A ‘Sputnik Moment’? What to do about China’s ‘sharp power’


China is manipulating debate in Western democracies by employing “sharp power”, a term coined by the National Endowment for Democracy. “Soft power” harnesses the allure of culture and values to add to a country’s strength; sharp power helps authoritarian regimes coerce and manipulate opinion abroad, The Economist notes. To ensure China’s rise is peaceful, the West needs to make room for China’s ambition. But that does not mean anything goes. Open societies ignore China’s sharp power at their peril, it adds:

  • Part of their defence should be practical. Counter-intelligence, the law and an independent media are the best protection against subversion. All three need Chinese speakers who grasp the connection between politics and commerce in China. The Chinese Communist Party suppresses free expression, open debate and independent thought to cement its control. Merely shedding light on its sharp tactics–and shaming kowtowers–would go a long way towards blunting them.
  • Part should be principled. Unleashing a witch-hunt against Chinese people would be wrong; it would also make Western claims to stand for the rule of law sound hollow. Calls from American politicians for tit-for-tat “reciprocity”, over visas for academics and NGO workers, say, would be equally self-defeating. Yet ignoring manipulation in the hope that China will be more friendly in the future would only invite the next jab. Instead the West needs to stand by its own principles, with countries acting together if possible, and separately if they must. The first step in avoiding the Thucydides trap is for the West to use its own values to blunt China’s sharp power.

This Sputnik Moment

Another step would be for administrative action or legislation to introduce a broad principle of reciprocity into the question of Chinese and Russian media access in the United States, adds Stanford University’s Larry Diamond, who coordinates the democracy program of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) within the Freeman Spogli Institute.It isn’t obvious why the Chinese and Russian governments should be able to sell their newspapers and transmit their television broadcasts freely in the United States when American media companies have no such rights inside China and Russia, he writes for the American Interest:

When we weigh this gross asymmetry in access, which is the greater cost to freedom of information: the current denial to the Russian and Chinese publics of access to American news media, or the greater difficulty American consumers would face in needing to go to the Internet, rather than cable television or the street corner, to access Chinese and Russian media?….

Soft power, Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig write in a new report for the National Endowment for Democracy, consists of open efforts to attract and persuade. The proliferating global influence activities of China and Russia diverge from traditional means of public diplomacy. Instead, they use wealth, stealth and coercion to coopt influential policy voices and players, control information flows, censor unfavorable reporting and analysis, and ultimately mold societal attitudes and government postures.

China’s “sharp power” approach stops well short of the hard power, wielded through military force or economic muscle; but it is distinct from the soft attraction of culture and values, and more malign, The Economist adds. It works by manipulation and pressure. Anne-Marie Brady of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand refers to China’s intrusions as a “new global battle” to “guide, buy or coerce political influence”.

U.S. strategists may be less worried about the influence of Moscow abroad than that of Beijing. On Wednesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) convened a hearing on the “Long Arm of China,” focusing on China’s capacity to launch influence operations abroad to gain leverage over democratic rivals, the Washington Post reports:

Chinese authorities also appear to be deepening their monitoring of their citizens on foreign soil. “China’s influence campaign appears to have extended further in Australia,” wrote Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations. “China’s state security forces have reportedly engaged in a campaign to monitor Chinese nationals, including many students there — even warning them not to offer any criticism of Beijing lest their relatives in China be harmed.”

“The Chinese government has spent tens of billions of dollars to shape norms, narratives, and attitudes in other countries,” said Shanthi Kalathil of the National Endowment for Democracy, speaking at Wednesday’s hearing.

China is cracking down internally on internet freedom and free speech through a security technology that has created a “walled garden,” she added. Now China under supreme leader Xi Jinping has begun exporting the anti-democratic system, the Washington Beacon reports. “It is becoming evident that the CCP under Xi Jinping is intent on encompassing the rest of the world within its walled garden,” Kalathil said.



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