is executive vice president of Freedom House, a watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.