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


One of Thailand’s most well-respected unbiased media shops indicators a content-sharing settlement with Chinese state media, pushing propaganda and outright disinformation about Hong Kong, Xinjiang and different delicate topics on unsuspecting Thai readers.

A Chinese-Malaysian tycoon buys up a lot of the Chinese-language media throughout Malaysia and creates a world media empire that’s pleasant in the direction of the Communist Party, flattening numerous views in a rustic the place just below 1 / 4 of the inhabitants is ethnic Chinese.

Across campuses within the United States, Chinese pupil associations linked to the Communist Party strain universities to cancel audio system and courses essential of Beijing, and compel their fellow change college students to toe the celebration line.

These are examples of “sharp power” — someplace between gentle and laborious energy — which is on the core of a brand new e book by Joshua Kurlantzick, Beijing’s Global Media Offensive.

Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia on the Council for Foreign Relations, notes that whereas lots of the locations focused in Southeast Asia have already got restricted media freedom, the identical techniques are at work in democracies with a vibrant free press, together with Taiwan, Australia and the US.

“China has built a giant influence and information apparatus,” Kurlantzick writes, warning that whereas many of those techniques have up to now been clumsy and ineffective, Beijing is repeatedly studying — each from its personal errors and from its more and more shut ally, Russia.

The e book serves as a warning, however it isn’t all doom and gloom; it additionally consists of some sensible steps democracies — and different international locations — can take to raised shield themselves in opposition to hostile info operations.

Al Jazeera spoke to Kurlantzick about his e book. The interview has been edited for size and readability.

Al Jazeera: Is there any stress between blocking Chinese info ops and sustaining a free society? How can democratic international locations counter Chinese affect with out infringing on fundamental rights? What about in Southeast Asia, the place “foreign interference” is commonly used as an excuse by governments to crack down on civil society and political opposition?  

Joshua Kurlantzick: Yes, there clearly is stress to some extent, however not if these operations are disinformation, which the key tech platforms — perhaps not Twitter now — attempt to police anyway. Disinformation operations being blocked doesn’t indicate any hazard to a free society. I do suppose free international locations can counter Chinese affect with out infringing on fundamental rights, though the US failed initially in a single main try, the Department of Justice’s China Initiative, which appeared to focus on Chinese nationals and Chinese Americans with out sufficient proof.

It is true that international interference has been cited by authoritarian regimes to crack down on civil society and opposition; that is clearly true in Southeast Asia. But there’s a distinction between making these claims — with no proof — and documenting in some element China’s wide-ranging, multi-tool efforts to contain itself in different international locations’ politics and societies.

Many of those efforts, like in Australia, have really been caught, whereas when authoritarian regimes make these claims, there’s typically no substantiation. With proof, that makes a distinction.

Al Jazeera: You describe Southeast Asia as one of many “early indicators” of the Chinese sharp energy technique. In what methods are international locations in Southeast Asia much less ready to cope with China’s sharp energy than Western democracies? Are there any methods wherein they might be extra ready?

Joshua Kurlantzick: I’m unsure all are much less ready. Singapore could be very ready and in some methods Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia are literally extra ready to cope with Chinese sharp energy, since they’re extra used to it.

Certainly, Taiwan has a long time of expertise and has been one of the profitable locations on this planet in countering Chinese sharp energy — growing digital literacy programmes, having unbiased media that basically examine and expose Chinese sharp energy, and different instruments.

I feel typically freer states are higher at exposing Chinese sharp energy, since it’s more durable for China to domesticate a small variety of elites in freer states and use sharp energy on a restricted variety of folks. Southeast Asia, regardless of having plenty of autocracies, is exclusive in its information of Chinese sharp energy and a few of its efforts to fight it, simply due to the lengthy historical past — and mutual enmity in locations like Vietnam for example.

Al Jazeera: You write that China’s affect and data equipment remains to be clumsy however turning into more and more subtle. Are there any examples you might spotlight? 

Joshua Kurlantzick: Sure, at first China was utilizing fairly blunt affect techniques in Thailand — large cultural reveals, pretty assertive op-eds by the ambassador in locations, cultivating the enterprise neighborhood with little pretence — typically interesting to them as “fellow Chinese” which is a typical tactic Beijing makes use of to make it appear to be all folks of Chinese descent ought to someway assist Beijing, which is after all ludicrous and completely unfaithful.

Beijing additionally had quite a lot of state media shops working in Thailand, however they had been getting very minimal viewership or readership. But this shifted to a extra subtle effort to get Thai folks to imbibe pro-China content material, as Beijing had Xinhua [China’s state news agency] signal a collection of content-sharing agreements with distinguished Thai shops, together with Matichon Group, most likely probably the most revered Thai language media group within the nation. So, Xinhua copy more and more started making its means into the Thai language media, and I feel many Thais didn’t realise it was a lot completely different than another newswire, as a result of most readers — in any nation, together with the US — don’t look that fastidiously at bylines. So, more and more, Xinhua copy, which is clearly pro-Beijing, is turning into widespread within the Thai press. Much extra subtle.

Al Jazeera: What are the principle kinds of Chinese gentle energy in Malaysia? What are the methods wherein Malaysia can be notably weak to Chinese affect or resilient to it, and what can Malaysia do to fight it?

Joshua Kurlantzick: China’s primary kinds of gentle energy in Malaysia, which have diminished because the 2018 election, nonetheless stay vital.

Much of the normal Chinese language press, which has a major variety of readers, stays managed by a Malaysian Chinese tycoon with shut enterprise hyperlinks to China, and who’s strongly pro-Beijing; the content material in these papers displays these views and doubtless influences some Malaysian Chinese readers.

Beijing additionally has organised giant numbers of journeys for Malaysian journalists of all stripes to China, and these could affect Malaysian journalists’ views of China, a minimum of earlier than the latest protests there was some proof they had been having an affect. China revamped a few of its BRI [Belt and Road Initiative] tasks after [former Prime Minister] Mahathir Mohamad’s criticism, and this most likely gained it some gentle energy in Malaysia, and total the lengthy historical past of diplomatic ties and the truth that China is Malaysia’s key buying and selling associate additionally bolster Beijing’s gentle energy in Malaysia.

In addition, many China-based messaging and social media apps, together with WeChat and TikTookay, have widespread penetration in Malaysia and revel in sturdy recognition, which additionally bolsters China’s gentle energy within the nation. Malaysia ought to fight a few of these efforts by making use of a lot higher scrutiny to paid-for journeys to China for journalists and different opinion leaders, in addition to strict scrutiny of BRI tasks, which it has more and more been doing, to its credit score.

The East Coast Rail Link attracted controversy over China’s function through the 2018 election [File: Hasnoor Hussain/Reuters]

The new Anwar [Ibrahim]-led authorities ought to protest each time China blocks Malaysian media that report critically on China, like Malaysiakini, from being accessible in China — one thing that has occurred many occasions. Anwar’s authorities ought to work to enhance residents’ digital literacy, and will assist establishing a press council for journalists that established clearer journalism ethics requirements.

Al Jazeera: You point out a number of occasions that the Ukraine War and up to date Taiwan Strait political tensions had been ongoing on the time you wrote the e book. As of immediately, are there any vital changes you’d make based mostly on how these crises have proceeded, or new points you’d level to? 

Joshua Kurlantzick: I did have time, really, to get these occasions into the e book, due to nice editors who allowed me so as to add stuff into the e book till the final minute. I feel whereas including them, their relevance was that each occasions sharply diminished China’s international public picture — together with its disastrous zero-COVID technique and weaker economic system — and made it more durable for China to succeed with its info and affect efforts.

For instance, China had made main inroads in wooing Central and Eastern Europe earlier than the Russia warfare — it had constructed very shut ties with a few of these international locations and gotten closely concerned in home politics. But after China sided with Russia, its relations with these European states cratered. So, each occasions had been dangerous for China’s international picture and its affect and data actions.

Newer points embrace, I feel, the persevering with zero-COVID technique, which is hindering China’s diplomacy and is angering many Chinese residents, and phrase of that is clearly getting out to the diaspora and to the international press.

Al Jazeera: How would possibly China-Russia cooperation evolve sooner or later? How would possibly it manifest typically, and in addition in Southeast Asia particularly? 

Joshua Kurlantzick: I feel it’s sensitive.

China’s more and more subtle disinformation, which has tried increasingly more to make use of current tensions in goal international locations, is almost absolutely realized from Russia, since China’s on-line efforts to sway narratives earlier than had been fairly clumsy at finest. And it’s true that Russia is making an attempt to play an even bigger function in Southeast Asia, particularly since it’s a main arms provider and a few international locations within the area nonetheless have their army platforms based mostly round Russian expertise.

But I feel that Russia shouldn’t be actually a internet optimistic for China now. It was prior to now — they might work collectively on disinformation, on gaining management of UN organisations, particularly those who set the phrases of the web, 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 admittedly hurting Beijing’s international picture — already dangerous — in so many locations.

Al Jazeera: Could you define among the particular sensible steps international locations can take to counter Chinese sharp energy?

Joshua Kurlantzick: I feel each liberal democracies and Southeast Asian international locations ought to take comparable steps to counter Chinese sharp energy. It could also be more durable for Southeast Asian international locations, however not unimaginable.

One, bolstering unbiased media, which is clearly solely potential in liberal democracies world wide and in some Southeast Asian states like Timor-Leste, Indonesia, Thailand, perhaps Malaysia, maybe a number of others relying on how Ferdinand Marcos Jr [President of the Philippines] handles the press.

Filipinos protest in opposition to a authorities order to shut on-line information website Rappler. The outlet, based by Nobel laureate Maria Ressa, is famend for its essential reporting [File: Jes Aznar/Getty Images]

Independent media, together with small shops that focus to some extent on analyzing sharp energy and disinformation, have been essential in locations like Taiwan and Thailand in uncovering Chinese sharp energy efforts, and are a terrific bulwark and pressure for transparency.

Second, each liberal democracies and most Southeast Asian states — clearly not Myanmar and Vietnam, and doubtless Brunei however many — can practice their residents in digital literacy, to assist them higher perceive disinformation on-line and recognise it. Taiwan, Finland, Italy and plenty of different international locations have adopted mannequin efforts to coach residents in digital literacy. This too is essential to combating sharp energy.

Third, liberal democracies, and a restricted variety of Southeast Asian states that might do that, ought to undertake commissions to assessment investments of a big measurement by any main international state buyers, and potential personal buyers, into delicate sectors. These sectors ought to embrace media and data. The US, Australia, Europe, Taiwan, and Singapore are already adopting these strategies and extra liberal democracies most likely will.

Fourth, liberal democracies ought to strengthen their very own democracies — albeit not a simple activity, and one too large to enter right here — to make for a clearer distinction with China’s mannequin.