This issue’s Special Forum consists of four articles on individual cases—New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and South Korea. This introduction covers the single-country articles, comparing the four cases, while it also looks broadly at the nature of such interference, reaching beyond Chinese intrusive activities to focus on them as examples of “sharp power,” a contrast to “smart power” and a manifestation of “deconstructing” national identity and taking advantage of existing national identity gaps. Sharp power is perceived as a new phenomenon—capable of disruption on an unprecedented scale—but it has its roots in themes long under discussion.
The articles that follow respond to a common set of questions, while offering specific details on each of the four cases. What are arenas of perceived interference? This leads to examination of the political world, the business world, the media, academia, and parts of civil society, not least of all the Chinese diaspora and how it is penetrated by efforts to undermine the principles of a democratic society. We ask also what is the nature of the interference? This requires attention to how China wields its economic clout, draws on people of Chinese descent in a manner that casts suspicion on others who are totally innocent, and cultivates networks for use over the long haul. Another question raised is what has been the response of the authorities and affected organizations in each of the four countries? Authors look for pushback of various types and whether it has been intensifying. Finally, we look for answers to the questions how have local responses been received in China and what has been the impact on bilateral ties.
Some similarities were observed in Chinese behavior in each of the four cases. There was a shift in the intrusiveness of Chinese interference: on a limited scale from the late 1990s, more actively from the late 2000s, and with unquestioned intensity since Xi Jinping took the helm in 2012. This evolution reflects more clarity on an expansive interpretation of how security is defined, encompassing anything that might diminish the communist party’s ability to stay in power at home and abroad. It is marked by reorganization of the United Front activities, establishing talking points to boost core consciousness and mobilizing various layers of advocates to convey these points directly and indirectly. Also important are organizational mechanisms to ensure strong support through the ministries of education, culture, foreign affairs, and so on, to give rewards such as access for conformity and active support. Along with boosters in China and among those sent out to represent China, we find common patterns of identifying targets susceptible to being compromised, even if that is a gradual process. Cultivating local and lower-level officials for their long-term promise occurs alongside offering blandishments to retired politicians and high officials who are vulnerable without their former staff. The Chinese may help careers advance, for instance through raising a lot of money in political careers, anticipating some payoff later. The payoff may just be parroting Chinese messages both to persuade audiences in their country and for transmission in Chinese media to reinforce messages useful to the PRC.
The news in the United States for more than a year has been dominated by Russia’s intrusions into US politics to impact the 2016 presidential election. This has prompted interest in what is the nature of such interference and new-found attention to what is called “sharp power.” Here we distinguish that power from hard power, soft power, and smart power, while situating the concept in the context of national identity. This analysis has no less bearing on the intrusions of China in democratic countries, although, to date, the US case has mostly escaped the radar.
Hard power means flexing one’s military and economic strength to persuade other countries to do one’s bidding or, at least, remind them why that would be advisable. Soft power is targeted at convincing other states by the force of one’s belief system that aligning with you is in their interest due to your benign nature or attractive appeal. Smart power was proposed mainly as a corrective to recapture the thrust of soft power after it had been linked excessively to hard power in plans to export democracy. Sharp power has joined the lexicon as a means to disrupt another country’s soft power, capitalizing on its internal vulnerabilities to sow discord and use democratic openness to undermine political consensus and cohesive governance. It existed in the Cold War with disinformation and targeted agitation to influence policy choices or weaken solidarity in the face of competition, but it has acquired an entirely new dimension in the 2010s.
Sharp power is a new term in the international relations lexicon, introduced by the National Endowment for Democracy and, in contrast to smart power, deemed malicious in intent. If the objective of smart power is to remedy the deficient use of soft power, as in the response to the George W. Bush administration’s loss of popularity around the world, the purpose of sharp power is not only to undercut another state’s soft power but to go further by playing on the vulnerabilities in its national identity to wreak havoc with its sense of solidarity and purpose. The strength of smart power is its encapsulation of the ideals of a democratic state and the way it stands in the forefront of the liberal, democratic international order to draw countries with similar ideals closer. The thrust of sharp power is its destructive force to undermine that very order by capitalizing on fake news, heightened anxieties, and divisions over national identity.
China, as Russia, is long accustomed to defending its own national identity against evidence about its actual history, its ongoing authoritarian abuses of power and human rights, and its censorship to conceal or distort news about the outside world and problems at home. During the Cold War, following the Soviet model, China demonized what was called the capitalist bloc and at times tried to spur dissent and even revolution in other countries. After pronouncing the end of the ideological struggle, this approach appeared to fade away. Yet, an information struggle soon intensified, at first mostly defensive in nature and later increasingly offensive as well.
The four articles that follow depict Chinese behavior in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and South Korea. Before briefly highlighting some themes in each article, I showcase some common points in what was observed in all or most of these cases. There are notable differences: South Korea is more the object of direct economic pressure with less of an impact from the overseas Chinese diaspora entering politics and shaping NGOs and other local activism; Australia seems to have been the first to push back in a substantial manner; money in politics appears to matter to a different degree over time, depending on finance reforms and the watchfulness of those in the government. More comparisons are needed to draw lessons from the cases before us.
National Identities and Identity Gaps
Most attention to national identities—a popular social science focus since the end of the Cold War—has centered on constructing and reconstructing them. National leaders and movements intent on transforming the national narrative have vied to highlight symbols of identity from historical memories to grievances over the manner in which state authority has been exercised to mobilize public opinion. The dimensions of identity, the evolution of identity intensity, and the mechanisms for reshaping national identity have all figured into such analyses. As attention shifted to the way identities influence bilateral relations—with East Asian cases often in the forefront—the concept of national identity gaps has been introduced to study interactions between two identities and forces that widen or narrow the divide between them over time.
Sharp power is properly conceived as a means of deconstructing national identity. Instead of offering an alternative vision of identity, it tears away at the existing identity with vague claims that it is in contravention of some primordial identity best realized through destruction of what exists. Sharp power exacerbates national identity gaps, demonizing other states. It accentuates the globalization dimension of identity, challenging the pillars of the international, democratic, liberal order. At its core are assumptions about civilizational uniqueness, showcasing this part of the sectoral dimension, and historical victimization. There is an ideological thrust to it, as if a belief system has been lost and must be regained to steer all debates about national identity.
China’s use of sharp power is distinctive from Russia’s. Whereas the Russian behavior does not exclude lowering defenses against it, narrowing the bilateral identity gap is secondary. Its main thrust is to undermine the established identity precepts and sow discord, playing on signs of division through spreading fake news, aggravating tensions on both sides of an issue, compromising those in authority and symbols of authority representing the established order. In contrast, China’s sharp power is targeted at narrowing a specific national identity gap, denying the validity of resistance to China and accepting China’s policies and aspirations as benign and entirely in the interest of one’s own country. It eradicates the boundary between democratic and human rights values as well as international defense of the liberal order—keystones of the national identities of all the states covered here—and China’s authoritarian, assertive regime as it challenges freedom of navigation, disrupts freedom of the press, and extends the penetration of organizations to serve China’s political bidding on an ever-expanding scale. Russia disrupts at a distance, largely using the Internet; China infiltrates a society, eyeing long-term influence.
Exposure of cases of politicians charged with doing China’s bidding and parroting the Chinese narrative on international and domestic affairs is common to Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. In each case, these prominent examples have aroused interest in what else may be happening as China exerts its influence, usually clandestinely. In the case of South Korea, a backlash has been building as well over economic retaliation by China for defensive activity in the face of an intensifying North Korea threat. In 2018, all four countries debate over how serious Chinese intrusive transgressions are and what should be done to limit them.
New Zealand is being targeted by a concerted political interference campaign by the PRC. According to Anne-Marie Brady, the impact of Beijing’s political influence activities on New Zealand democracy has been profound: a curtailing of freedom of speech, religion, and association for the ethnic Chinese community; a silencing of debates on China in the wider public sphere; and a corrupting influence on the political system through the blurring of personal, political, and economic interests. China did not have to pressure New Zealand to accept China’s political influence activities: successive New Zealand governments actively courted it. Yet, Brady finds that a backlash has been building as China’s actions have recently been increasingly exposed.
New Zealand is of interest to China for a number of reasons, ranging from security links to access to Antarctica. New Zealand is a member of the UKUSA intelligence agreement, the Five Power Defence Arrangement, and the unofficial ABCA grouping of militaries, as well as a NATO partner state. Extricating New Zealand from these military groupings and away from its traditional partners, or at least getting New Zealand to agree to stop spying on China for the Five Eyes, would be a major coup for the Xi government. Accompanying the more assertive foreign policy has been a massive increase in the CCP’s foreign influence activities, what it refers to as “United Front work.” New Zealand has seemed vulnerable, putting it in the forefront of this work.
There are around 200,000 ethnic Chinese residents in New Zealand, which houses a population of 4.5 million. Chinese consular authorities keep a close eye on all Chinese community activities. They achieve this through links with core pro-Beijing Chinese community groups, and by maintaining oversight over other Chinese community groups, ethnic Chinese political figures, and Chinese language media and schools in New Zealand. Chinese political leaders in New Zealand come under pressure from PRC diplomats to conform to, and work for, Chinese government policy. The CCP’s foreign affairs work has always aimed to co-opt foreigners with access to political power to support China’s foreign policy agenda. But now the focus is on using foreign political leaders and foreign companies to advance both economic and political relations, Brady contends, assessing Chinese activities.
China is using mergers, acquisitions, and partnerships with foreign companies, universities, and research centers in order to acquire local identities that enhance influence activities and access to military technology, commercial secrets, and other strategic information. New Zealand’s Chinese language mass media has gone from being an independent, localized, ethnic language medium to an outlet of China’s official messaging. Given these challenges, Brady argues, action is required to restore the integrity of New Zealand, by looking to legislative changes which will make the political and economic system more resilient against foreign political influence activities. The government could also speak frankly about the problem to the public, as sunlight is often the best means to correct inappropriate behavior that puts New Zealand national security at risk. New Zealand is the canary in the coalmine for the rest of the world. If a proudly independent democratic country like it cannot find a way to protect its own sovereign interests while maintaining a productive and respectful relationship with a great power like China, then others are even more at risk. Brady describes some steps at fighting back. Even more can be seen in the case of Australia, which has many parallels with that of New Zealand.
The primary purpose of China’s influence and interference operations in Australia is to pressure business and government to accede to China’s policy demands in the region, to weaken historical alliance commitments, and to secure science and technology assistance in areas of strategic priority to China. A parallel purpose, not to be overlooked, is message washing: laundering the Communist Party of China’s key messages through Australia and looping them back into China for domestic legitimation purposes. The CPC channels messages through the Chinese-Australian media and the community organizations that it controls for consumption by audiences in China. It does the same with prominent Australian politicians and business leaders. By channelling messages from party-controlled “Australian” media networks and public figures back into China’s domestic information market, the party has created an echo chamber for telling and repeating good stories about itself from beyond its borders. Yet, vanity carries vulnerabilities. According to John Fitzgerald, the party’s over-riding concern for heaping praise upon itself from Australia renders it vulnerable to adverse media and community reactions, and discredits Beijing’s champions within Australia to the point of damaging their reputations and destroying their careers.
Australia has been a willing partner in many of Beijing’s forays in public diplomacy, with higher levels of popular good will toward China than many other liberal democracies, a complementary rather than competitive economy, and bipartisan political agreement on the importance of building good relations to secure Australia’s long-term prosperity and security. China has taken advantage of this good will. Under its “go abroad” strategy the party has extended its command over community media and social networks overseas with a view to influencing the conduct and communications of key institutions in many national jurisdictions, including Australia. Party media platforms overseas and patriotic local business partners have invested millions of dollars in support of Chinese-language media platforms, schools, university centers, and political parties to project good stories about China into Australia and reflect flattering Australian perspectives on CPC ambitions and achievements for consumption by domestic audiences in China, giving an impression of international support for Xi Jinping. Party authorities managed to silence much of Australia’s independent Chinese community media. It has no way of relating to a country such as Australia without drawing on United Front puppet organizations, media, and friendly spokespersons, explains Fitzgerald.
The party’s influence operations in Australia have come to mimic, on a modest scale, the propaganda echo chamber that party propaganda experts have constructed for themselves in China. They accomplish this overseas by buying equity and space in foreign media operations and by commissioning influential foreigners to repeat their talking points abroad for rebroadcasting into China. They silence bad stories, doctor texts, and entice institutions to do the same. They buy up community media to silence critical voices and undermine the commercial viability of independent Chinese community media by threatening to close market opportunities in China for firms that advertise in independent media outlets. They monitor publications and appearances in Chinese-language media by community members with a view to preventing their publication or appearance if they step out of line. They also guide existing Chinese community associations in Australia to speak out in favor of China’s foreign and domestic policies.
Yet, these developments have triggered a national pushback against the United Front operations in Australia. Operations of this kind were largely conducted under-the-radar, focusing on activities at the diaspora community level. Now China’s party-family media are proving to be a liability in Australia. By coming clean about its global ambitions in the New Era and ramping up its level of control at home and overseas, the CPC has exposed to critical scrutiny a range of influence operations on foreign territories that were barely noticed. Along with other national governments that once overlooked China’s influence operations on their soil, Australia has shown by its actions that it now regards these as intrusions and considers further operations at the commercial and political levels as unacceptable infringements on national sovereignty.
There is increasing concern by Canadian intelligence agencies that Canadian politicians, civil servants, and policy advisers are subject to Chinese political influence, argues Charles Burton. There is also significant evidence that Chinese diaspora communities, especially the Chinese language media in Canada, are subject to intimidation by agents of the Chinese state. Much of Canada’s accommodation of China’s contemporary political and economic demands is related to a desire to diversify away from overdependence on the United States. In addition, due to historical factors and lucrative business engagements, there has been reluctance to acknowledge the threat of accommodating Chinese demands to Canada’s democracy and sovereignty. Thus, Burton describes what are Canadian parallels to the recent situations in New Zealand and Australia.
Burton is concerned that Canada-China economic integration, especially if Canada and China finalize a FTA, will increasingly lead to Canadian compliance with the business culture wherein Chinese businesspersons cultivate political patrons by giving politicians or their relatives gifts or benefits in kind. He cites tactics of intimidation against persons of Chinese heritage, especially those with family in China as well as against Canadian academics who write critically about CPC rule. Burton also points to cases of persons serving China’s ends and being caught.
There are other incentives to comply with China’s demands. China’s threat last summer to halt $2-billion in annual imports of Canadian canola seed on phyto-sanitary grounds is instructive. In its explicit or implicit threats to make countries pay an economic price for failing to abide by the demands associated with United Front work, China has targeted Canada as well as other states.
Burton advocates, as do Brady and Fitzgerald, more action in response to China’s behavior. He says that it is incumbent on the government of Canada to devote more resources to ensuring that Chinese diplomats do not engage in activities inconsistent with their diplomatic status and that agents of the Chinese state engaged in illegal activities be subject to account by judicial process based on a body of law that clarifies the “grey areas” of acceptable and unacceptable activities by those seeking to promote the interests of the PRC in Canada. Whereas Fitzgerald suggests that Australia’s government has been awakening to the danger. Burton is even more emphatic than Brady in casting doubt on the preparedness of the Canadian leadership to act. In all three cases, there are challenges in balancing punitive measures against persons of Chinese descent doing China’s bidding and respecting the rights of these citizens to exercise guaranteed protections in a democratic society. Burton emphasizes how the line has been crossed in ways that are harmful to Canada’s national interests and could seriously undermine its sovereignty.
The South Korean case appears different due to the limited role of overseas Chinese, e.g., in the political process. Yet, this case, more than others, points to the severity of economic sanctions China can employ, even over non-economic matters. It used its economic tools to coerce South Korea, e.g., the garlic war in 2000 and the kimchi war in 2005, and, as trade dependence on China has grown, it is in a stronger position to use economic tools to coerce, even as Chinese officials deny the existence of sanctions or retaliation led by the government. They say all measures are voluntary, not official. However, according to Choi Kang, China is not afraid of using its economic tools whenever it feels an inclination to do so without respect for generally accepted norms and process in trade. As its economic power and asymmetrical interdependency in trade grow, China is becoming more likely to use them to force changes in non-trade issue areas.
China has the tools to disrupt market principles and fair competition in China’s own market as South Korea has become very much more vulnerable to restrictions. China does not follow due process in resolving trade disputes, and it uses economic tools for political purposes. Choi notes other ways of interfering in other countries’ internal as well as external affairs, such as direct or indirect diplomatic pressure over accidents and incidents; information dissemination and manipulation of media to form pro-Chinese public opinion (not necessarily fake news), public diplomacy at various levels to create a favorable environment for China; interference in academic activities; and use of financial support to foster pro-Chinese opinions. These activities have become much more widespread and sophisticated in recent years, Choi concludes.
Knowing that the election outcome would affect bilateral relations, Beijing had a preference. Its ambassador to Seoul met with senior party officials, including a presidential candidate in a kind of interference in domestic affairs, since it is unusual for a sitting ambassador to be engaged in such diplomatic activities or public exposure. Another type of interference is in law-enforcement and legal processes that can be translated into obstruction of justice The Chinese government, through a high diplomatic channel and behind the scenes, asked the South Korea government to apply special consideration and treatment (exemption from normal legal procedures and release) to the Chinese students who were arrested for violence in the torch parade of 2008. Similar behavior occurred in law-enforcement activities against illegal fishing by Chinese fishing boats.
Choi particularly emphasizes Chinese retaliation since the THAAD dispute erupted. It is quite difficult to have Chinese experts join academic events in South Korea. China experts from South Korea are generally very careful in their work not to provoke China since they are afraid of the possibility that Chinese authorities will deny them a visa to China or limit their access to potential interviewees. The authorities are trying to have more pro-China voices in South Korea by providing various kinds of support, which puts more South Korean think-tanks and people in academia under Chinese influence. China has been trying to find and strengthen pro-Chinese groups in various fields, mostly in academia and the media. It has used various tools including financial support. They are the main target of Chinese public diplomacy. Many appear to be sympathetic to China and argue that South Korea needs to understand China’s foreign policy in general and China’s position on specific issues, i.e., lack of understanding of China’s intentions is the main source of the problem.
Chinese power-bloggers play a significant role in forming Chinese public opinion in cyber space and indirectly influence South Korean public opinion. When THAAD became the hottest issue between China and South Korea, they were the ones who aroused anti-South Korean sentiments among the Chinese people and threatened the South Korean public openly. As a result, the South Korean public became extremely alarmed over possible Chinese retaliation, observes Choi.
South Korea’s responses to Chinese coercion and intervention have been limited. There is a difference between the government and public in their response to China’s retaliatory measures. Compared to the government’s cautious approach, the public appeared to be quite firm, which might have made the Moon administration stick to the position inherited from the previous Park administration on THAAD. The many cases of Chinese interference and coercion have led South Koreans to change their perceptions and understanding of China. It is very unlikely for them to revert to the old romantic view of China. And the country is more likely to stand firm on Chinese interference in domestic affairs as well as external affairs. South Korea is less vulnerable than before 2010 and especially 2016 to China’s soft power. It is under pressure from hard power—exerted through economic means—but so far has resisted that well. The main danger may be coming from China’s increasing use of sharp power through sowing divisions, dangling financial carrots for nefarious purposes, and taking advantage of the openness of a democratic society.