Dictators enjoy many pleasures, not least the obsequiousness of yes-men and -women lauding the leader’s greatness. But it has its downside too, as China’s No. 1 Xi Jinping is discovering. According to the commander of the US Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence, the Chinese ruler isn’t aware of all the gray zone operations his country conducts against its neighbors and rivals like the US.
“We have strong indications that Xi Jinping — and I’m an intelligence guy — Xi Jinping is not aware of everything his security forces are doing,” Rear Admiral Mike Studeman, commander of the Office of Naval Intelligence, told a conference in early April. “We think it’s a function of the unwieldiness of China’s governance model. There are dangers of dictatorships.”
Large countries do indeed have unwieldy bureaucracies where information risks getting lost. But China isn’t just a large country with an unwieldy bureaucracy; it’s also an increasingly authoritarian state featuring a “paramount leader” who has amassed personal power in the way that ancient rulers once acquired gold and gems. At the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th party congress in October, Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao — seated next to Xi — was unceremoniously removed from the proceedings in a brutal demonstration of leaderly power. Nobody intervened.
Dictatorships have always encouraged tongue-biting, rewarding silence, and conformity while punishing independent thought. In his Erinnerungen eines Soldaten, General Heinz Guderian – the brain behind Nazi Germany’s tank-led Blitzkrieg – describes situation after situation where generals could have teamed up to thwart Adolf Hitler’s murderous undertakings, but instead retreated to silence rather than unite against his follies.
And let’s be honest, if we worked under a dictator, would we dare to tell him (or her, for that matter) unpleasant news? Would we dare bring to his attention various initiatives we’d undertaken on behalf of the country? What if the ruler thought they were a terrible idea? Autocrats don’t value personal initiative. “There are dangers in how totalitarian states operate,” Studeman said at the conference last month. “The truth doesn’t always flow very quickly in the dictatorships, and if it’s bad news, sometimes that gets adulterated on the way up to [the top]. We see some of that happening.”
We have seen it happening in Russia too, where intelligence officials presented to Vladimir Putin an overly rosy assessment of how his all-out invasion of Ukraine was likely to go (one senior spook was even locked up for a time in the notorious Lefortovo prison.) Josef Stalin famously surrounded himself with more and more yes-men, as his purges removed the no-men to the graveyard.
Such obsequiousness and fear mean Xi may be unaware when China’s long-distance fishing fleet turns up in the waters of some low-income country and fishes them dry (and damages the seabed), thus depriving that country’s fishermen of their livelihoods. He may also have been unaware that in February, a Chinese coast guard ship directed a military-grade laser against the crew on a Philippine coast guard vessel traveling in Philippine waters, temporarily blinding several crew members.
His unawareness may have stretched to ignorance of attempts by Chinese authorities in recent months to block the import of, among other things, Taiwanese pineapples and all Lithuanian goods to avenge statements by those countries’ governments. He may have even been in the dark about China’s plans to avenge the April 5 meeting between President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan and US Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy by dispatching an “inspection flotilla” to the Taiwan Strait, a crucial trading artery, threatening to inspect merchant’s vessels and thus disrupt global shipping. Actually, scratch that: of course Xi was aware of this extremely high-profile attempt to frighten the global shipping industry from sailing anywhere near Taiwan, an island that depends on maritime imports and exports.
Admiral Studeman was making the point that there is lesser, smaller stuff where Xi probably doesn’t know the detail but does know the broad policy, such as the habitual harassment of Vietnamese and Philippine fishermen. And this will matter to Xi, who like many autocrats wants to know everything and micromanage everything (and probably worries that his satraps are playing high-risk games.). Hitler infamously involved himself in minute aspects of the architecture of his planned new capital, Germania, even as the allies advanced towards his 1,000-year (actually 12-year) Reich. But not even the most ambitious autocrat can keep track of every moving piece in his or her dominion, especially in a country of 1.4 billion people. At this stage, Xi is far from a Hitler or a Stalin, but as he continues his evolution toward a fully fledged autocrat, he’ll discover that there are more and more things he doesn’t know. As is the case with all autocrats, the knowledge that information is being withheld from him will make him suspicious and paranoid. That’s the dictator’s dilemma in a nutshell: immense and sometimes absolute power coexists with the nagging feeling that others are conspiring.
The dictator may not know what underlings are up to, but paradoxically foreign intelligence services very well might. It would be troubling for Xi to imagine a silent audience of foreign intelligence agencies enjoying a movie he can never hope to see.
Elisabeth Braw is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges. She is also a columnist for Foreign Policy and the author of ‘The Defender’s Dilemma: Identifying and Deterring Gray-Zone Aggression’ (AEI Press, 2022) and ‘God’s Spies’ (Eerdmans, 2019), about the Stasi
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.