For authoritarian leaders, especially those seeking to maintain the pretense of popular support, secrecy and deception remain useful tools for eliminating opponents. By painting the opposition as dangerous to the nation, or by simply denying that any crackdown on the opposition has occurred, such governments can fabricate a sense of legitimacy for their rule and their actions. Recent events in China, Russia, and Venezuela provide an illustration of these tools in action.
Support for Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s president, has plummeted, with recent polls suggesting that over two-thirds of Venezuelans would vote to remove him from power. In the face of such opposition, Maduro has worked to maintain his power by cracking down on his political opponents, including recent arrests of a former general and several opposition politicians. The government justified the arrests as part of an effort to fight terrorists and “coup plotters”. Opponents, however, decry the move as politically motivated and human rights groups note that the Maduro government has jailed over one hundred political prisoners.
China’s government, meanwhile, has chosen to simply make politically undesirable individuals ‘disappear’. On January 27th, Chinese security agents abducted Xiao Jianhua, a Chinese billionaire living in Hong Kong. His abduction results from his connections to Jiang Zemin, the former head of the Communist Party whose allies have often been the target of Xi Jinping’s “anti-graft” crackdown. The Chinese government has not commented on his disappearance, though an ad placed by an undisclosed buyer in a Hong Kong newspaper and supposedly written by Xiao denies that a kidnapping occurred.
Neither of these efforts, however, surpasses the aggressive ruthlessness of the Russian government’s attempts to crack down on dissent. Since Vladimir Putin took power, a number of his critics have died violent or suspicious deaths. Recently, a vocal opponent of the regime, Vladimir Kara-Murza, fell into his second coma in two years just one month after criticizing the Kremlin in a letter sent to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A French laboratory determined that poison caused the first coma, and his wife believes his current coma has the same explanation. The Russian government denies carrying out such executions, though the causes of death for previous critics undermine these claims.
People often assume that authoritarian regimes crackdown on opponents in a visible, public manner. Yet these examples provide a glimpse into the techniques used by autocratic regimes that seek to silence their opposition in a subtler manner. Opponents of such regimes must prepare to fight against such tactics.