Perspectives on Politics

Research Article

Diffusion-Proofing: Russian and Chinese Responses to Waves of Popular Mobilizations against Authoritarian Rulers

Karrie J. Koesela1 and Valerie J. Buncea2

a1 University of Oregon

a2 Cornell University


Do authoritarian leaders take preemptive actions to deter their citizens from joining cross-national waves of popular mobilizations against authoritarian rulers? Are they more likely to engage in such behavior when these uprisings appear to be more threatening—in particular, when they take place in neighboring countries and in regimes that resemble their own? We provide answers to these questions by comparing the responses of the Russian and Chinese leadership to two such waves: the color revolutions and the Arab uprisings. We conclude that, despite differences in the ostensible threats posed by these two waves, they nonetheless prompted the leaders of both of these countries to introduce similar preemptive measures in order to “diffusion-proof” their rule from the color revolutions and the Arab upheavals. These findings have some important implications for our understanding of authoritarian politics and diffusion processes. One is to reinforce the emphasis in many recent studies on the strategic foundations of authoritarian resilience. That recognized, however, we would add that the authoritarian toolkit needs to be expanded to include policies that preempt international, as well as domestic threats. The other is to provide further confirmation, in this case derived from the behavior of authoritarian rulers, of how scholars have understood the drivers of cross-national diffusion. At the same time, however, we counsel students of diffusion to pay more attention to the role of resisters, as well as to adopters. In this sense, the geographical reach of diffusion is much broader than many analysts have recognized.

Karrie J. Koesel is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Oregon ( and the author of Religion and Authoritarianism: Cooperation, Conflict and the Consequences (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

Valerie J. Bunce is the Aaron Binenkorb Professor of International Studies and Professor of Government at Cornell University ( She is the co-author with Sharon L. Wolchik of Defeating Authoritarian Leaders in Postcommunist Countries (Cambridge University Press, 2011).


  The authors thank Jeff Isaac, the anonymous reviewers, and participants of the Workshop on Comparative Mobilization and Protest at George Washington University for their extremely helpful comments and criticisms.