‘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.

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