Unfree China using ‘sharp power’ to redefine reality at home and abroad

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Donald Kirk

China’s overwhelming trade surpluses with just about all its trading partners, notably the U.S., are hardly the only worrisome aspect of Chinese expansionism. Along with China’s aggressive militarism, we are hearing constantly about the nation’s use of “sharp power” to advance its agenda in just about every country on earth.

“Sharp power, what’s that,” is the usual response when the topic comes up in conversations about China’s growing role worldwide.

“Sharp power is an approach to international affairs that typically involves efforts at censorship or the use of manipulation to sap the integrity of independent institutions,” is the answer provided by Christopher Walker of the National Endowment for Democracy, a U.S.-government-supported institution in Washington, in the NED’s “Journal of Democracy.”

The Global Times packages China’s perspective for foreign audiences. / Foreign Policy

“This approach takes advantage of the asymmetry between free and unfree systems,” Walker goes on. As a result, he writes, “authoritarian regimes” are able “to limit free expression and to distort political environments in democracies….” At the same time, they go on “shielding their own domestic public spaces from democratic appeals coming from abroad.”

That statement summarizes what China and Russia are doing these days, spreading their influence any way they can, by fair means and foul. They’re buying off politicians with “donations” through front groups, promises of free trips and gifts. They’re spreading false or severely biased news through their own broadcast, internet and print media. They’re luring institutions and individual scholars with promises of grants, scholarships and lessons in language, culture and history, revoking these privileges from critics and foes of Chinese policy goals.

The world is only beginning to wake up to the menace of “sharp power.” For many years we’ve been thinking the greatest problem was to get the Chinese to play fair with trade and investment, to stop stealing foreign technology, to grant the same privileges to rivals as their own firms and individuals are accustomed to receiving in a highly competitive world. We’ve been reading and hearing a lot about the trade war initiated by President Donald Trump, about the tariffs he’s slapped on a wide range of Chinese products and about Chinese protests and retaliatory measures of their own.

We tend not to think about what the Chinese, and Russians have been doing to subvert democratic institutions. Most people are simply not aware of the way they’ve been using their media not merely to publicize their policies, their culture and history but to wage war against the rest of the world. One notorious example is “Russia Today,” or RT, which broadcasts attacks on the U.S. and others worldwide while glorifying whatever Russia is doing. Similarly, CGTN, China Global Television, and the English-language “Global Times,” a well-written, skillfully edited adjunct to the pervasive Communist Party newspaper “People’s Daily,” package highly biased versions of the news for the benefit of foreign audiences.

Neither Russia nor China grant similar access to American and other foreign news of cultural organizations. The Voice of America does not have a presence in China. The Chinese have long since banned google, the world’s leading search engine. Foreign journalists and scholars are punished for criticism by denial of access to contacts and research facilities. Among their own people, Chinese and Russian critics of the systems in which they live and work are silenced, sometimes violently, by assassination or imprisonment.

One of the most egregious examples of China’s use of “sharp power” is the proliferation of Chinese-sponsored “Confucius Institutes” at universities and colleges worldwide. It wasn’t until several hundred American institutions had gladly accepted these institutes as great ways to carry out language programs and present courses on Chinese history and culture than professors began waking up to the reality that they were being bought off. Behind the veil of education, the Chinese have been insidiously, skillfully inculcating young minds with their own views and versions at the expense of their host institutions and the countries in which they operated. In the U.S., universities are shutting them down, kicking them out.

The Americans, the British and others are slowly awakening to the need to fight back. The National Endowment for Democracy, funded by the U.S. Congress, has been at the forefront of the battle, churning out books and articles, staging panel discussions, marshalling experts to the cause.

Independent, influential media organizations are also letting the world know what the Chinese and Russians are doing. The prestigious British weekly, the “Economist” in a cover article asked, “What to do about China’s “sharp power,” telling readers “China is manipulating decision-makers in Western democracies.”

The article was informative but had no real answer. Rather than engage in overt retaliation, it said, “the West needs to stand by its own principles, with countries acting together if possible,” using “its own values to blunt China’s sharp power.”

Fine, but it’s unlikely such high-sounding advice will have much impact. China and Russia are exercising “sharp power” paralleling military and commercial aggression. We need to stand guard against this type of assault as an integral part of a war waged by these dictatorial super powers against democratic principles and free nations everywhere.