Silent Invasion: China’s sharp power undermining democracy


The mayor of an Australian city has admitted that, at the request of a Chinese official, its local council got rid of a Taiwanese flag that some school students painted as part of an art exhibit, according to news reports. 

China aims to infiltrate and undermine Australian democracy to create a country more in line with Chinese interests, Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Australia’s Charles Stuart University, writes in his book Silent Invasion, the South China Morning Post reports:

The issue has sparked a much larger discussion about Chinese communist influence in Australia: whether it exists, and how it is manifested. While the debate in Australia has been particularly animated, similar questions have arisen in other Western countries, such as Canada and the US.

Australia’s prime minister on Tuesday rejected a former diplomat’s opinion that the country needs a new foreign minister to thaw relations with China, the AP reports:

Geoff Raby, who was Australia’s ambassador to Beijing from 2007 to 2011, used a scathing column in The Australian Financial Review newspaper to call for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to be replaced. “Since Australia decided to adopt a policy of strategic mistrust towards China, any resemblance of influence has waned to the point where relations are now in the freezer,” wrote Raby, who now owns a business consultancy in Beijing.

Within the next decade, China will overtake the US economically, despite not being a democracy. Several thoughtful Americans have told me that they could live with a larger China, if it was democratic, notes Kishore Mahbubani, a professor at the National University of Singapore, and the author of Has the West Lost It? 

Here, again, there is some irrationality at play, he writes for Project Syndicate: a democratic China would be far more susceptible to populist and nationalist pressures, and thus would probably be a pricklier partner for the US. Yet the US remains blinded by ideology, and thus is unable to see the benefits of a China guided by economic rationality.

China’s growing geostrategic influence, rising soft power and, above all, continued economic success suggest that other countries will see China as a model to emulate, says Barry Eichengreen, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. They will be attracted to its political model, which eschews the chaos of Western democracy in favor of centralized administrative control, he writes for Project Syndicate.

This makes it inevitable, it is said, that more countries will emulate Chinese governance. And this observation casts grave doubt on the future of democracy. But this confident forecast misses a key point, notes Eichengreen, author of “The Populist Temptation: Economic Grievance and Political Reaction in the Modern Era”:

  • Democracy may be messy, but it contains a built-in course-correction mechanism. When policy goes awry, the incumbents responsible for the mistake can be, and often are, voted out of office, to be replaced, in principle at least, by more competent rivals.
  • An authoritarian regime has no such automatic adjustment mechanism. Autocratic leaders will not give up power easily and may choose, in their wisdom, to double down on failed policies. There is no orderly way of compelling them to do otherwise. A popular uprising, like the Solidarity movement in Poland, or a revolt of the nomenklatura, such as in the Soviet Union, can force the issue. But this typically happens only when an extended political and policy stalemate must be broken — and it often comes at a high cost in terms of public violence and loss of life.

Moreover, the idea that China’s leaders will continue to avoid serious policy errors indefinitely and that their capacity as crisis managers will never be tested is, quite simply, fanciful, he adds.

China under Xi Jinping is both more authoritarian and more global, while the liberal international order is in disarray, adds Shanthi Kalathil, director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. Through means subtle and strategic, China has reshaped the arena of development assistance, she writes in a post based on the article, “China in Xi’s ‘New Era’: Redefining Development” that appears in the April 2018 issue of the Journal of Democracy:

China frames its engagement with the developing world as one of “noninterference,” a riposte to what Beijing sees as the ideologically driven Western donor model promoting democratic governance and human rights. China’s government has been using the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to push the notion that economic growth without political liberalization or accountability is not only possible, but advantageous.

The United States is not shy in our global efforts to promote democracy and universal values. But the foreign influence operations that China employs are different than those undertaken by responsible international stakeholders, a recent Congressional hearing was told:

U.S. influence efforts are open and transparent, building soft powers which derives from the pervasiveness and attractiveness of the United States and brings about desired outcomes voluntarily. In contrast, many of China’s influence operations are covert and coercive. They seek to distract, manipulate, suppress, and interfere. They create what the National Endowment for Democracy has named ‘‘sharp power’’—the ability to coerce certain outcomes rather than induce them voluntarily, like soft power.

Totalitarian systems in Russia, China, and their former Marxist-Leninist satellites have transformed, with the exception of North Korea, into systems of authoritarian control that permit some economic liberty while maintaining state sovereignty over politics, society, and culture, analyst Matthew Continetti observes. The authoritarians use “sharp power” to interfere in democratic elections, bully and exploit Western corporations and universities, and influence public discourse through information warfare.

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