Dictators and dictatorship came up repeatedly in Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina. The moderators pressed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on whether Americans could “trust that a democratic socialist president would not give authoritarians a free pass” and asked Mike Bloomberg about his remark that “President Xi Jinping of China is not a dictator” but a leader who is responsive to his constituency.

The phrase “dictator” appeared 14 times, in fact — and “authoritarian” six times. On foreign policy, the president has wide latitude to make and break alliances with leaders around the world, making it important to understand these terms.

So how does dictatorship operate in countries like Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia? Here’s what you need to know.

Yes, China is a dictatorship …

Sanders said he was amazed at Bloomberg’s remarks: “He said that the Chinese government is responsive to the Politburo, but who the hell is the Politburo responsive to? Who elects the Politburo? You have got a real dictatorship there.”

Political scientist and former U.S. official Susan Shirk describes China’s political system as using a form of “reciprocal accountability.” This means the Central Committee formally elects the Politburo, but Central Committee members in turn serve at the pleasure of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — appointed to their concurrent jobs in the party, government, or military by top party leaders. As Shirk notes, “The Central Committee’s ability to stop a CCP leader from ruling dictatorially … is limited by its unwieldy processes (it lacks a committee structure) and infrequent meetings … [and] it operates in secret and has no accountability to the public.”

Even if there are few institutional checks on Xi’s power, he still has to worry both about the threat of an elite coup as well as mass unrest. Popular revolts around the globe have been particularly threatening to dictators over the past two decades, ousting more than twice the number of authoritarian leaders between 2001 and 2017 as coups.

… but dictators still answer to domestic constituents

In our new book, “Citizens and the State in Authoritarian Regimes: Comparing China and Russia,” our contributors show citizens can (and do) hold their authoritarian rulers accountable, though different mechanisms are at work than in democracies. In authoritarian regimes, leaders govern knowing the public can rise up and depose them at virtu­ally any time. Popular unrest can serve as a signal to the military, opposition leaders and even politicians closely tied to the re­gime that the leader’s hold on power is weakening.

To stay ahead of potential unrest, even dictators like Xi invest in understanding and responding to domestic concerns — even as he and his top allies work to quash potential rivals and sources of anti-regime mobilization. Scholars have found the Chinese leadership is surprisingly responsive — and even solicitous — of public input. As long as citizen participation stays within well-controlled lanes, the Chinese leadership gains important policy feedback and boosts public perceptions of its legitimacy.

Diana Fu and Greg Distelhorst, for instance, show in their chapter how institutionalized forms of popular participation such as Freedom-of-Information requests and lawsuits against government agencies have persisted and, in some cases, increased during Xi’s rule. At the same time, his regime has criminalized and repressed more contentious forms of social activism in China, including crackdowns on labor activists, rights lawyers and even Marxist student groups.

Authoritarianism in China and Russia isn’t one-size-fits-all

Like all autocrats, Xi faces difficulty crafting a strategy that provides both political stability and reliable information. For example, local failures to report and efforts to punish doctors for “spreading rumors” about the coronavirus had devastating consequences for China’s initial failure to identify and contain the outbreak. Policies that maximize political stability often mean forfeiting good information, yet placing a premium on getting good information can undermine political control.

These trade-offs mean there is no single authoritarian model that countries like China, Russia, Cuba and North Korea have followed. For example, while Russia holds regular, competitive national elections (albeit not on an even playing field), China does not. China is a party-run dictatorship that deals ruthlessly with direct opposition to one-party rule — as the Soviet Union did for 73 years.

One might expect that because the Russian regime holds elections, Russian citizens would have more influence on politicians and policies than Chinese citizens do. But we find again and again that while Chinese leaders regularly consult with or solicit views from society, these kinds of contacts are quite uneven and less common in Russia. In the legal arena, as Elizabeth Plantan’s chapter shows, change in China builds on extensive discussion and consultation. In Russia, this process can be both very elitist and quite rushed. While Putin’s regime can certainly be repressive and seeks to sow divisions across society, its efforts to consult and seek information from ordinary Russians are much less consistent than in China.

Democracy and dictatorship in U.S. foreign policy

Each of the Democratic candidates asked about dictatorship were quick to denounce it — but they differed in how they tempered their criticisms. Despite the gulf that otherwise divides Sanders and Bloomberg, the two candidates ironically were quite close in arguing that dictatorships like China’s and Cuba’s have been effective in addressing problems like poverty and illiteracy.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) were content to attack President Trump for treating dictators like Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban better than democratic allies like Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Canada’s Justin Trudeau. But it was Sanders who called out the hypocrisy of a U.S. foreign policy that champions democracy but also supports dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Domestic policy proposals may be hard to get through Congress while the filibuster rules remain unchanged. But on foreign policy matters, it’s the president who calls many of the shots. Understanding the differences in how authoritarian governments rule — and how and to what extent they are domestically beholden even if not subject to free and fair elections — is important for policymakers and pundits to consider as they use the term “dictatorship.”

Karrie J. Koesel is associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, co-editor of “Citizens and the State in Authoritarian Regimes: Comparing China and Russia” (Oxford University Press, 2020) and the author of “Religion and Authoritarianism: Cooperation, Conflict, and the Consequences” (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Valerie Bunce is the Aaron Binenkorb Chair Emerita at Cornell University and co-editor of “Citizens and the State in Authoritarian Regimes: Comparing China and Russia” (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Jessica Chen Weiss (@jessicacweiss) is associate professor of government at Cornell University, a Monkey Cage editor, co-editor of “Citizens and the State in Authoritarian Regimes: Comparing China and Russia” (Oxford University Press, 2020) and the author of “Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations” (Oxford University Press, 2014).