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Spreading Cyber-Autocracy? The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Diffusion of Norms of “Internet Sovereignty”

Are authoritarian gravity centers undermining democracy by expanding their reach and scope beyond the limits of their own authority? Or does expansionist autocracy spreading require special conditions under which illiberal rule prospers? The article investigates the relative influence of autocratic great power competition and political conflict for the expansionist nature and functional limits of autocratic rule spreading through one prominent regional organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The findings suggest that some forms of autocratic rule export, such as diffusion and learning, are more likely when autonomy concerns vis-à-vis great powers or rivaling legitimacy considerations toward autocratic neighboring states are absent. In turn, autocratic great power involvement in regional organizations, while limiting consensual norm diffusion, may breed global autocratic norm entrepreneurship. These findings from the case of the SCO support more specified conditions for authoritarian gravity center action patterns to occur, and call into question more far-reaching claims of autocracy rule export successes. It suggests that prevailing scholarship puts too much emphasis on autocratic unity, positive identification among regional neighbors, and the probability of success in exporting repressive rules, neglecting enduring conflicts among autocracies.

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