Growing backlash as China turns soft power into sharp tool


Australia has launched a scathing attack on China’s efforts to build influence in the Pacific, accusing Beijing of currying favor with the region’s smaller nations by funneling cash into little-used infrastructure projects, the Financial Times reports.

“You’ve got the Pacific full of these useless buildings which nobody maintains, which are basically white elephants,” Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Australia’s minister for international development and the Pacific, said on Wednesday. “We just don’t want to build a road that doesn’t go anywhere,” she told reporters. “We want to ensure that the infrastructure that you do build is actually productive and is actually going to give some economic benefit or some sort of health benefit.”

A little-noticed passage in the National Security Strategy released last month previewed a new push to combat Chinese influence operations that affect American universities, think tanks, movie studios and news organizations, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius writes:

Kurt Campbell, who oversaw Asia policy during the Obama administration and now runs an Asia consulting group, offered a measured endorsement: “The NSC-led inquiry about Chinese influence operations, if conducted dispassionately, could be useful. We focus mostly on Russian influence operations. But the Chinese have a much more subtle and complex agenda here.”…..

China’s glittering modern facade often convinces outsiders that it’s a country just like those in the West. Not so, says Peter Mattis, a former CIA analyst who now studies Chinese influence activities for the Jamestown Foundation. When American thought leaders interact with Chinese representatives, it’s not a free-flowing “conduit,” he says, but a controlled circuit.

China has invested billions of dollars to increase its “soft power,” but it has recently suffered a backlash in democratic countries, notes Harvard professor Joseph Nye, author of The Future of Power. A new report by the National Endowment for Democracy argues that we need to re-think soft power, because “the conceptual vocabulary that has been used since the Cold War’s end no longer seems adequate to the contemporary situation,” he writes for the Globe and Mail:

The report describes the new authoritarian influences being felt around the world as “sharp power.” A recent cover article in The Economist defines sharp power by its reliance on “subversion, bullying and pressure, which combine to promote self-censorship.” Whereas soft power harnesses the allure of culture and values to augment a country’s strength, sharp power helps authoritarian regimes compel behaviour at home and manipulate opinion abroad.

The Communist Party’s emerging empire is more the result of force than a gravitational pull of Chinese ideas, analyst Edward Wong writes for the New York Times:

From trade to the internet, from higher education to Hollywood, China is shaping the world in ways that people have only begun to grasp. Yet the emerging imperium is more a result of the Communist Party’s exercise of hard power, including economic coercion, than the product of a gravitational pull of Chinese ideas or contemporary culture….. Chinese soft power plays a minor role. For one thing, the party insists on tight control of cultural production, so Chinese popular culture has little global appeal next to that of the United States or even South Korea.

“It is not a stretch to say the party’s ways of governance perpetuate a lack of trust by the Chinese in their institutions and fellow citizens,” Wong adds. “And its international policies light the kindling of resistance overseas, from Australia to Ghana.”

Under President Xi Jinping, Beijing has been pushing an increasingly aggressive and high-profile foreign policy, attracting the sort of attention that Xi’s predecessors had carefully avoided. Now, countries that only a few years ago welcomed Chinese investment and engagement are beginning to mobilize against Chinese influence, notes Peter Marino, the founder and policy director of the Metropolitan Society for International Affairs, an NYC-based think tank, and senior researcher at the Global Narratives Institute.

Where China had chosen for the last generation to cultivate an image of itself that stood for partnership and resistance to “Western imperialism,” Xi Jinping has now tossed it out in favor of an image of a proud, swaggering Great Power that evinces little concern for how its actions are perceived abroad. Clearly, he judges this to be in the political interest of the party, which often uses nationalist rhetoric to bolster its domestic standing, he writes for Reuters:

Anti-China trade sentiment has now bubbled up high enough in the United States that Washington’s new strategic directive admits China to be an adversarial “revisionist power,” where softer language had been preferred in the past. Canadian and Australian politicians are starting to show substantial skepticism about Chinese involvement domestically. In Australia, a recent scandal involving payments made to a senator from a Chinese-connected businessman has led to Canberra announcing plans to ban foreigners from donating to Australian political parties.

Even usually-close ally Pakistan – itself part of the broader One Belt, One Road program – has been on the receiving end of Chinese over-promising and under-delivering, with Beijing reported to have abruptly stopped funding for three major Pakistani roads in the project known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. And just this week, French President Emmanuel Macron took the unusual step of cautioning China publicly that the Belt and Road projects “cannot be those of a new hegemony, which would transform those that they cross into vassals.”

China’s attempts to seek influence have often been met with alarm and resistance; hardly a promising sign of a Chinese hegemonic order, analyst Chengxin Pan writes for the Lowy Interpreter. For instance, nothing seems to infuriate Beijing more than a state hosting the Dalai Lama, but on most occasions its stern warnings fall on deaf ears. Even Botswana hit back by saying that it retained the sovereign right to allow anyone to enter its territory.

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