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Sat. January 28, 2023
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The Long Arm of Despotism Reaches Inside Western Liberal Democracies
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It is not just the citizens of countries with despotic regimes that suffer from intensifying authoritarian and autarchic ways imposed on them. People in the rest of the world, including in major liberal democracies, are beginning to feel the heavy hand of these despotic regimes reaching inside their own national borders. This is to a large extent on account of the multifaceted dependencies—commercial, financial, military/security, energy, etc.—of the rest of the world on such regimes. Such dependencies can and do lead to self-censorship and the weakening of values and of democracy itself in the rest of the world, including in major Western liberal democracies. However, the long arm of despotism can also abuse with similar effect the human/social connections between citizens of liberal democracies and the citizens of countries under despotic rule, which can be considerable in a globalized world with significant movement and mixing of people.

The time has come to take a careful and clear-eyed look at all these various circumstances and find out the most appropriate and mindful ways to protect the human and democratic rights of citizens of democracies, including of those citizens with social ties to people in countries with despotic regimes, and at the same time support the human rights of the populations in countries under despotic rule. This is also essential to safeguarding the legitimacy, appeal and strategic interests of liberal democracy as a way of organizing society. Otherwise the great experiment of humanity in democracy will be in danger.    

Some examples could illustrate the points above.

China: economic chains and invitations to tea

It is well documented that in recent years China’s citizens are subjected to an intensifying totalitarian version of the Chinese state capitalist socioeconomic and political system. At the same time, however, the rest of the world is also beginning to feel the heavy hand of the Beijing regime on account of the multifaceted and increasing economic dependency of the rest of the world on China. This appears to be part of a well-thought out and complex strategy on the part of the Communist Party of China with President Xi “at its core”, as the latter’s central role is usually noted in Chinese government and CPC documents.

To put it plainly, the bottom line is that in the West specifically we are being put in a position to trade part of our freedom and our decency in return for the convenience of the myriad of Chinese supply chains and the profit opportunities of China’s gigantic market. We effectively exchange our democracy for short-term economic gain as consumers and investors.

The process involves diminishing human rights in the rest of the world, which in turn allows Beijing to control the narrative around its own actions (including human rights abuses) as well as to decrease the relative legitimacy of the Western political and socioeconomic system compared to the Chinese one. This way, the regime in Beijing, through its admitted economic success, which it exploits for leverage and intimidation, shrewdly ensures its own legitimacy, both among its citizens and internationally and thus secures the conditions for its own perpetuation (reproduction).

Examples abound about how, to keep on the good side of Beijing, the rest of the world is increasingly engaging in self-censorship regarding anything of significant interest to the Beijing regime. The West specifically, whether through its governments, its private sector companies and organizations of various sorts (financial, health, sports etc.) it has a say in, has shown a tendency to suppress its avowed principles in order to avoid economic retribution by China’s government and continue to do what it sees as lucrative and necessary business. And this has been increasingly the case as China’s economic strength grows and the West’s economic dependency on China deepens. 

Thus, whether as a massive consumer or a massive supplier of goods, services and capital, China has been turning many in the West into some kind of hostages and the regime uses this situation to secure its political priorities within China. These political priorities involve—inter alia—the brutal suppression of any meaningful exercise of freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of protest or dissent and freedom of religion, as well as the cracking down on the rights of particularly certain minorities. This is all terrible enough, but the citizens of liberal democracies are also increasingly experiencing the long arm of Beijing’s suppression of human rights through self-censorship as ‘hostages’ of the Beijing regime for the sake of their own convenience and greed.  

The Communist Party of China (CPC) with President Xi “at the core” has also other mechanisms to bring China’s totalitarianism into the lives of citizens and residents of Western liberal democracies. For example, to the extent that a member of the Chinese Diaspora can be connected—through family or social ties—with a Chinese national residing in China itself they can feel the pressure for self-censorship on China-related issues even though they may reside in and even be a citizen of a Western democracy. The reason is simple: The regime has leverage to the extent that Chinese of the Diaspora do not want those that can be connected to them and who live under CPC rule to suffer—even if those inside China have made declarations of disavowing the foreign citizen or resident. And, indeed they can suffer horribly.

The Chinese communities outside of China are acutely aware of stories of short-term or long-term disappearances, arbitrary detentions and allegedly ‘mind-altering’ procedures inflicted by the security apparatus of the regime. Various forms of psychological and physical torture are said to be used, often leading to permanent damage to those subjected to them. No one—no matter how well established and well known, such as tennis star Peng Shuai or Ali Baba’s Jack Ma—can escape that “invitation to tea” by the regime, as the terrorizing prospect of being taken by the security apparatus is known among Chinese.

Out of real decency and compassion, in order to avoid exposing their families or friends to the totalitarian machine, many in the Chinese Diaspora often decide to keep quiet—or quieter than they would otherwise have been—in their lives and as citizens in Western liberal democracies on subjects that are in some way deemed taboos by the Beijing regime (identified by it as “the "Five Poisons" that threaten it: Tibetan and Uyghur separatists, the Falun Gong spiritual movement, Taiwanese independence activists and members of China's pro-democracy movement”).    

Moreover, this pressure system of the Beijing regime can potentially be felt by anyone—not only one that is ethnically Chinese—who has some connection with someone within China. The ultimate outcome is that they will feel the constraint in their freedom of expression and action in any place in the world they find themselves in, including within Western liberal democracies.

To this mechanism come to be added the efforts of the Beijing regime to exert more direct pressure on those of the Chinese diaspora and others that decide to express themselves and take up action within the Western democracies they live in on sensitive-for-Beijing matters. This harassment through slander, spying and even more extreme means—such as kidnapping and rendition to China—within the territories of Western democracies is well known and has probably increased in recent times. And, of course, knowledge of the possibility of such harassment probably keeps many others within the Chinese Diaspora timid and to some extent effectively deprived of the freedoms afforded by the liberal democracies they live in.

This system of “thought policing” territories outside China has arguably become increasingly effective on account of the growth of surveillance possibilities through modern technologies of public expression (including social media) and also of non-public activities (e.g., phone calls, personal computers, email communications, private internet use). People are afraid to express themselves even in a supposedly private setting on account of the fear that surveillance of their communication from afar by the Beijing regime could lead to somebody they associate with now or have associated with in the past suffering reprisals.

In such varied ways, the totalitarian regime in Beijing can and does reach deep inside Western liberal democracies making these democracies effectively less democratic. This does not bode well for the experiment in democracy on the planet, especially given the rising importance of China in the world.     

Turkey: security chains and negotiating free speech

The case of Turkey is another example where Western liberal democracies are being held hostage by a country with an authoritarian regime (superficial displays of democratic process in Turkey notwithstanding) on account of the West’s assessment of Turkey as a “indispensable ally”.  

The dependence of the Western alliance (and specifically NATO) on Turkey and its deleterious effects on Western values and legitimacy has been evident for some time in the West’s unseemly tolerance of Turkey’s authoritarian ways in many areas. For example, Turkey’s mass scale harassment, prosecution and persecution of hundreds of thousands of its own citizens when they disagree or are thought to disagree with its despotic president; the abysmal weaponization of migrants traversing through Turkey, using them as battering rams against European borders; the long-term attack on freedom of the press; the decades long repression and abuse of ethnic Kurds and other religious and ethnic minorities within Turkey, including the near physical elimination of some of these minorities; the patriarchal approach to women’s rights; the persecution of the LGBT community; and others.

For purposes of illustration, one may recall the most recent episode of Western liberal democracies exchanging their own human rights practices and values for Turkey’s nod to their joining NATO, of which Turkey is a veto yielding member. This nod should have been self-evident and automatic among like-minded allies in front of the common threat of the Russian imperial resurgence and war of conquest on Ukraine. It certainly was automatic for US President Biden, who without hesitation appropriately signaled his approval, declaring that “Finland and Sweden make NATO stronger”.

But this opportunity for a self-evident nod to strengthening the Western alliance was turned by President Erdogan into a self-evident opportunity to take hostage the entire NATO in order to perpetuate his two goals: crushing any domestic opposition to his rule and weakening external resistance to his long term effort to resurrect the Ottoman empire.

The first goal[1] involves attacks not only on the human rights of people who are Turkish citizens living in Turkey, but also on the human rights, such as freedom of expression, of citizens and residents of Western democracies. On this occasion, the attacks focus on having Sweden and Finland extradite to Turkey individuals allegedly connected at some point in their lives in some way with Kurdish organizations fighting for the independence of the Kurdish people as well as individuals allegedly associated with Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in the US and whom Mr. Erdogan has painted as being behind the 2016 coup attempt against him.

These demands, which some Western commentators tend to automatically—but not necessarily justifiably—enumerate as if they are ‘normal’, are not enough for the despotic Turkish president, who has also demanded the extradition from Sweden and Finland of people because they have allegedly committed other so-called crimes, including the public criticism of President Erdogan himself. “Most of the demands are impossible to fulfill, such as extraditing a person just because he has used a Bylock [encrypted] application or has written a Facebook comment critical of President Erdogan,” Toni Alaranta, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs has commented. A group of prominent Swedish intellectuals published a letter against the demands of Turkey “to hand over publicists to a regime that tries to silence its critics far beyond the country's borders”, stating clearly: “Under no circumstances will we negotiate on free speech”. And yet, it was done by Sweden’s model democracy.

Moreover, on July 5, 2022 NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg said alongside the foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland when their countries and Turkey agreed on the conditions of their entry into NATO: "This is truly an historic moment". Yes, indeed, it was a historic moment—but far from auspicious—when Sweden and Finland, two of the most exemplary liberal democracies in the world, accepted to be the long arm of the despotic President Erdogan in their own countries as he is driving to politically repress virtually anyone who might oppose his policies and personal ambitions, blanket-labelling them as “terrorists”. And they have already started this process with some extraditions carried out and others in the pipeline to address—as per the signed agreement—Turkey's "pending deportation or extradition requests of terror suspects expeditiously and thoroughly", with "bilateral legal frameworks to facilitate extradition".

The efforts of Turkey’s despotic president to extend his authoritarian rule into Western democracies is nothing new. It has a long history and involves various mechanisms. For example, for many years Turkey has abused the Interpol’s “red notice” system to try to bring about the arrest and extradition of individuals living in Western democracies that had voiced opposition or criticism of the regime in Turkey. For example, when in 2017 Spain arrested a German-Turkish author critical of President Erdogan, the then Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz stated: “As part of his (Erdogan’s) paranoid counter-putsch, he is reaching out for our citizens on the territory of European Union states.” It should be noted that such efforts at arrest and extradition cannot be explained away as some ‘understandable response’ to the 2016 coup attempt against President Erdogan (which anyway some believe was a false flag operation to justify increased authoritarianism); these efforts against outspoken individuals in Western democracies had also been taking place before the coup attempt.

Another mechanism has been the use of family and social connections of citizens of Western democracies with people in Turkey to stifle their democratic and human rights in the Western democracies they live and work in. In an op-ed in September 2018 Turkish origin US basketball star Enes Kanter noted: “If you speak out against Erdogan, it can affect your whole life and everyone around you. It has been too dangerous for me to set foot in Turkey for three years. The last time I visited, the government destroyed my brothers’ school and threw my dentist and his wife in prison. The regime arrested and charged a man for links to Gulen after I took a picture with his child, and went after a comedian after he exchanged a few tweets with me.” Undoubtedly, such retribution on family and social connections must be a powerful deterrent for most citizens and residents of Western democracies with such connections in Turkey in the exercise of their democratic and human rights.

The mechanisms have apparently also included violent physical attacks on dissidents living in Western democracies to deter them from exercising their right to free speech there. The above noted Swedish intellectuals noted as examples in their public letter, the attack on an exiled journalist in Berlin in July 2021 and a similar attack on another exiled journalist in March 2022 in Stockholm.

The Turkish strongman has also overtly interfered in the democratic process of western liberal democracies, when for example in August 2017 he “urged the three million or so people of Turkish background living in Germany to “teach a lesson” to Germany’s main parties by boycotting them in the elections.” It is clear that he thus abused the personal and family connections of these German citizens with the ‘old’ country and also used other systems of pressure within that community in Germany to inter alia diminish their freedom of expression as citizens of a major Western democracy. 

In conclusion, the authoritarian government in Turkey has managed in recent weeks yet one more time to reach with its long arm inside exemplary Western liberal democracies making these democracies effectively less democratic. However, when the standards are eroded, especially in exemplary cases, there are detrimental effects down the line for many others. These are detrimental developments for all Western liberal democracies and, indeed, very risky developments in general for democracy.

Andreas V Georgiou, a US and Greek national, is a Visiting Lecturer and Visiting Scholar at Amherst College, USA, where he teaches courses on statistical ethics. From 1989 until 2010 he worked at the International Monetary Fund, holding positions in various departments. In 2010, he returned to Greece to head the newly established Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT) – the recast National Statistics Office of Greece – and align it fully with European law and international statistical principles. He was President of ELSTAT for five years. He is currently serving as an elected member of the Council of the International Statistical Institute and a member of the European Statistical Governance Advisory Board. He has a BA from Amherst College and a PhD in Economics from the University of Michigan. He lives in the Washington DC area.


[1] The second goal (i.e., to resurrect the Ottoman empire) is served by the demands on Sweden and Finland to lift any restrictions on the sales of weapons to Turkey and to not support the Kurdish organization YPG/PYD in Syria. It is for the same goal that Erdogan wants to create the conditions of defanging any common EU defense by rendering Sweden and Finland his veritable agents, through article 8 part 7 of their agreement with Turkey, in advocating for Turkey’s involvement (read effective veto) in such current or future EU common defense. Erdogan sees such common EU defense as potentially an obstacle to his resurrecting the Ottoman empire in Europe, or as he stated in May 2020 when he participated in a Koranic reading of the “Conquest” verse (surah) at Hagia Sophia—the 6th century Byzantine cathedral: “We will leave behind a Turkey befitting of our ancestor Fatih [the Conqueror],” referring to the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, who captured Constantinople (Istanbul) in May 1453 and also large swaths of European lands.

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