This is not an easy read, as the dizzying array of institutions and methods China uses to assert its economic and political influence across the world is hard to completely grasp — which is also why it’s so effective but still not well-understood.
As the introduction states: “The Chinese Communist Party’s [CCP] wide-ranging influence operations are, by design, secretive and often highly deceptive, with their inner workings concealed behind a confusing maze of front organizations, ranks of witting and unwitting intermediaries and clouds of bland rhetoric.”
However, if you read the title and expect a scathing, straightforward criticism of how an evil CCP is intentionally trying to destroy global democracy and freedom — except the cases of Taiwan and Hong Kong, which Beijing regards as internal affairs — this book doesn’t exactly deliver. Many chapters present China’s undermining of democratic societies as a by-product of global ambitions from an authoritarian state that never cared about values such as press freedom and transparency to begin with, and still regard the matter as speculative with much more research needed to be done.
But it’s exactly this ambiguity and blurred lines that make China’s reach in the world such a polarizing and sensitive issue. In the Cambodia chapter, for example, China’s massive economic aid and investment can on one hand be seen as helping legitimize long-serving prime minister Hun Sen’s increasingly authoritarian and corrupt regime. This is stated on grounds that China’s aid is “value neutral” and offers the Cambodian ruling party “a cushion against pressure from Western donors and international financial institutions that otherwise would have been able to push for meaningful political reform.
“Whatever China’s true intentions are, however, it can simply argue that its assistance comes from the principle of “non-interference in the domestic affairs of Cambodia,” and even counter-accuse these Western countries of meddling.
Likewise, ethnic Chinese politicians in places like Canada and New Zealand can also argue that they are simply trying to improve relations and increase exchanges between their countries and China. However, as the book states, it is Beijing’s extremely persistent effort to discredit those who warned against the possible implications of China’s rising power in the past few decades that has allowed its reach to get this deep in the first place. Even more alarmingly, they’ve done it without much resistance or self-protective measures — even from global powers — until recent years.
And while it’s still hard to leap to solid conclusions, as Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) continues to consolidate power and ramp up party rhetoric, the methods and potential repercussions of China’s political warfare definitely need to at least be highlighted and explained. This book does that, and although the picture is far from complete, the patterns are apparent.
The book begins with a brief introduction of Chinese united front tactics and political warfare, and how China uses various avenues — from mobilizing overseas Chinese to economic charm to get its message out and make people do things their way. After a detailed analysis of the enigmatic Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress, which many have dismissed as ceremonial but actually wields considerable influence, it presents eight diverse case studies, from major powers such as the US and Canada to smaller democracies like the Czech Republic to economically weaker states with questionable records that need foreign aid such as the Philippines and Cambodia. Some cases read better and present stronger evidence and arguments, but they all show the same concerns and focus on China’s sway over these nations.
As Beijing’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric continues to drown out opposing voices, such work is valuable to those who are concerned and those who may be targeted by the CCP’s tactics. The CCP’s pressure and interference in Taiwan might be the most apparent and best known, but it may be eye-opening for people of other countries to realize the extent of Chinese influence in their homeland, from politics to the media and even entertainment. But many who have interests in China and may be subject to its influence will probably dismiss it as fear mongering and demonizing the CCP.
Through various developments over the past few years, people around the world have become more aware of China’s growing influence, whether they agree with it or not. But when Taiwan-based political researcher and journalist J Michael Cole and then-Taiwan Foundation for Democracy president (and current Deputy Foreign Minister) Hsu Szu-Chien (徐斯儉) put together two workshops through the Project 2049 Institute in the US and Taiwan in 2017 and 2018 about Chinese political warfare, “there was little public awareness” about its “breadth, reach and severity.”
China’s pressure regarding free speech was apparent even when organizing the event: Cole writes in a Taiwan Sentinel article that “a number of academics turned down our invitation, ostensibly fearing that their access to China could be compromised if they were caught participating in our project,” and that at least three of the participants have been directly threatened for their ongoing work on the topic. Cole also had problems finding a publisher for the book until Taiwan and UK-based Camphor Press signed up for the task.
Since it’s a collection of papers written and edited a few years ago, some recent situations were not included such as the Czech Republic’s break with Beijing and love affair with Taipei, which could be an example of resistance against Chinese demands. But again, these are more recent developments after the world has become more vigilant about such matters.
Perhaps a next volume is needed in this “new era” to focus on what these nations could potentially do to legally protect themselves against Chinese interference without sacrificing their economic interests and democratic values. But this is a great initial primer.
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