Recent research on the international diffusion of democracy has focused on demonstrating how diffusion can change regime outcomes. Although there is still debate within the field of democratization over how important democratic diffusion is relative to domestic factors, autocratic leaders believe that democratic diffusion can be a threat to their rule. It is clear that some countries, such as North Korea, prevent diffusion by severely restricting interactions with foreigners and forbidding access to external sources of information. The more intriguing question is how the states that have economic, diplomatic, and social linkages with democratic states prevent democratic diffusion. In other words, what methods do globally-engaged, autocratic governments use to limit exposure to and reduce receptivity to democratic diffusion?
In addition to using coercion and economic patronage, autocratic states utilize two nonmaterial mechanisms to prevent democratic diffusion: 1) restricting exposure to democratic ideas and 2) developing alternative narratives about democracy to reduce local receptivity to democratic diffusion. Sophisticated autocratic leaders can limit receptivity to democratic diffusion if they convince citizens that those ideas are “foreign,” will cause “chaos,” or if they believe they already have their own form of democracy. I explore these methods of establishing firewalls to prevent diffusion by examining the cases of China and Kazakhstan, two countries where a high level of economic linkage coincides with a successful continuation of autocratic rule, despite the global spread of democratic norms. China has developed extensive methods to restrict access to foreign ideas about democracy while Kazakhstan has mainly focused on developing an alternative narrative about democracy. This article contributes to the literature on authoritarian persistence and democratic diffusion by investigating the internal methods autocratic leaders adopt to ensure that democratic diffusion does not threaten their rule.