Hard Edges of China’s Soft Power Projection Meeting Increasing Resistance

CCP General Secretary speaks next to Tung Chee-Hwa, head of the China United States Exchange Foundation and current Vice-Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a key PRC political advisory body.

The hard edges of China’s global soft power projection have been put under the microscope in a June 19 White House document entitled How China’s Economic Aggression Threatens the Technologies and Intellectual Property of the United States and the World. The 35-page statement, attributed to White House economic adviser Peter Navarro, accuses the Chinese party-and-state apparatus of using spies, hackers, state-owned enterprises, front companies, as well as ethnic Chinese scholars and students resident in the US to “threaten the technologies and intellectual property of the United States and the world.” The paper asserts that the People’s Liberation Army and state-security units have dispatched personnel (including scholars and students) numbering in the tens of thousands to the US and other countries so as to “access the crown jewels of American technology and intellectual property” (Apple Daily [Hong Kong], June 21; The White House, June 19).

Along with numerous reports in the Western media about PRC efforts to buy cultural and political influence in the US, the EU, and Australia, the White House document speaks to increasing awareness of the hard edges of Chinese soft power projection: namely, gathering intelligence and pilfering IPR so as to speed up China’s transition to a full-fledged superpower. Espionage, illegal IPR acquisition, and influence peddling have become part and parcel of China’s soft power push. The result has been an unprecedented pushback from Western nations.

In theory, intelligence gathering should be distinguished from soft power projection, which is often defined as the practice of amplifying and spreading the attractive aspects of a country’s cultural quintessence to the rest of the world. In practice, this is not always the case. Well-known Sinologist David Shambaugh estimates that the Party-state apparatus spends about $10 billion annually on soft power projection (Asia Times, March 3). This raft of initiatives and projects include many activities that fall outside the traditional rubric of soft power, among them: sending 300,000 students and scholars to study or do research in the US; recruiting some of these students/scholars as “nonconventional gatherers” of intelligence; copious donations by PRC multinational corporations to influential politicians and universities in the West; obtaining the IPR of Western tech firms through illegal means; buying supplements in popular Western newspapers and magazines; vastly expanding the foreign-language services of PRC state television and news agencies; and stopping “anti-Chinese” books and videos from being published overseas (China Digital Times, January 7; South China Morning Post, July 31, 2017.)

The United States and Australia have been at the forefront of pushback against these practices. From the beginning of its term the Trump White House has singled out Chinese multinationals—especially high-tech firms—accused of stealing IPR belonging to US tech companies. During the past year, however, Washington has also begun to address potential threats to American national security from groups such as PRC students and businesspeople. In Congressional testimony earlier this year, FBI Director Christopher Wray said his agency believed that a portion of PRC students and scholars in the United States could be functioning as spies. He characterized naivete in American universities about the intelligence risk of Chinese “nontraditional collectors [of intelligence], especially in the academic setting” as widespread, adding that the PRC favored a “whole-of-society” approach to espionage (South China Morning Post, February 14; TheDailyBeast.com, February 13). Concerns about student spies and the relatively tight supervision of PRC students exercised by Chinese missions in the US have led the White House to consider curtailing the number of visas offered to PRC students specializing in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics. As a first step, the State Department has begun to restrict the length of renewable visa terms offered to PRC graduate students studying cutting-edge technologies like AI, robotics, and DNA engineering (South China Morning Post, May 30; Insidehighered.com, May 30).

The spotlight has also been thrown on donations made by PRC- or US-based businesses and organizations associated with the United Front Work Department, which supervises the country’s soft power projection (China Brief, April 24). Last January, the University of Texas at Austin refused a donation from the China United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF). CUSEF is headed by Tung Chee-hwa, former Chief Executive of Hong Kong and current Vice-Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). While supposedly only a government consultative body, the CPPCC, which is headed by Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Yang, has traditionally played a major role in the party-state’s global united front work (Radio Free Asia, January 19; Washington Post, January 14). Moreover, a bipartisan group of 26 Congressional representatives have asked Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to investigate whether IT giant Huawei Corporation illegally obtained IPR through its donations to scientific projects and foundations in a host of American universities (Voice of America, June 20; Sfgate.com, June 20).

Canberra has also taken extraordinary measures to curb PRC lobbying—and PRC soft power projection in general—since the 2015 release of a documentary on PRC influence-peddling in Australia, produced by the Fairfax media group with the help of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), Australia’s equivalent of the US FBI. The piece exposed how PRC-born business moguls sought to influence Australia politics by making hefty donations to politicians from major parties. These businessmen, who in many cases had become naturalized Australian citizens, also supported pro-Beijing Chinese newspapers and the research of PRC-friendly academics (ABC.net.au, June 5, 2017; Sydney Morning Herald, June 5, 2017).

The exposure from the Fairfax report did not put an end to the PRC’s efforts to shape Australian discourse on China. In early June, officials from the PRC consulate in Sydney tried to kill a segment of a popular news magazine. The segment reported on PRC attempts to build a dual-use port on Vanuatu through loans that would be difficult for Vanuatu to repay. Saixian Cao, the PRC embassy’s head of media affairs, reportedly yelled over the phone at 60 Minutes producer Kirsty Thomson, telling her, “there must be no more misconduct in the future.” The program rejected Cao’s demand (Businessinsider.com, June 21; Radio Free Asia, June 20).

Canberra has struck back ferociously. On June 28, the Australian government passed a National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill, which places strong restrictions on foreign agents, including companies, government institutions and individuals, that would threaten Australian national security through donations, espionage and other forms of undue foreign interference (Sydney Morning Herald, June 7; Attorneygeneral.gov.au, March 6). The law was passed despite the fact that the PRC remains Australia’s largest trading partner, and the PRC government has responded by slow-walking visa applications for senior Australian ministers wishing to visit the PRC.

What has perhaps most alienated Western countries is the readiness with which PRC authorities have openly violated international law by dispatching their state security agents to harass—or even kidnap—both foreign and PRC-born critics of the CCP. Early this year, the home of New Zealand academic Anne-Marie Brady was broken into and some of her possessions stolen, including cell phones and computers. The burglary of her home came two months after a similar break-in in her office. An authority on China’s united-front and propaganda departments, Brady published in 2017 a monograph on how Beijing is using “soft power” to influence foreign governments and silence its critics. Brady noted that in 2015, Chinese embassy officials had tried to put pressure on the University of Canterbury, her employer, to stop her research on the CCP (Stuff.co.nz, February 16; Radionz.co.nz, February 16). The harassment of Brady followed in the wake of the 2015 kidnapping in Pattaya, Thailand, of Hong Kong-based publisher Gui Minhai, a PRC-born Swedish citizen, by agents from PRC security services. After his release from jail late last year, police repeatedly prevented PRC-based Swedish diplomats from helping Gui leave the country (Hong Kong Economic Times, January 23; Radio Free Asia, January 22).  

A recent report by the New York-based Council on Foreign Policy pointed out that, while China’s image has improved in developing countries, the effectiveness of “China’s soft power campaign is limited by the dissonance between the image that China aspires to project and the country’s actions.” (CFR.org, February 19). After all, the aspects of Chinese culture frequently cited by CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping—a melange of Confucian norms and the “core values of socialism with Chinese characteristics—do not jibe well with the image projected by the activities of PRC diplomats and state security agents posted abroad.   

Yet perhaps the most important factor behind the diminution of PRC soft power is that the Xi administration’s aggressive hard-power projection has raised legitimate questions about the country’s peaceful intent. Take for example, Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, billed as a Chinese way to help the world attain a “community of common destiny.” According to an open letter written by 27 EU ambassadors in Beijing, 89 percent of BRI projects are controlled by Chinese conglomerates, rather than carried out in partnership with local stakeholders. The senior diplomats complained that the BRI “runs counter to the EU agenda for liberalizing trade and pushes the balance of power in favor of subsidized Chinese companies” (Handelsblatt.com, April 17).

President Xi’s trademark liangjian (“brandishing the sword”) diplomacy has been more brazen, and more rattling, when deployed against China’s non-Western neighbors in the Indo-Pacific Region. In the past few months, sophisticated weapons, including nuclear-capable, long-range bombers have been deployed to South China Sea islets whose sovereignty is disputed by a host of Southeast Asian countries (Nikkei Asian Review, June 13; Asean.thenewslens.com, May 21). In Vietnam, a draft law that would create three special economic zones where investors from China and other countries could lease land up to 99 years elicited the most vehement anti-Chinese demonstrations since 2014. Protestors were worried that the statute would favor what they perceived to be exploitative Chinese corporations (BBC Chinese Service, June 11; Radio Free Asia, June 11). The unrest in Vietnam serves to underscore that no amount of well-meaning soft power projection will buy the PRC friendship as long as Xi and other top leaders continue to seek superpower status through “sword-brandishing” methods incompatible with global norms.   

Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies, the History Department and the Program of Master’s in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books on China, including “Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping (Routledge 2015).”