China Using “Sharp Power” for Global Influence

In their introduction to the recent National Endowment for Democracy and International Forum for Democratic Studies report “Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence,” NED’s Jessica Ludwig and Christopher Walker examine the ways that Russia and China—the world’s “leading authoritarian regimes” have “raised barriers to external political and cultural influence at home while simultaneously preying upon the openness of democratic systems abroad” in recent years. In their intro chapter to a report which tracks Moscow and Beijing’s well-funded campaigns, Ludwig and Walker draw from Joseph Nye’s international relations theory of “soft power“—the ability to win appeal and influence through non-coercive means—to coin a concept more accurate in describing ongoing Chinese efforts at shielding external influence while covertly exerting its own authoritarian sway: “sharp power”:

Authoritarian influence efforts are “sharp” in the sense that they pierce, penetrate, or perforate the information environments in the targeted countries. In the ruthless new competition that is under way between autocratic and democratic states, the repressive regimes’ “sharp power” techniques should be seen as the tip of their dagger—or indeed their syringe. These regimes are not necessarily seeking to “win hearts and minds,” the common frame of reference for “” efforts, but they are surely seeking to manage their target audiences by manipulating or poisoning the information that reaches them.

[…] Taking advantage of the open information environment of democracies, the authoritarians’ “sharp power” efforts are typically difficult to detect, meaning they benefit from a lag time before the targeted democracies realize there is a problem.

Above all, the term “sharp power” captures the malign and aggressive nature of the authoritarian projects, which bear little resemblance to the benign attraction of soft power. Through sharp power, the generally unattractive values of authoritarian systems—which encourage a monopoly on power, top-down control, censorship, and coerced or purchased loyalty—are projected outward, and those affected are not so much audiences as victims. […] [Source]

The Economist borrows Walker and Ludwig’s term in the cover story for their current issue, which focuses on the stealthy ways that China has attempted to shape global public opinion in its favor:

China is hardly alone in trying to shape how the world sees it. And its sharp power, though growing rapidly, is not its first attempt at the game. Over the years China has often tried to silence criticism of its politics by denying visas to critical journalists and academics and by giving a cold-shoulder to unsympathetic governments and firms. It has also attempted to monitor and control ethnic Chinese living outside the country, using Chinese-language media and China-backed community groups.

China has long used soft power, too. Roughly 500 government-funded and government-staffed Confucius Institutes operate in universities and 1,000 “Confucius classrooms” in schools around the world, mostly in rich countries. The institutes do a good job of teaching Chinese to foreigners but they would be unlikely to convince students in the West that China’s authoritarianism is admirable, even if they tried.

Sharp power wraps all that up in something altogether more sinister. It seeks to penetrate and subvert politics, media and academia, surreptitiously promoting a positive image of the country, and misrepresenting and distorting information to suppress dissent and debate. China’s sharp power has three striking characteristics—it is pervasive, it breeds self-censorship and it is hard to nail down proof that it is the work of the Chinese state. [Source]

The article continues to cite China’s ongoing drive to open controversial Confucius Institutes in overseas universities, and the efforts of the Beijing-backed Chinese Students and Scholars Association to monitor overseas Chinese students and encourage them to lobby for Beijing on political issues. Chinese requests for Cambridge University Press to hide hundreds of journal articles from China-based web-users were thwarted after enormous public outcry in August, but a recent article quoting academic experts in the Times Higher Education warns that Beijing’s efforts could pose a threat to global academic freedom in the future.

The Economist also notes rising concerns in Australia over Chinese influence, which culminated this week in the resignation of Labor senator Sam Dastyari over his ties to a Chinese businessman and political donor influencing his stance on international issues. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has in recent weeks announced plans to introduce legislation that will limit foreign contributions, which sparked backlash from Beijing, who characterized reporting on the issue as “paranoid and racist.” At The Sydney Morning Herald, Alex Joske describes an influential Australia-based community group believed to have ties to Beijing, and their efforts to influence an upcoming by-election.

In , similar concerns over Chinese influence have been mounting, and Auckland-based scholar Anne-Marie Brady in September outlined the way that the United Front Work Department—a domestic and foreign lobbying organization that reports directly to the CCP Central Committee that has been substantially expanded under Xi Jinping—functions as a “magic weapon” for gaining international influence.

Concerns over Beijing’s covert political influence are not unique to the Antipodes. German intelligence this week warned that China had used fake accounts on social media platforms to cultivate sources of information, mainly targeting government staff and politicians on LinkedIn.

In Washington, the Congressional Executive Commission on China opened hearings this week in an attempt to better understand and combat Chinese “sharp power” efforts. At The Washington Post, Ishaan Tharoor outlines the hearings and their urgency amid the mounting global concerns:

On Wednesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) convened a hearing on the “Long Arm of China,” focusing on China’s capacity to launch influence operations abroad to gain leverage over democratic rivals. “We have a lot of discussion of Russian interference in our elections, but the Chinese efforts to influence our public policy and our basic freedoms are much more widespread than most people realize,” Rubio told my colleague Josh Rogin ahead of the session.

The discussion was timely. On Tuesday, as you may have read in yesterday’s edition, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a ban on foreign political donations, citing “disturbing reports about Chinese influence.” […]

[…] In many cases, China’s interests are primarily economic. As new studies point out, its cultivation of foreign assets follows rather traditional lines: making connections through people-to-people exchanges, wooing the political elite with generous gifts and hospitality, and using partnerships with local universities and its vast network of Chinese government-sponsored Confucius Institutes to influence attitudes about China abroad.

But Rubio and others warn of a more dangerous ideological edge to China’s international agenda. They argue that as China creates an increasingly sophisticated online police state at home — built on maximizing surveillance and censorship — it is intensifying efforts to explore other countries’ vulnerabilities. […] [Source]

CNN has published Florida senator and CECC chair Marco Rubio’s opinion article on how Washington and Asian democracies can work together to counter Chinese influence campaigns—of the “sharp,” “hard,” and “soft” varieties:

The should do more to support the Indo-Japanese partnership and expand multilateral cooperation. In a move widely seen as a response to China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, the three countries agreed in September 2017 to cooperate on promoting infrastructure projects in Asia. It is critical for the US to work closely with India and Japan to implement these and other opportunities to cooperate with other nations that desire to counter Chinese influence.

The US should also facilitate and expedite more defense exports from the US and Japan, as well as Australia and South Korea. American military sales to India totaled more than $15 billion over the last decade, including sales of transport and maritime patrol aircraft, anti-ship missiles and helicopters, and should grow further after the US designated India a “major defense partner.” Japan also has important amphibious aircraft and other defense platforms that India could use.

Stronger maritime cooperation among Asian democracies will be crucial. In 2015, Japan joined America and India as a permanent participant in the annual Malabar joint naval exercises. The US government should also encourage more trilateral exercises and explore incorporating Australia and other democracies into future exercises. It should also work to establish a network of stakeholders in the Indian Ocean, with the possible goal of creating a secretariat to promote freedom of navigation, stability, peace and trade in the region. […] [Source]

In a follow-up to the above quoted article, The Economist offers advice on how to push back against Chinese “sharp power” campaigns by cultivating awareness of them, and doubling-down on the openness and transparency that Beijing seeks to exploit:

To ensure China’s rise is peaceful, the West needs to make room for China’s ambition. But that does not mean anything goes. Open societies ignore China’s sharp power at their peril.

Part of their defence should be practical. Counter-intelligence, the law and an independent media are the best protection against subversion. All three need Chinese speakers who grasp the connection between politics and commerce in China. The Chinese Communist Party suppresses free expression, open debate and independent thought to cement its control. Merely shedding light on its sharp tactics—and shaming kowtowers—would go a long way towards blunting them.

Part should be principled. Unleashing a witch-hunt against Chinese people would be wrong; it would also make Western claims to stand for the rule of law sound hollow. Calls from American politicians for tit-for-tat “reciprocity”, over visas for academics and NGO workers, say, would be equally self-defeating. Yet ignoring manipulation in the hope that China will be more friendly in the future would only invite the next jab. Instead the West needs to stand by its own principles, with countries acting together if possible, and separately if they must. The first step in avoiding the Thucydides trap is for the West to use its own values to blunt China’s sharp power. [Source]