December 26, 2023 | Washington Examiner

How the US can push back against authoritarianism in China and beyond

December 26, 2023 | Washington Examiner

How the US can push back against authoritarianism in China and beyond

Government officials and anti-corruption activists from more than 180 countries met this month in Atlanta for the 10th annual conference on the U.N. Convention Against Corruption. With the world’s anti-corruption attention focused on the U.S., America must demonstrate anti-corruption leadership to counter the rise in authoritarianism, especially in China.

Much of the U.N.’s anti-corruption framework emanated from America’s leadership and a clear objective to globalize efforts to end foreign bribery. But much of the geopolitical conversation on corruption, transparency, integrity, and good governance has been ceded to kleptocratic and authoritarian regimes that seek to gaslight the world into disregarding their own egregious corruption.

Unfortunately, U.N. meetings can be leveraged to amplify their propaganda. As a prime example, officials from Russia, the archetypal kleptocracy, organized a side event at the U.N. anti-corruption conference titled “Together Against Corruption!” China, meanwhile, hosted its own presentation on how its notoriously corrupt Belt and Road Initiative has boosted “good practices” and commitments to “upholding integrity” among 140 partner countries. That’s a rather tricky narrative to back up when a steady stream of Belt and Road Initiative projects happens to be linked to specific instances of corruption and undue influence. Put bluntly, it’s complete nonsense.

Beyond the endemic corruption of the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing has engaged in its own pernicious forms of gaslighting, boldly redefining sacred terms such as human rights and democracy for the benefit of a narrative that supports China’s dominance in global affairs and a new global order.

In the face of Chinese efforts to claim the mantle of global governance leadership, the U.S. needs to demonstrate that its own approach can deliver tangible prosperity gains for populations wary of Western promises about democracy. Now U.S. officials have an unexpected ace up their sleeve — if they know how to use it.

The bipartisan Foreign Extortion Prevention Act, which Congress has just passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, promises to become the most globally consequential U.S. anti-corruption legislation since the landmark Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977. It would effectively criminalize the solicitation of bribes by foreign officials worldwide under U.S. law, addressing a long-standing criticism that the FCPA unfairly burdens U.S. firms without holding those who demand illicit payments from them accountable.

The primary purpose of FEPA is to protect American businesses from predatory foreign officials, especially in Belt and Road Initiative partner countries where crooked leaders often collude with Chinese state-owned companies to cut out competition in return for kickbacks. Under the law, foreign officials who receive or demand a bribe from a U.S.-listed company would be subject to American criminal prosecution — creating a powerful incentive for foreign officials to engage in fair and open business practices. That is why FEPA has been backed by a broad coalition including not only governance and national security experts but also pro-business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

While the threat of prosecution on its own will likely improve business conditions and reduce private sector risk, FEPA could also be leveraged by the U.S. government to supplement the law enforcement capacities in allied countries with a weak rule of law or insufficient prosecutorial resources or those whose judicial system is compromised by the very corruption that honest leaders are seeking to root out.

In a sense, FEPA could act as a surrogate criminal enforcement mechanism that leverages America’s substantial expertise and capacity for prosecuting corruption. Utilizing FEPA in this way could also be a critical tool to push back against China and other autocratic regimes that have weaponized corruption to entrench favorable political regimes via political and financial assistance, including through the Belt and Road Initiative.

In Malaysia, Chinese officials used Belt and Road Initiative funding to help former Prime Minister Najib Razak embezzle more than a billion dollars, while simultaneously offering to tap the phones of Wall Street Journal reporters who were investigating the scandal. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chinese bribes and empty promises of infrastructure that was never built helped prop up a dictatorship in exchange for Beijing being given a green light to extract massive amounts of valuable critical minerals such as cobalt and copper.

To counter the corrupting influence of China and other authoritarian regimes, America must assist those honest officials who are fighting corruption domestically without resources to prosecute cases or the political capital to dislodge the influence purchased by Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, and other regimes that seek to undermine the rule of law.

The Foreign Extortion Prevention Act could be a critical tool in that fight if only America is brave enough to use it effectively — and promote a fact-based counternarrative that calls out the malign behaviors of regimes that employ corruption as a state weapon.

Elaine Dezenski is senior director and head of the Center on Economic and Financial Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Nate Sibley is a research fellow for Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative.


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