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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.
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