Autocrats’ ‘sharp power’ prompts Western self-censorship


Credit: Wikimedia

Outspoken Labor MP Michael Danby has warned of China’s rise in “hard power”, praising the “push-back by Australia’s democratic system” against soft power initiatives, the Australian reports:

Speaking to a Citizen Power Initiatives For China conference in Tokyo, the member for Melbourne Ports and former chairman of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, said: “Many countries like Australia want to maintain good commercial and trading relations with China.” But Australia’s push-back has resulted from China’s “blatant Comintern-like activity,” said Danby [right – a leading member of the World Movement for Democracy].

As if to affirm Danby’s concerns, a leading Australian publisher has dropped a book about efforts by China’s Communist party to infiltrate Australian public life, the latest imprint to self-censor over concerns about Chinese retaliation, the FT reports:

Clive Hamilton, a prominent Australian professor and author of Silent Invasion, said Allen & Unwin had taken “a big step along the path to western self-censorship of commentary on modern China”, after the publisher told him it feared reprisals from Beijing.

“The People’s Republic of China is very adept at exploiting the openness of western democratic societies, including our defamation laws,” he said.

The Charles Sturt University professor told The Advertiser that Silent Invasion was “a comprehensive expose of the influence of the CCP across a range of Australian institutions”.

In another instance of Western self-censorship, one of the world’s largest academic publishers – Springer Nature – was criticized recently for bowing to pressure from the Chinese government to block access to hundreds of articles on its Chinese website that touch on topics the ruling Communist Party considers sensitive, including Taiwan, Tibet, human rights and elite politics, the New York Times reported.

“Springer’s censorship is a disservice to everyone,” said Kevin Carrico, a China scholar at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. “Springer’s success relies on its authors and its readers, and both are being cheated in this arrangement.”

“It’s a symbol of how unprepared we are in the west for China’s influence expanding outwards,” said Jonathan Sullivan, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute and author of one of the censored articles.  “It’s about how we perceive our relationship with China and how much we value principles versus the instrumental benefits of pleasing the authorities in China.”

“The world’s leading academic publishers are deeply divided over how to respond to China’s intensifying censorship drive at home and abroad, with some vowing to resist while others have caved in to pressure,” the FT’s Ben Bland adds. “Having silenced many of his domestic critics, President Xi Jinping is seeking to export the Chinese Communist party’s heavily circumscribed view of intellectual debate as part of his push to promote Chinese soft power.”

Western institutions are unprepared to deal with Beijing’s efforts to change the west and are too prone to surrender their principles for the promise of market access, said Jonathan Sullivan, head of the China Policy Institute at the Nottingham University. “China can do what it likes at home but the real issue is for western academia, media organisations and other companies,” he said. “As is China’s wont, they are dividing and ruling.”

Although there are differences in the shape and tone of the Chinese and Russian approaches [to projecting influence abroad], both stem from an ideological model that privileges state power over individual liberty and is fundamentally hostile to free expression, open debate, and independent thought, according to Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies.

Credit: SCMP

Observers should not understand Moscow’s and Beijing’s efforts as “soft power.” They are more properly labeled “sharp power,” they write for Foreign Affairs:

Authoritarian influence efforts are “sharp” in the sense that they pierce, penetrate, or perforate the political and 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. These regimes are not necessarily seeking to “win hearts and minds,” the common frame of reference for soft power efforts, but they are surely seeking to manipulate their target audiences by distorting the information that reaches them.

Sharp power likewise enables the authoritarians to cut into the fabric of a society, stoking and amplifying existing divisions. Russia has been especially adept at exploiting rifts within the democracies, for example promoting narratives in Central and Eastern European countries that aim to undermine support for the EU and NATO. And unlike the blunt impact of hard power, sharp power entails a degree of stealth. Taking advantage of the open political and information environment of democracies, the authoritarians’ sharp power efforts are typically difficult to detect, meaning that 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.

Xi is making the most of the vacuum left by the United States, the South China Morning Post reports. His Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank“Belt and Road Initiative” and other deep-pocketed initiatives buttress Beijing’s soft power. China is investing trillions in renewable energy, robotics, cutting-edge transport and artificial intelligence.

China Digital Times publishes detailed censorship instructions, issued to the media by the Communist authorities, which have been leaked and distributed online.

“Russia is undoubtedly a huge problem for the West. And it’s important to find ways of countering Russian propaganda and cyber-warfare,” according to Bobo Lo, an Associate Research Fellow with the Russia/NIS Center at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) and author of A Wary Embrace, a book addressing China-Russia relations.

“That said, Russian soft power is actually very weak,” he tells the Inquisitor. “The biggest problem the West faces is itself. What the Russians have done is exploit its failings. So the primary response should be to address our own problems much more effectively.”

Multidimensional response

“The serious challenge posed by authoritarian sharp power requires a multidimensional response that includes unmasking Chinese and Russian influence efforts that rely in large part on camouflage—disguising state-directed projects as the work of commercial media or grassroots associations, for example, or using local actors as conduits for foreign propaganda and tools of foreign manipulation,” the NED’s Walker and Ludwing contend.

“It will also require that the democracies, on the one hand, inoculate themselves against malign authoritarian influence that corrodes democratic institutions and standards and, on the other, take a far more assertive posture on behalf of their own principles,” they add in an essay which draws on the forthcoming International Forum for Democratic Studies report From “Soft Power” to “Sharp Power”: Rising Authoritarian Influence in the Democratic World. RTWT

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