China’s Sharp Power and its Threat to Democracy

Sharp Power
Huawei Technology in Shenzhen, China. Photo by Dr. Bernd Gross.

by Christopher Walker

The “China Challenge”

As China’s ruling Communist Party prepares to start its five-yearly congress beginning on October 16 – and with Xi Jinping set to complete his elevation to uncontested paramount leader – it is a fitting moment to consider the ways China’s global influence has evolved over Xi’s rule. It is also a good time to reflect on how the world’s democracies are responding to key aspects of the “China challenge.”

As part of a broader global authoritarian mobilization, China and other leading repressive powers during this time have targeted the minds and sought to alter the behaviors of foreign publics by manipulating key institutions in democracies, including universities, publishers, think tanks, policy institutes, media outlets, and entertainment companies. Knowledge-sector institutions, for instance, now confront vexing asymmetries in their relationships with authoritarian powers that leave them open to sharp-power efforts to compromise their integrity.

Under Xi’s rule, Glenn Tiffert describes how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has pursued a “campaign to intensify ideological discipline at home… [and] is constricting not just the narrow space for expression within the PRC, but also its exercise abroad.”

Nadege Rolland has spotlighted the intensification of the CCP’s use of “discourse power” to get others to do the CCP’s will, efforts that aim “to voice ideas, concepts, propositions, and claims that are respected and recognized by others and, in the process, to change, without violence or coercion, how others think and behave.”

China’s Sharp Power

This by and large is not a generation of “soft power,” as the concept is commonly understood. Rather, an analysis of Beijing’s various influence initiatives suggests that the CCP is seeking to preempt, neutralize, or minimize challenges to the Chinese regime’s presentation of itself, an exertion of influence better understood as sharp power. Most open societies are still not adequately prepared to meet the multidimensional sharp-power strategies employed by China, and other like-minded states.

A crucial aspect of the challenge arises from a lack of understanding of the threat. Elite capture has been a key element of the authoritarian influence playbook and has contributed to democracies’ languid response. Martin Hala describes the CCP’s approach to “making friends” in high places as a way of coopting foreign elites not only to advance Chinese interests but also to manipulate and control foreign institutions. “The unwitting foreigners are not entering a spontaneous relationship with the Chinese counterparts whom they meet in person,” writes Hala, “but with a hidden yet formidable top-down bureaucracy that is beyond the ability of most people in open societies to understand because they have encountered nothing remotely comparable to serve as a reference.” In other words, people and organizations engaged with the CCP and its proxies are too often running blind.

The Challenge of Sharp Power

But when put to the test, a few countries have responded adeptly. Australia was arguably the first country to mobilize in earnest against the China challenge. The Czech Republic, Taiwan, as well as Lithuania, have confronted threats to the integrity of their democratic institutions and offer some valuable lessons.

These countries possessed critical features essential for rebuffing sharp power. Their responses, to one degree or another, drew upon dogged civil societies and news media to present crucial issues without fear or favor. Importantly, these countries – especially Australia, the Czech Republic, and Taiwan – had independent China expertise to inform wider society about authoritarian influence in a clear-eyed manner. But the fact is that apart from a small subset of countries, few are equipped systematically to address Chinese, or Russian, sharp power—particularly in settings such as Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa where China and Russia and their proxies are actively shaping the landscape. Far too often, these activities run counter to principles of democratic accountability, transparency, and human rights.

Authoritarian powers’ full-spectrum set of influence instruments and tactics can be overwhelming for many countries. Systems lacking a robust civil society, capable news media, and independent China expertise are much more vulnerable to sharp power. To address the growing challenge, democratic societies should pursue a number of essential steps:

Roll Back Secrecy and Opacity

First, open societies need to directly and creatively confront the authoritarians’ opacity and secrecy. Democracies are only now coming to terms with the reality that extensive economic interdependence has offered fertile grounds for strategic corruption—a feature, not a bug, of authoritarian foreign policy.

When engaging with foreign partners, autocrats prefer to work directly (and often exclusively) with executive-branch elites. This state-oriented approach enables a culture of secrecy and corruption. Operating abroad as they do at home, the leaderships of China, Russia, and other authoritarian powers do not welcome nongovernmental voices in decision making processes, whether in bilateral relations or international organizations. Democracies should not cede this ground. Open societies need to recommit and intensify their efforts to incorporate nongovernmental voices into key forums, discussions, and decision-making processes.

The nongovernmental sector has a vital role in the sharp-power struggle. In targeted countries, nongovernmental resources must be tailored to fit the local context and the complexity of CCP tactics in order to respond to authoritarian influence. These resources are especially needed in cases when authoritarian powers have successfully captured official elites, because it then falls to civil society to tackle the sharp-power challenge.

Rebuff Elite Capture

The more elite capture in a country, the more treacherous the path to safeguarding institutional integrity becomes. But the cooptation of local elites by authoritarians does not lend itself to garden-variety transparency and accountability initiatives. Going forward, new, tailored initiatives must address elite capture where it has already metastasized and prevent its spread to new places.

Defend the Freedom of Expression

Rewriting the rules of free expression is a central aim of authoritarian powers. Institutions in open societies—including universities, publishers, think tanks, technology firms, media, and entertainment companies—must develop new ways to resist the efforts of authoritarian powers and their surrogates to limit freedoms of expression or association. Given the extent to which authoritarian powers have already cowed even powerful institutions into self-censorship, the need to rebuild eroded free-expression norms is even greater.

Address Knowledge Asymmetries

The targets of sharp power often lack the necessary knowledge to resist. Scholars, journalists, and publics alike need deeper understandings of how China’s influence manifests in local contexts. New, interdisciplinary networks should be developed in individual countries to act as “knowledge hubs” for accelerating learning and adaptation. By cooperating with civil society, media, and watchdog organizations, these hubs should bridge cognitive gaps among the general public, sharing knowledge beyond narrow communities of analysts. These local efforts must be supplemented by international cooperation among knowledge hubs and independent analysts.

Incentivize Transparent and Accountable Technology

Authoritarian powers are working to reshape the global technological environment to fit their chief priorities: control and surveillance, both inside and outside their borders. For this reason, democracies must accelerate and deepen their efforts to adopt common technological standards that embrace transparency and accountability.

The stakes for implementing a proactive democratic response to sharp power are rising as emerging technology offers autocrats the promise of even greater influence at once-unimaginable scale. And China may be only scratching the surface of its technological opportunities. Unless democratic societies rise to the challenge by leveraging their inherent competitive advantages—creativity, free expression, openness, and accountability—the sharp-power challenge will continue to mount.

This post is drawn from a longer essay, “Rising to the Sharp Power Challenge,” that appears in the October 2022 issue of the Journal of Democracy. Read it here.

Christopher Walker is vice-president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy. He is coeditor with Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner of Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy (2016), and coeditor of the report Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence (2017).

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