Testimony to House Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on Asia and the Pacific
Shanthi Kalathil, Director, International Forum for Democratic Studies
March 21, 2018
Chairman Yoho, Ranking Member Sherman, thank you for the opportunity to testify before the subcommittee on this important issue.
My remarks today will focus on how a rising China has increasingly been able to wield influence that chills free expression within democracies around the world. Successfully controlling political speech and expression at home has morphed into a broader approach that seeks to manipulate, suppress and surveil expression and the free exchange of ideas outside China’s borders. This is not simply about “telling China’s story,” as Chinese authorities like to claim – it is also about shutting down a more contextualized version of China’s story, as well as suppressing at a global level the discussion of a growing number of issues that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) finds sensitive.
This has an impact on academic freedom at universities and schools around the world, on the international publishing sector, on communications infrastructure and independent media in developing countries, and on a free and open Internet. Beijing uniquely wields this influence due to China’s market appeal and growing stature, employing a combination of carrots and sticks. As Xi Jinping’s power consolidation and other events have demonstrated, China is moving in both a more authoritarian and a more global direction – which means these trends are likely to intensify.
Taking Domestic Tactics Overseas
With the advent of the Internet, many originally thought the Chinese government would find it impossible to control the political impact of communication within its borders. But the Internet has not only spread but flourished within China, all while the Chinese government has fine-tuned its management of politically sensitive expression. Since I first began studying this issue many years ago, the shape of the Internet within China has certainly changed, but the overall tactics used by the Chinese government have generally remained stable. First, technological innovation has enabled fine-grained censorship and increasing surveillance, now made possible by tremendous amounts of data collection in a weak rule-of-law environment. Second, while the actual censorship and surveillance apparatus is important, equally important is the inducement of self-censorship at all levels, which relies on fear and an implicit understanding of taboo issues. And finally, control and/or co-optation of the infrastructure of ideas and communication (including the actual pipes, the regulatory environment, and the private sector) is key, such that the interests of those innovating within and powering the information sector within China run parallel to – or, at the very least, not counter to – the interests of the Party.
Just as in the past with respect to the flow of information within China, many now also find it difficult to believe that the CCP can exert influence over expression and communication outside its borders. Yet what we learn from its existing domestic approach is that a) it works; and b) it is possible to use similar tactics on an international scale to dampen or distort the free exchange of ideas. As noted in the National Endowment for Democracy’s recent report on “sharp power,” authoritarian regimes inevitably project overseas the values they live by within their borders. This projection of influence has already had a chilling effect within democracies…