Time to counter China’s ‘soft power’ influence ops


The Chinese Communist Party’s covert campaign of influence in Australia, exposed in a series of articles and “Power and Influence,” (above) set off a domestic debate about just how wary Australians should be about their largest trading partner, Foreign Policy reports. How carefully should Australia manage its ties with China moving forward? And, although American attention remains focused on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, should the United States have the same debate? The ChinaFile Editors ask.

Students at Chinese academic institutions in the United States are getting a heavy course of political indoctrination along with their regular studies, according to a new report:

The Chinese Confucius Institutes are “operating without oversight and promoting a dangerous political agenda,” the National Association of Scholars (NAS) said….There are 103 Confucius Institutes in operation at U.S. universities. The institutes, which originated in 2005, offer credit courses in Chinese language and culture and are funded by China’s Ministry of Education.

“Confucius Institutes export the fear of speaking freely around the world. They permit a foreign government intimate influence over college classrooms,” said NAS director of research Rachelle Peterson. “It’s time to kick them off campus.”

“China has limits with soft power. One is its increasing nationalism and its conflicts with neighbours over the South China Sea. It’s hard to attract people and countries to you when you’re in disputes with them,” notes Harvard’s Joseph Nye.

“The other factor is the desire to have tight party control over civil society. If you try to control people you deprive yourself of the richness and diversity. So it becomes more difficult to be attractive, it’s not enough to just set up a Confucius Institute.”

A decade or so ago, Beijing appeared to be succeeding in its soft power strategy, notes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Joshua Kurlantzick:

It had utilized many of these soft power methods to raise its favorability around the world, and to soothe concerns in Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, and South Asia about China’s growing diplomatic, economic, and strategic influence. But that strategy has come into conflict, in Southeast Asia, with China’s hard power aims.

“I participated in an online forum on China’s soft power organized by the National Endowment for Democracy,” the Washington-based democracy assistance group, he adds. “You can see my part of it, and all the responses, here.”

China‘s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative might bank on the development of infrastructure to boost its standing as a growing superpower, but the real value could be the soft power it affords the world’s second largest economy, reports suggest.

The Chinese government knows it has a shortfall of soft power and has invested in think tanks, scholarships, culture and the media in a bid to correct this, said Gong Xue, senior analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

“The Chinese government has sensed the international investment environment is changing … (This has led) them to pay attention to details such as the response from civil society, the role of business actors, language and cultural barriers in their investment plans,” he added.

China is aware it cannot challenge US hegemony by simply flexing economic and military muscle, notes analyst Amar Diwakar. It should come as no surprise then that China’s foreign policy marshalled under Xi reflects the significance of ideas and institutions, he contends:

Interestingly, the purpose of soft power is inverted in service of China’s domestic politics. Soft power is more than just a mythologised national culture translated into exportable universal values; it simultaneously involves value production at home and abroad.

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