Testimony to U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission
Christopher Walker, Vice president for studies and analysis, national endowment for democracy
April 5, 2018
I would like to thank all of the Commissioners for the opportunity and privilege of presenting testimony to the Commission on this timely and critical subject.
The present period of authoritarian resurgence has caught the democracies by surprise. This is in part due to a flawed assumption that took hold at the close of the Cold War: that engagement with authoritarian states would result in clear mutual benefit. By embracing regimes such as the one in Beijing, inviting its integration into the global economic system and key political institutions, the United States and other established democracies hoped to encourage China toward meaningful political reform and, eventually, to liberalize and democratize. But in an unanticipated twist, China and other influential authoritarian regimes have turned the tables on the democracies. Rather than reforming, China and other repressive regimes have deepened their authoritarianism. And now they are turning it outward.
Although China and other authoritarian regimes have in many ways integrated into global financial and political institutions, they have not become more like the democracies. Rather, they have developed policies and practices aimed at containing and contesting democracy and the ideas that underlie it. Exploiting globalization and the opportunities presented by integration with the West, China has set out to reshape the very institutions and arenas that welcomed it. The Chinese authorities have even put forward their conception of “Globalization 2.0”: a vision of Party/Statedriven international economic cooperation epitomized by the “Belt and Road Initiative.” These developments are of high relevance to U.S. allies and partners around the globe, including those in Europe.
From “Soft” to “Sharp” Power
In the Cold War’s aftermath, analysts, journalists, scholars, and policymakers in the democracies perceived authoritarian influence efforts through the familiar lens of “soft power.” According to political scientist Joseph S. Nye’s definition, a country’s “hard power” is based on coercion and is largely a function of military or economic might. “Soft power,” by contrast, is rooted in attraction, and arises from the positive appeal of a country’s culture, political ideals, or policies.
Beijing seeks to shape public perceptions, sentiments, and opinions overseas to an extent that simply would not have been possible a decade or more ago. With the rapid growth of the internet and social media, and the integration of authoritarian information outlets into the media spaces of democracies, the opportunities to exert influence abroad are greater today than at any time in the recent past.
But those who interpret these efforts as a way for Beijing to boost its “soft power” miss the mark and risk perpetuating a false sense of security. The forms of influence that the Chinese authorities have emphasized in recent years are not “hard,” but they are not really “soft,” either. Authoritarian regimes like the one in Beijing view power projection and the notion of success in world politics in a way that cannot be divorced from the political values by which these states govern at home.
A clearer picture of the Chinese authorities’ intentions can be gleaned from China’s domestic political and media landscape. In the decade since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese authorities have intensified their suppression of dissent, silenced political opponents, inundated their citizens with propagandistic content, and deftly co-opted independent voices, all while working to maintain the appearance of pluralism, openness, and modernity. In recent years, the realm of ideas in China has been steadily monopolized by the state and its surrogates. The CCP’s announcement in March 2018 that it would merge a constellation of broadcasters into one state-controlled entity is emblematic of this trend to manage and manipulate information within and beyond China’s borders. This new entity, Voice of China, strengthens the Party’s grip on public perceptions, while seeking to “propagate the theories, political line and policies of the party . . . and [to] tell China’s story well.”
Given the ways in which such authoritarian influence efforts have taken shape, what we have to date understood as “soft power” when speaking in the context of authoritarian regimes might be more properly labeled “sharp power,” whose key attributes are outward-facing censorship and manipulation, rather than persuasion and attraction.
As my colleagues at the International Forum for Democratic Studies noted in our December 2017 report, “Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence,” authoritarian influence efforts are “sharp” in the sense that they pierce, penetrate, or perforate the information and political environments of targeted countries. The growing inventory of tools used by repressive regimes are not “soft” in that they seek merely to attract support. These tools are not principally aimed at “charming” or “winning hearts and minds”—the common frames of reference for “soft power” efforts—but they are surely designed to manipulate their target audiences by shaping the information that reaches them. Indeed, such tactics should be seen as instruments of manipulation, distortion, and distraction that reflect the antidemocratic political systems of the authoritarian states that wield them.
There is clearly nothing “soft” about how these regimes treat the media, education, and the realm of ideas in their domestic environments. Should we view their outward-facing activities differently?