Exporting Beijing’s surveillance state: sharp power in action


If China gains dominance over digital technology, it would be dangerous for freedom world-wide, says Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (2007-09) and head of policy planning in the Defense Department (1990-92). The government hopes to perfect digital imaging and facial recognition, he writes for the Wall Street Journal:

Once it has centralized every citizen’s data, it can use artificial intelligence to assess the information and issue a “social credit” score to all individuals. This trustworthiness measure can then be used to determine whether someone can, for example, borrow money or buy a train ticket. In some regions, Beijing has mandated the installation of a special application on mobile phones to scan devices and report material deemed dangerous.

“Ominously, China is exporting this model by providing hardware and software to other countries. Features of the surveillance state hold great appeal for existing or nascent authoritarian regimes wishing to control their subjects more thoroughly,” adds Khalilzad, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. Democrats in Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia are already fearful that local autocrats are building their own surveillance states.” RTWT

A debate is gaining traction in Western democracies about China’s growing efforts to influence Western political elites, academia, think-tanks, and media through what has recently been labeled ‘sharp power,’ says a new report from the European Parliament:

A National Endowment for Democracy (NED) report ‘Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence’ proposes to use ‘sharp power’ as a new term for authoritarian ‘soft power’, arguing that the latter is not mainly about attraction or persuasion like Western soft power, but about distraction and manipulation. It stresses, inter alia, the asymmetry between the barriers erected by authoritarian regimes like China and Russia to external political and cultural influence, and the openness of democracies, which facilitates the growing scope of authoritarian influence.

The NED report analyses the deployment of ‘sharp power’ instruments in case studies of four young democracies: Argentina, Peru, Poland and Slovakia, focusing on influence on media, culture, academia, and think-tanks, the report adds.

Beijing’s sharp power is also being felt in Latin America, where any notion of a U.S.-China rivalry will play out, analyst Gabriela Lecaro writes for the Diplomat:

If trends persist, China will surpass the European Union as the second biggest buyer of Latin American products, second only to the United States, which has already lost its position as the main exporter to Latin America. The Chinese have adopted trade and investment as long-term, solid tools for economic and political influence abroad, and this could prove to be a major challenge for the United States as a race for global power plays out in its own backyard.

Economic factors alone cannot fully explain China’s rapid expansion or the sharp power it has developed outside the country, argues analyst Huaiyin Li. The ultimate force behind China’s rise as a global power. It lies chiefly in five factors embedded in its history and culture, he writes for the National Interest:

It lies chiefly in a set of factors embedded in China’s history and culture, which work together to influence the behavior of the people and government in China in their pursuit of personal well-being or the national goal of economic growth. More specifically, there are five highlighted factors: the size of the nation, its ethnic composition, the value system of its people, human capital and the strategizing of the state. It is the immense size of China’s population and market, the homogeneity of its society, the secularized values of its people, the abundance and high quality of its human capital, and the intervention and strategizing of the state, that combine to propel and sustain China’s economic growth.

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