China and Russia’s game of distortion

On Tuesday, top Trump administration intelligence officials testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the Russian government is continuing in its efforts to interfere in American elections and will likely target the 2018 Congressional midterms. The intelligence officials also noted that Moscow’s actions in the U.S. are part of a broader global effort and that China is also taking steps to expand its overseas influence.

The hearing made clear that more needs to be done, both to understand and to counter Chinese and Russian actions. In an important new report released last month, the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) called attention to China and Russia’s efforts to increase their global reach. That report, “Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence,” is one of the most authoritative studies to date on the ways in which China and Russia are developing a diverse tool kit to increase their overseas political influence.

What is sharp power? As NED defines it, it is a set of tools that manipulates or undermines democratic institutions and processes in order to increase a state’s influence in another country. Whereas soft power seeks to persuade and hard power seeks to coerce, sharp power twists, distorts and distracts. The payoff, when it comes, can be in various forms — specific changes to a government’s domestic policies, increased support at the United Nations or merely more positive public perceptions among a target country’s journalists, academics and politicians.

Through heavy investments in overseas media, academia, culture and think tanks, China and Russia seek to create a distorted picture of their own domestic politics and governance institutions, painting a positive picture of political systems that rely heavily on the traditional authoritarian tool kit in order to maintain their monopoly on power. At the same time, the two countries try to convey that their foreign policies create win-win outcomes and try to blunt criticism of steps on the international stage that might otherwise be seen as aggressive. Think of China’s efforts to assert more control over the South China Sea or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

For its part, Russia also looks to undercut positive views of Western-style democracy, particularly among states in Eastern Europe that have long viewed the U.S. as a key bulwark against potential Russian encroachment.

The impact of these tools can be particularly pronounced in regions that have not had much prior contact with the authoritarian state putting them to use. Take China’s efforts to expand its influence in Latin America, for example. Because many states in the region have little domestic expertise on China, Beijing’s efforts to define itself in the media and in the academic sphere face only limited resistance. The positive public perception that China creates through its heavy investments can then be leveraged to improve China’s influence among political elites.

Beijing’s heavy investments in regional media are particularly worthy of note. In 2016, for example, President Xi Jinping, speaking at the China-Latin America Media Leaders’ Summit in Chile, reinforced the need for deeper cooperation and collaboration between Chinese and Latin American media outlets. As part of China’s efforts to “show the world a more authentic and vibrant China,” Xi pledged that China would train 500 Latin American journalists over the coming five years.

Journalist training may sound relatively benign. But for Beijing, it often means something more akin to public relations or propaganda. In practice, foreign journalists are hosted by state-run media outlets or even Communist Party propaganda organs, which paint a positive picture of Chinese governance and politics and encourage foreign journalists to run stories with a sunny slant. Only the party’s point of view is provided, and contact with more critical voices is discouraged. Similar expenses-paid study tours have been implemented for think-tank researchers and academics from across Latin America, also with the goal of influencing the conversation in those circles.

At times, Beijing’s sharp power efforts have gone beyond propaganda, veering into outright manipulation of a country’s domestic politics. In 2017, for example, the New Zealand media disclosed that Yang Jian, who was elected to the New Zealand Parliament in 2011, had spent years working in China’s military intelligence sector before moving overseas. Yang did not disclose his military intelligence background when he applied for permanent residency status in New Zealand or for various jobs in New Zealand. Needless to say, his prior work history in China did not form a part of his political campaigns. As a member of parliament, Yang has access to sensitive government documents on New Zealand’s foreign policy and has played an active role in shaping the country’s increasingly warm approach to China.

States that are targets of China and Russia’s push need to take note: many of the efforts described in the “Sharp Power” report are likely to remain part of Chinese and Russian foreign policy for the foreseeable future.

What to do? Much of China and Russia’s overseas propaganda efforts can’t be stopped, at least not without compromising key democratic values like free speech. Rather than seeking to bar state-funded outlets like Russia Today or China Global Television Network, or prohibiting citizens from taking part in Chinese or Russian-funded study tours, targeted states instead need to increase their own spending on China and Russia studies. They need to cultivate independent experts who can offer unvarnished analysis and advice on China and Russia. At the same time, governments and others should also look to foster domestic debate on the use of sharp power tools in their own countries, to ensure that their citizens know that outreach by Beijing and Moscow is politically motivated and by no means altruistic.

When it comes to overt political manipulation, stronger measures are in order. States like New Zealand need to consider new laws that limit overseas contributions to political parties and candidates and that mandate more transparency for all donations, regardless of their source. Some states may also need to make better use of criminal law provisions on espionage or laws forbidding political corruption: criminal prosecution will likely do more to deter those acting on China and Russia’s behalf than media attention will. Governments should also make use of diplomatic channels to express their displeasure over such episodes directly to Beijing and Moscow.

It’s likely that, in the end, sharp power efforts by China and Russia will backfire. After all, no one likes being manipulated. Even more, efforts to interfere in domestic politics will likely do serious damage to Beijing and Moscow’s reputations, thus undermining the initial goal of image enhancement. But it will take time for such efforts to be exposed and for the manipulative elements of Chinese and Russian propaganda to be better understood by the public. In the meantime, it would be a mistake to adopt a wait-and-see attitude. States that are targeted by Chinese and Russian sharp-power moves need to fight back, starting now.

Thomas E. Kellogg is the executive director of the Georgetown Center for Asian Law.


This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.

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