Tue, Nov 12, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Combating China’s influence operations

By Larry Diamond and Orville Schell

As trade negotiations between the US and China limp toward an uncertain conclusion, much of the world remains fixated on the potential escalation of the conflict between the world’s two largest economies.

However, narrow discussions about tit-for-tat tariffs, Chinese mercantilism and intellectual-property theft fail to recognize the broader implications of the trade dispute: The US and China are losing their ability to interact in a manner that is anything but adversarial.

For the US, China represents a rapidly escalating threat — a perception underpinned partly by the large bilateral trade surplus and China’s brazen efforts to capture US technology.

However, it is also – and perhaps more importantly — driven by China’s pursuit of military hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region, its rapidly growing overseas investments, its attempts to reshape global policy debates and its efforts to exert influence over other countries, including the US itself.

Such efforts, FBI Director Christopher Wray said last year, include the use of non-traditional actors to infiltrate democratic institutions, especially in academia.

In this sense, Wray concluded, the “Chinese threat” is more than “a whole of government threat;” it is “a whole-of-society threat.”

Our recently published report, China’s Influence and American Interests: Promoting Constructive Engagement — the product of a 23-member working group that we cochaired, convened by the Hoover Institution and the Asia Society — confirms this fear.

The report concludes, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is infiltrating a wide range of US institutions — from universities and think tanks to the mass media, and state and local governments — as well as the Chinese-American community. The CCP is burrowing into the soft tissue of US democracy.

This is neither a blatant deployment of “hard” military or economic power, nor the type of transparent exchange through which democracies exert “soft power” on the rest of the world.

Instead, it is a form of what has been called “sharp power:” The use of “covert, coercive and corrupting” tactics [in former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s words] to compel countries to toe China’s rhetorical line and support its interests.

The key to deploying this sharp power is the CCP’s sprawling and sophisticated “united front” apparatus, an almost century-old system for promoting Chinese propaganda and influence abroad.

This apparatus — and China’s Leninist system more broadly — has little regard for the integrity of civic institutions, and even less for values like freedom of speech, religion and assembly. On the contrary, it readily exploits the openness of Western liberal democracies to achieve its own ends.

What are those ends? Unlike Russia’s influence operations, which center on electoral manipulation through disinformation about the target country, China’s foreign operations, including in the US, focus on narratives about itself. Its leaders want to shape how the world views China’s rise, in order to minimize challenges to its militarization of the South China Sea, repression of religious minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, pervasive surveillance of its citizens and resistance to democratic reform in Hong Kong.

To achieve this, China leverages its own citizens abroad — especially those in academia, whether faculty or students — and members of the Chinese diaspora, whom it considers “fellow countrymen” who owe loyalty to the “Chinese motherland.”

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