A flurry of concern has grown over what is being referred to as China’s “sharp power” efforts in Europe—that is, influencing efforts disguised as soft power that hinge on manipulation and covert activity, notes Laura Daniels, an associate fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Berlin drew attention to the issue in December, when it accused Chinese intelligence of targeting over 10,000 politicians, officials, and other influential individuals through falsified social media accounts, ostensibly for covert influencing purposes as well as espionage, judging from the nature of the resulting relationships. Questions over Beijing’s infringing on academic freedom by using campus organizations as a conduit for promoting a state-approved image of China abroad have flared following incidents at Durham University in England, the University of Lyon in France, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Chinese state media is buying inserts in leading papers in Germany, France, and elsewhere that, although discernable, do not clearly convey to the reader that they are state content.
“Leveraging democratic strengths of transparency and accountability, under which influence operations wither – a variety of technological, civil society, and legislative initiatives show promise here – can help to prevent legitimate soft power efforts from being conflated with covert influencing operations,” Daniels adds.