West ignores Xi Jinping’s quest to revive ideology ‘at our peril’

Xi Jinping is the world’s most powerful leader, The Economist contends.

And the West ignores Xi’s quest to revive Stalin’s communist ideology “at our peril,” argues John Pomfret, author of “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present.”

For decades, many Americans dealing with and doing business in China have held to the idea that the Chinese Communist Party did not believe in anything other than power. There was no ideology in China other than money, the story went. “Pragmatic” became the buzzword used by reporters, academics and consultants for everything Chinese, he writes for The Washington Post:

This blithe view of Chinese politics glossed over a struggle inside the party that began with the death of Chairman Mao in 1976 and ended — at least for the time being — with the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989.  The faction that continued to favor a totalitarian ideology won. Those, such as one of Xi’s predecessors, Zhao Ziyang, who advocated the ultimate convergence of China with Western liberal traditions, lost. Xi Jinping’s upcoming reelection as party boss constitutes a capstone of this struggle.

For decades, the Chinese Communist Party has pushed a stiff regimen of ideological education on students, requiring tedious lessons on Marx and Mao and canned lectures on the virtues of patriotism and loyalty. Now, amid fears that the party is losing its grip on young minds, Xi is reshaping political education across China’s more than 283,000 primary and secondary schools for a new era, The New York Times adds:

In a stern directive issued last month, the party ordered schools to intensify efforts to promote “Chinese traditional and socialist culture” — a mix of party loyalty and patriotic pride in China’s past. …But the demands have run into opposition, and even mockery, from some parents and educators, and not just the so-called tiger moms. Many see political indoctrination as an anachronism in an era when China’s more than 181 million schoolchildren need a modern education in math, science and liberal arts to get ahead.

study this year by Chinese and American researchers found that students appear to be tuning out shrill propaganda. The study, based on the results of a 2010 national opinion survey, found that the “incessant ideological indoctrination by the Chinese government turns out to be counterproductive,” with trust in the government actually falling among those who received higher levels of education.

The party’s socialist rhetoric had become “water-cooler banter and fodder for jokes” among educated Chinese, said Carl Minzner, an expert in Chinese law and governance at Fordham University in New York.

“The party of revolution is now the party of the wealthy and powerful,” he said. “They’ve got to stand for something. They’re worried about the moral void at the core of Chinese society.”

Besides suppressing public criticism and dissent, the government has launched an extensive propaganda campaign to laud Xi’s achievements and cast him as the central figure in China’s modern success story. Many bookshops in the country have stocked up on books praising the president ahead of the congress, adds China Digital Times, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Another example of Xi’s totalitarian project involves his control of China’s Internet, adds Pomfret, a former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing:

Over the past year, the party has put in place an Orwellian series of laws designed to ensure that no one can use the Internet in China anonymously. In so doing, the party will aggregate, as two experts wrote, “all online data on individuals (financial transactions, behavior, social network) to feed into a vast credit system,” which will play a part in accessing loans, education, travel and even such everyday activities as restaurant bookings.

‘Meddle Kingdom’ rising: China and U.S. ‘neck and neck’ in foreign assistance


New research may suggest that Beijing has had a limited return on its investment in promoting its soft power and that pluralist democracies have an advantage in the field. But a new report from AidData will accentuate concerns that Chinese money could undermine the effectiveness of Western aid in pushing for political reforms in less-than-democratic nations, CNN reports.

China and U.S. are effectively ‘neck and neck’ in foreign assistance spending, the report suggests, which is likely to fuel concern that China seeks to supplant the U.S. as global hegemon. The analysis casts doubt on claims by Western critics (including a former National Endowment for Democracy board member) that China is a “rogue donor” that lavishes illiberal regimes with cash to plunder raw materials.

“China is well known for funding a number of governments with poor governance such as Venezuela, Angola, Iran, and Pakistan,” said David Dollar, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “[However,] these are balanced by large amounts of lending to countries with relatively good governance: Brazil, India, Indonesia, and the East African states. China’s lending seems to be indifferent to governance.”

Promoting China’s cultural soft power by disseminating modern Chinese values is a key policy under President Xi Jinping, according to a recent book, Screening China’s Soft Power. It is usually understood as a top-down initiative, implemented willingly or unwillingly by writers, filmmakers, artists and other cultural actors, often manifesting itself in clumsy and heavy-handed ways.

Beijing’s soft power activities are part of a global strategy with almost identical, longstanding approaches, adapted to fit current government policies – a core task of China’s united front work; one of the CCP’s famed “magic weapons” that helped bring it to power, said Anne –Marie Brady, a contributor to Authoritarianism Goes Global.

Beijing is trying to repurpose abandoned international agencies like UNESCO, analysts suggested in a recent Foreign Policy article titled As U.S. Retreats From World Organizations, China Steps in to Fill the Void.

As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) prepares for its 19th Congress on October 18, restrictions on day-to-day freedoms in the country are becoming more intrusive. But such interference by the one-party state has also been expanding outside China, and the two phenomena are not unrelated, notes Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House and director of its China Media Bulletin. A series of recent incidents and analysis highlight both the depth of CCP influence operations overseas and the degree to which they are ultimately driven by domestic insecurities, she writes for The Diplomat:

  • First, the topics and individuals that drew Beijing’s interest are each associated with an oppressed community within China. In Egypt, for example, the authorities unexpectedly detained over 100 Uyghur Muslims….. In California, pressure from the Chinese consulate seems to have led state lawmakers to block a resolution expressing concern about human rights and the persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual group in China. …
  • Second, the economic leverage that China has developed through years of engagement in areas such as academic exchange, financial investment, and tourism is now being deployed to suppress democratic rights and undermine autonomous decision making in other countries. Implied threats of economic repercussions were at the center of letters sent by the Chinese consulate in San Francisco to dissuade California state legislators from passing the human rights resolution.
  • Third, the CCP’s individual acts of interference abroad often have effects that reach far beyond the immediate targets. The China Scholarship Council’s decision on UCSD sends a signal to other universities that speaking engagements by high-profile critics of the Chinese government can have profound costs, both for the university itself and for prospective Chinese students and scholars. …

Reporting and commentary on Chinese Party-state sway over Australia’s public and political institutions has been met by a strong pushback by those who emphasize the opportunities presented by China’s influence, notes Dr Mark Harrison, an Adjunct Director of the Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University.

Meddle Kingdom

Credit: ANU

But another observer disputes the claim the recent coverage of Chinese influence in Australia carries the implication that the entire Australian-Chinese community is a ‘dagger’ pointed at the heart of Australian democracy. Key programs, including the Four Corners episode ‘Power and Influence‘, explicitly affirm the Chinese-Australian community to be this country’s greatest asset in dealing with a resurgent China, notes John Fitzgerald, Director of the CSI Swinburne Program for Asia-Pacific Social Investment and Philanthropy.

“Whatever we may think of authoritarian Leninist states, of which contemporary China is clearly one, they are founded on an ‘enemy mentality,’ and they have immense difficulty recognizing the territorial and jurisdictional limits of their overweening hierarchical authority,” he writes for the Lowy Institute. “How is a liberal Australia to deal with a Leninist China as that country becomes more assertive beyond its borders?”

Credit: SCMP

A case in point is the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China, which Labor MP Michael Danby [below, a leading figure in the World Movement for Democracy] has described as a “as a business front” for the Chinese Communist Party.

Concerns about China’s influence in Australia’s higher education sector were fuelled when Foreign Affairs and Trade Secretary Frances Adamson warned that universities needed to be on alert. “We have seen attempts at untoward influence and interference,” she told an audience at Adelaide University’s Confucius Institute.

Prof Allan Fitzgerald in a three page AFR article headlined “Red Pen On Academic Freedom” argued that: “Universities jeopardise intellectual integrity when they collaborate with Chinese institutions that do not share a commitment to liberal values and open inquiry,” notes another report:

There are now 14 Confucius institutes in Australian universities, along with the pro-Beijing think-tank – Australia China Relations Institute (ACRI) .It’s hardly McCarthyism to point out that ACPPRC or organisations like it operate throughout Asia and all are closely aligned with the United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the Communist Party of the China Central Committee.

In dealing with an authoritarian foreign power like China, Australia needs to balance commercial interests with both our national security and democratic ethos, notes one report:

The media and official reports concluded that Australia was the target of a foreign interference campaign by China “on a larger scale than that being carried out by any other nation” and that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was working to infiltrate Australian political and foreign affairs circles, as well to acquire influence over Australia’s Chinese population.”

China’s soft-power strategy focuses on promoting its culture to give the impression that its foreign policy is unusually benign, adds Karen Du with the Australian Institute of International Affairs. This has predominantly been done by selling Confucius as a symbol of harmony and by establishing 500 government-funding Confucius Institutes in 140 countries.

Beijing’s various initiatives to exercise influence abroad are often referred to in media and policy circles as examples of the country’s growing “soft power.” This characterization is misleading, argues Freedom House analyst Cook:

The CCP is not just protecting or burnishing China’s international image or even its own. Rather, Chinese diplomats, party officials, and their proxies are aggressively meddling in democratic societies, damaging democratic and international institutions, and undermining human rights protection in foreign lands, even if a primary motivation is to combat what are ultimately domestic challenges to CCP legitimacy.

“It is critical that democratic governments and international organizations recognize the danger these trends pose, understand the complex factors involved, and learn how to identify the CCP’s footprint, especially when its actions undercut democratic norms such as media freedom, academic freedom, and transparency,” Cook concludes.

Pluralist democracies have soft power advantage, says research

Credit: University of Edinburgh


In a world first, researchers have found that a state’s soft power has statistically significant impact on foreign direct investment (FDI), overseas student recruitment, tourism, and international influence in fora like the UN General Assembly, the British Council reports:

The new research  was conducted by the Institute for International Cultural Relations at the University of Edinburgh. It used available data from 2000 to 2012. Experts assessed how various forms of soft power – including cultural institutions, prosperity and internet connectivity, democracy and foreign aid, and overall cultural ranking – influenced a country’s international pull. 

“Our statistical findings confirm that democratic pluralism, economic prosperity, and internationally networked cultural institutions provide dividends: they are positively related to incoming international student and tourist arrivals; they result in incoming FDI; and they affect UNGA voting behavior,” the authors write.

Political pluralism is a strong value and exercises institutional pull,” the research confirms. “High levels of democracy and low levels of political rights restrictions attract international students and tourists, foreign direct investment, and they moderate voting patterns at the United Nations.”

The study concludes that “the future of soft power is in the hands of Western style democracies,” but that does not preclude a strong challenge from revisionist authoritarian states, others suggest.

China has further opportunities to project soft power through aid spending following the announcement in March of a possible 32 per cent cut – equivalent to about US$13.5 billion – in all U.S. non-military spending abroad, The South China Morning Post reports:

Between 2000 and 2014, China gave almost US$354.4 billion in aid and other forms of support to 140 countries, according to research published on Wednesday by AidData, a US-based project that tracks flows of development assistance. The US spent a corresponding US$394.6 billion in the same period.

“A striking finding is that China and the US are effectively spending rivals in the broader definition of aid. However, the composition differences in their portfolios are big,” said Bradley Parks, one of the five researchers on the report from Heidelberg University in Germany, and Harvard University and the College of William and Mary in the United States. He described the report as “the most comprehensive and detailed source of project information about China’s global development footprint ever.”

But for all its efforts, China has had a limited return on its investment, the University of Edinburgh research concludes;

A recent BBC poll shows that opinions of China’s influence are positive in much of Africa and Latin America, but predominantly negative in the United States and Europe, as well as in India, Japan and South Korea. A poll taken in Asia after the Beijing Olympics found that China’s charm offensive had been ineffective. What China seems not to appreciate is that using culture and narrative to create soft power is not easy when they are inconsistent with domestic realities.

“Pluralist democracies follow a diffused soft power strategy that works its way through various levels and channels, including the activities of national cultural institutions, citizen diplomacy, educational and cultural institutions, and is related to the health of their economies,” the report notes. While “top-down soft power strategies of countries like China seem quite attractive,” the study’s “quantitative results indicate that China may be an outlier.” RTWT