How Sharp is Chinese Sharp Power?

Chinese Sharp Power
Portrait of Xi in Beijing, September 2015. Picture from Voice of America in China.

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How Sharp is Chinese Sharp Power?

The latest report from Freedom House exposes efforts from China to shape international media narratives through political and economic clout. Their tactics range from subtle intimation to outright cyberattacks. The report examined Chinese efforts in thirty democracies. The report says, “All 30 countries demonstrated at least one incident of active pushback by policymakers, news outlets, civic groups, or social media users that reduced the impact of Beijing’s activities.” Moreover, sixteen countries faced high or very high influence efforts. Interestingly, the most highly targeted countries included Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Fortunately, these are three of the four most resilient democracies to Chinese influence.

Indeed, the report weaves together two themes throughout its eighty-two pages. On the one hand, Chinese influence efforts are more than strong. They cross the line from what scholars commonly call ‘soft power’ into what Christopher Walker has termed ‘sharp power.‘ China leverages its influence to censor negative news coverage either directly or indirectly. Indeed, sixteen countries report instances of self-censorship due to fears of Chinese reprisals. Reporters often hold back information due to abuse from online trolls. Some outlets even fear lawsuits from the Chinese government from claims of defamation.

However, Freedom House also emphasizes widespread resilience particularly among the most established democracies. Even countries like Poland, the Philippines, and Brazil have shown strong resilience despite recent signs of democratic backsliding. The most worrisome case is Nigeria where China has a strong influence effort, but its resilience is considered low.

The latest report is the most in-depth study of China’s efforts to influence media in other countries. It offers plenty of reason to worry, but also reasons for hope. Check out the report Beijing’s Global Media Influence: Authoritarian Expansion and the Power of Democratic Resilience here.

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