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Q&A: How China’s ‘sharp power’ is growing and evolving

Al Jazeera logo Al Jazeera 12/6/2022 Andrew Nachemson

One of Thailand’s most well-respected independent media outlets signs a content-sharing agreement with Chinese state media, pushing propaganda and outright disinformation about Hong Kong, Xinjiang and other sensitive subjects on unsuspecting Thai readers.

A Chinese-Malaysian tycoon buys up most of the Chinese-language media across Malaysia and creates a global media empire that is friendly towards the Communist Party, flattening diverse views in a country where just under a quarter of the population is ethnic Chinese.

Across campuses in the United States, Chinese student associations linked to the Communist Party pressure universities to cancel speakers and classes critical of Beijing, and compel their fellow exchange students to toe the party line.

These are examples of “sharp power” — somewhere between soft and hard power — which is at the core of a new book by Joshua Kurlantzick, Beijing’s Global Media Offensive.

Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council for Foreign Relations, notes that while many of the places targeted in Southeast Asia already have limited media freedom, the same tactics are at work in democracies with a vibrant free press, including Taiwan, Australia and the US.

“China has built a giant influence and information apparatus,” Kurlantzick writes, warning that while many of these tactics have so far been clumsy and ineffective, Beijing is continuously learning — both from its own mistakes and from its increasingly close ally, Russia.

The book serves as a warning, but it is not all doom and gloom; it also includes some practical steps democracies — and other countries — can take to better protect themselves against hostile information operations.

Al Jazeera spoke to Kurlantzick about his book. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Al Jazeera: Is there any tension between blocking Chinese information ops and maintaining a free society? How can democratic countries counter Chinese influence without infringing on basic rights? What about in Southeast Asia, where “foreign interference” is often used as an excuse by governments to crack down on civil society and political opposition?  

Joshua Kurlantzick: Yes, there clearly is tension to some extent, but not if those operations are disinformation, which the major tech platforms — maybe not Twitter now — try to police anyway. Disinformation operations being blocked doesn’t imply any danger to a free society. I do think free countries can counter Chinese influence without infringing on basic rights, although the US failed initially in one major attempt, the Department of Justice’s China Initiative, which seemed to target Chinese nationals and Chinese Americans without enough evidence.

It is true that foreign interference has been cited by authoritarian regimes to crack down on civil society and opposition; this is clearly true in Southeast Asia. But there’s a difference between making these claims — with no evidence — and documenting in some detail China’s wide-ranging, multi-tool efforts to involve itself in other countries’ politics and societies.

Many of these efforts, like in Australia, have actually been caught, whereas when authoritarian regimes make these claims, there is often no substantiation. With evidence, that makes a difference.

Al Jazeera: You describe Southeast Asia as one of the “early indicators” of the Chinese sharp power strategy. In what ways are countries in Southeast Asia less prepared to deal with China’s sharp power than Western democracies? Are there any ways in which they would be more prepared?

Joshua Kurlantzick: I’m not sure all are less prepared. Singapore is very prepared and in some ways Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia are actually more prepared to deal with Chinese sharp power, since they are more used to it.

Certainly, Taiwan has decades of experience and has been one of the most successful places in the world in countering Chinese sharp power — developing digital literacy programmes, having independent media that really investigate and expose Chinese sharp power, and other tools.

I think in general freer states are better at exposing Chinese sharp power, since it is harder for China to cultivate a small number of elites in freer states and use sharp power on a limited number of people. Southeast Asia, despite having a number of autocracies, is unique in its knowledge of Chinese sharp power and some of its efforts to combat it, just because of the long history — and mutual enmity in places like Vietnam for instance.

Al Jazeera: You write that China’s influence and information apparatus is still clumsy but becoming increasingly sophisticated. Are there any examples you could highlight? 

Joshua Kurlantzick: Sure, at first China was using pretty blunt influence tactics in Thailand — massive cultural shows, fairly assertive op-eds by the ambassador in places, cultivating the business community with little pretence — often appealing to them as “fellow Chinese” which is a common tactic Beijing uses to make it seem like all people of Chinese descent should somehow support Beijing, which is of course ludicrous and totally untrue.

Beijing also had a lot of state media outlets operating in Thailand, but they were getting very minimal viewership or readership. But this shifted to a more sophisticated effort to get Thai people to imbibe pro-China content, as Beijing had Xinhua [China’s state news agency] sign a series of content-sharing agreements with prominent Thai outlets, including Matichon Group, probably the most respected Thai language media group in the country. So, Xinhua copy increasingly began making its way into the Thai language media, and I think many Thais did not realise it was much different than any other newswire, because most readers — in any country, including the US — don’t look that carefully at bylines. So, increasingly, Xinhua copy, which is obviously pro-Beijing, is becoming widespread in the Thai press. Much more sophisticated.

Al Jazeera: What are the main types of Chinese soft power in Malaysia? What are the ways in which Malaysia would be particularly vulnerable to Chinese influence or resilient to it, and what can Malaysia do to combat it?

Joshua Kurlantzick: China’s main types of soft power in Malaysia, which have diminished since the 2018 election, still remain significant.

Much of the traditional Chinese language press, which has a significant number of readers, remains controlled by a Malaysian Chinese tycoon with close business links to China, and who is strongly pro-Beijing; the content in these papers reflects these views and probably influences some Malaysian Chinese readers.

Beijing also has organised large numbers of trips for Malaysian journalists of all stripes to China, and these may have an effect on Malaysian journalists’ views of China, at least before the recent protests there was some evidence they were having an impact. China revamped some of its BRI [Belt and Road Initiative] projects after [former Prime Minister] Mahathir Mohamad’s criticism, and this probably gained it some soft power in Malaysia, and overall the long history of diplomatic ties and the fact that China is Malaysia’s key trading partner also bolster Beijing’s soft power in Malaysia.

In addition, many China-based messaging and social media apps, including WeChat and TikTok, have widespread penetration in Malaysia and enjoy strong popularity, which also bolsters China’s soft power in the country. Malaysia should combat some of these efforts by applying much greater scrutiny to paid-for trips to China for journalists and other opinion leaders, as well as strict scrutiny of BRI projects, which it has increasingly been doing, to its credit.

The East Coast Rail Link attracted controversy over China’s role during the 2018 election [File: Hasnoor Hussain/Reuters] © Provided by Al Jazeera The East Coast Rail Link attracted controversy over China’s role during the 2018 election [File: Hasnoor Hussain/Reuters]

The new Anwar [Ibrahim]-led government should protest every time China blocks Malaysian media that report critically on China, like Malaysiakini, from being accessible in China — something that has happened many times. Anwar’s government should work to improve citizens’ digital literacy, and should support setting up a press council for journalists that established clearer journalism ethics standards.

Al Jazeera: You mention a few times that the Ukraine War and recent Taiwan Strait political tensions were ongoing at the time you wrote the book. As of today, are there any significant adjustments you’d make based on how those crises have proceeded, or new issues you’d point to? 

Joshua Kurlantzick: I did have time, actually, to get those events into the book, thanks to great editors who allowed me to add stuff into the book until the very last minute. I think while adding them, their relevance was that both events sharply diminished China’s global public image — along with its disastrous zero-COVID strategy and weaker economy — and made it harder for China to succeed with its information and influence efforts.

For example, China had made major inroads in wooing Central and Eastern Europe before the Russia war — it had built very close ties with some of those countries and gotten heavily involved in domestic politics. But after China sided with Russia, its relations with those European states cratered. So, both events were bad for China’s global image and its influence and information activities.

Newer issues include, I think, the continuing zero-COVID strategy, which is hindering China’s diplomacy and is angering many Chinese citizens, and word of this is obviously getting out to the diaspora and to the foreign press.

Al Jazeera: How might China-Russia cooperation evolve in the future? How might it manifest in general, and also in Southeast Asia specifically? 

Joshua Kurlantzick: I think it’s touchy.

China’s increasingly sophisticated disinformation, which has tried more and more to use existing tensions in target countries, is almost surely learned from Russia, since China’s online efforts to sway narratives before were quite clumsy at best. And it’s true that Russia is trying to play a bigger role in Southeast Asia, especially since it is a major arms supplier and some countries in the region still have their military platforms based around Russian technology.

But I think that Russia is not really a net positive for China now. It was in the past — they could work together on disinformation, on gaining control of UN organisations, especially those that set the terms of the internet, and use them to foster acceptance of closed and monitored internets. But Russia is such a pariah now that Beijing’s relationship with Moscow is really hurting Beijing’s global image — already bad — in so many places.

Al Jazeera: Could you outline some of the specific practical steps countries can take to counter Chinese sharp power?

Joshua Kurlantzick: I think both liberal democracies and Southeast Asian countries should take similar steps to counter Chinese sharp power. It may be harder for Southeast Asian countries, but not impossible.

One, bolstering independent media, which is obviously only possible in liberal democracies around the world and in some Southeast Asian states like Timor-Leste, Indonesia, Thailand, maybe Malaysia, perhaps a few others depending on how Ferdinand Marcos Jr [President of the Philippines] handles the press.

Filipinos protest against a government order to close online news site Rappler. The outlet, founded by Nobel laureate Maria Ressa, is renowned for its critical reporting [File: Jes Aznar/Getty Images] © Provided by Al Jazeera Filipinos protest against a government order to close online news site Rappler. The outlet, founded by Nobel laureate Maria Ressa, is renowned for its critical reporting [File: Jes Aznar/Getty Images]

Independent media, including small outlets that focus to some extent on examining sharp power and disinformation, have been critical in places like Taiwan and Thailand in uncovering Chinese sharp power efforts, and are a great bulwark and force for transparency.

Second, both liberal democracies and most Southeast Asian states — obviously not Myanmar and Vietnam, and probably Brunei but many — can train their citizens in digital literacy, to help them better understand disinformation online and recognise it. Taiwan, Finland, Italy and many other countries have adopted model efforts to educate citizens in digital literacy. This too is critical to combating sharp power.

Third, liberal democracies, and a limited number of Southeast Asian states that could do this, should adopt commissions to review investments of a large size by any major foreign state investors, and possible private investors, into sensitive sectors. These sectors should include media and information. The US, Australia, Europe, Taiwan, and Singapore are already adopting these methods and more liberal democracies probably will.

Fourth, liberal democracies should strengthen their own democracies — albeit not an easy task, and one too big to go into here — to make for a clearer contrast with China’s model.

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