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‘Online seminars for foreign officials, business training to promote autocracy’: How China is grooming dictators in developing countries to undermine democracy

The revelations were made in a detailed report titled "'A Global South with Chinese Characteristics" and published by the American think-tank Atlantic Council on Thursday (13th June).

China has been systematically undermining democracy and promoting its authoritarian, communist government model in developing nations through its ‘business training’ programmes.

The revelations were made in a detailed report titled “‘A Global South with Chinese Characteristics” and published by the American think-tank Atlantic Council on Thursday (13th June).

According to the report, the Ministry of Commerce of the Chinese government conducted 795 ‘online seminars’ for foreign government officials in the Global South between 2021 and 2022

Screengrab of the report by the Atlantic Council

The sinister objective behind those seminars, funded by the Chinese Communist Party, was to amplify the narrative that autocratic governance is essential for economic development.

The Atlantic Council accessed 1691 files belonging to the Academy for International Business Officials (AIBO) of China’s Ministry of Commerce and found that a whopping 21,123 foreign governmental officials attended these online seminars between 2021 and 2022.

According to the American think tank, the training programs were categorised into 6 groups based on the nature of the content.

This includes ”clearly authoritarian, ‘potentially authoritarian, ‘infrastructure and resource access’, ‘information operation access’, ‘security access’ and ‘others.’ The report emphasised,

The first step in addressing these dynamics is to recognize the extent of the problem, conducting further studies such as this one on the nature of various PRC efforts to promote its model and then, most critically, determining the actual impact of these efforts in increasing developing countries’ acceptance, adaptation, and implementation of authoritarian governance practices.

Local interests, political context, and feasibility of adaptation are all reasonable major factors that determine whether a government will ultimately import authoritarian practices and narratives. Only once the effectiveness of various PRC activities has been determined should significant effort be directed at developing tailored measures to counter them, thereby avoiding unnecessary expenditure of very limited resources on addressing the large and expanding number of CCP efforts across countries.

The Atlantic Council identified 14 key training programmes from the full dataset of 795 Chinese government files. These include:

  1. Marine geologic survey and coastal protection training class
  2. Seminar on blockchain and information security technology for developing countries
  3. Seminar on enhancing university governance for developing countries (online)
  4. Seminar on ethnic policies and practices for Belt and Road countries
  5. Seminar on international application of Beidou and remote sensing
  6. Seminar on inviting heads of foreign volunteer organizations to China
  7. Seminar on planning capability of safe city for African countries
  8. Seminar on population and development program for developing countries
  9. Seminar on port management for Central and Eastern European countries
  10. Seminar on national governance for presidential advisers of developing countries
  11. Seminar on new-developing urban governance for developing countries
  12. Seminar on new media for Belt and Road countries
  13. Seminar on social security and social welfare for developing countries
  14. Seminar for think tank scholars of the Belt and Road countries

The report further added, –

The findings catalogued in this report underscore that the PRC is engaged in a concerted effort to promote authoritarian governance across the developing world, using its own economic success as the primary argument for why countries need not adopt “Western” democratic practices to achieve their development goals. This is occurring across Chinese training programs in Global South countries, regardless of the often-unrelated subjects purportedly addressed. While Beijing often suggests that countries should pursue approaches specific to their own local contexts, rather than adopting the Chinese model completely, PRC trainings clearly highlight aspects of its authoritarian model as central to the blueprint of successful development that others can emulate.

The Atlantic Council concluded,

“China’s promotion of authoritarian governance and undermining of support for democratic practices and principles is likely to increase across the Global South, with Beijing further scaling up the type of trainings documented in this report. This effort is integral to the PRC’s drive to transform a global order currently predicated on the centrality of democracy and individual rights to one more “values-agnostic” and thus suited to China’s rise under authoritarian CCP rule. To counter this effort, countries across the Global South should be encouraged to make independent, informed decisions about their own development path, with access to objective information about China’s political system, domestic affairs, and economic trajectory. Despite democracy’s evident flaws, it remains the system of governance overwhelmingly preferred by publics around the world.25 Beijing’s revisionist efforts to popularize autocracy will fail if citizens in the Global South have the freedom and information to determine the sort of government under which they want to live.”

China using fake accounts to pose as Sikhs, peddle pro-Khalistani propaganda and separatism

Earlier in May, Meta published its ‘Adversarial Threat Report’ for the first quarter of 2024. It found that China is using bots to stir up Khalistani extremism in India.

In its 33-page report, the parent company of Facebookstated that it had removed 37 Facebook accounts, 9 Instagram accounts, 13 Facebook pages and 5 Groups – all of which originated in China.

One or more of these pages had 2700 followers. Some of the groups had 1,300 members and less than 100 followers were connected to the purged Instagram handles.

These accounts were at the helm of promoting Khalistani extremism and Sikh separatism in countries such as India, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Pakistan, Nigeria and the United Kingdom.

On Page 7 of the report, Meta noted that the pro-Khalistani propaganda by China was not limited to Facebook alone. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) bots also used social media platforms like X (formerly Twitter) and Telegram.

“This operation used compromised and fake accounts – some of which were detected and disabled by our automated systems prior to our investigation – to pose as Sikhs, post content and manage Pages and Groups,” the tech company noted in its report.

Operation K to stir pro-Khalistani activities in Australia and NewZealand
The fake accounts, which were being operated from China, attempted to create a “fictitious activist movement called Operation K” and stir Khalistani activities in Australia and New Zealand. However, the disinformation campaign was thwarted by Meta.

“We found and removed this activity early, before it was able to build an audience among authentic communities. They posted primarily in English and Hindi about news and current events, including images likely manipulated by photo editing tools or generated by artificial intelligence, in addition to posts about floods in the Punjab region, the Sikh community worldwide, the Khalistan independence movement, the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a pro-Khalistan independence activist in Canada, and criticism of the Indian government,” the report read.

The revelations were made during Meta’s internal investigation into ‘coordinated inauthentic behaviour (CIB)’ in the region.

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