Who’s Afraid of China’s Influence?

What is most notable about China’s efforts to spread its influence abroad is not their success, but the ease with which they are exposed. Portraying these efforts as a genuine threat to the world's democracies not only betrays the West’s insecurity, but also gives China more credit than it deserves.

Minxin Pei  

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HONG KONG – Since the Cold War ended, the West has invested huge amounts of resources in efforts to induce political liberalization in China, including through programs to promote the rule of law, civil society, transparency, and government accountability. The results have been disappointing. Far from becoming more democratic, China has lately been backsliding toward hard-line authoritarianism. And now it is investing resources in efforts to do some inducing of its own in the world’s democracies.

China’s influence-peddling in the West has been the subject of media reports and think tank studies, and has elicited the concern of high-profile politicians, from US Vice President Mike Pence to former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. China’s “influence operations,” they argue, include cultivating ties with Western politicians, establishing Confucius Institutes around the world to promote Chinese language and culture, expanding the global reach of China’s official propaganda networks, and donations to and exchange programs with academic institutions.

How should Western liberal democracies confront a China that is taking a page from their own playbook, as it exploits their openness to advance its ideological and geopolitical objectives?

For starters, Western leaders and institutions should distinguish between state-sponsored activities and legitimate, mutually beneficial cultural, civic, and educational exchanges among private citizens and entities.

To be sure, the Communist Party of China’s sophisticated “United Front” operation – which focuses on neutralizing opposition to its policies and authority, inside and outside China – often relies on private citizens to achieve its objectives. Private actors also have informal incentives to curry favor with China’s rulers by behaving in CPC-friendly ways. As a result, even ostensibly independent or private activities can carry political and reputational risks for Western organizations, which may be accused of acting as “agents of influence” for China.

But that does not mean that Western entities should reject outright any opportunity for cooperation with Chinese entities and individuals. Such an approach would not only cause Western organizations and individuals to miss out on valuable opportunities; it also would strengthen the CPC’s capacity to control the flow of information, manipulate public opinion, and shape popular narratives.

So while the West must exercise vigilance, it should avoid overreaction. A donation from a Chinese state-owned enterprise to, say, a Western academic or cultural institution must be handled with extraordinary care, if not rejected outright, because it could compromise the recipient’s reputation or constrain its freedom. But a gift from a wealthy Chinese businessperson should be welcomed, as long as it is transparent and includes no conditions that would infringe on the recipient’s mission.1

In fact, transparency is one of the most powerful mechanisms for protecting Western democratic processes from Chinese influence operations. For example, public-disclosure requirements regarding the sources and conditions of donations to politicians, political parties, and civic and academic institutions, as well as ownership stakes in media assets, would make it much harder for the Chinese government to exert its influence through ostensibly private actors. A shared code of conduct for dealing with China would also help to ensure that democratic values are upheld in any deal or collaboration.

Upholding these values also means that Western governments must take care to avoid another kind of overreaction: targeting their societies’ own citizens of Chinese origin. Given China’s long record of exploiting its diaspora for economic and political gain, some in the West will be tempted to look upon all ethnic Chinese with suspicion, exposing them to discrimination and potentially even subjecting them to surveillance.

But allowing ethnic Chinese to be harassed, intimidated, or punished for exercising their civil and political rights – say, by making political donations or speaking out on issues that matter to them, including those related to China – would be a grave injustice. It would also be self-defeating strategically: the soft but intense power of the democratic values that the West claims to defend constitutes the most effective defense against Chinese influence operations.

Western institutions benefit from unparalleled resilience, thanks to the liberal-democratic values that underpin them. They cannot be easily subverted by an authoritarian regime, no matter how many cultural exchanges or language institutes it builds. In fact, what is most notable about China’s efforts to spread its influence abroad is not their success, but the ease with which they are exposed. Portraying them as a genuine threat to the world’s democracies not only betrays the West’s own insecurity, but also gives China more credit than it deserves.


Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the author of China’s Crony Capitalism.

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