“Soft power” is defined as the ability to attract and co-opt rather than to use coercion, force or give money as a means of persuasion. In other words, soft power is a nation’s ability to shape others via appeal and attraction, which could include culture, political values and foreign policies. China is certainly exerting soft power around the globe, although serious questions exist over its methods and degree of success. In contrast to the above definition, money forms a core technique of China’s plan to win friends, with numerous countries benefiting from financial aid. President Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative is another national tentacle to expand its economic and infrastructure reach.
Panama’s recent decision to change diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China is one example of China’s ability to influence smaller nations. However, despite all these aforementioned efforts, China can exhibit a very thin skin. Indeed, it typically reacts strongly to any perceived criticism. The main difficulty for the leadership and its citizens is that the identities of the People’s Republic of China and of the Communist Party of China (CCP) are inextricably linked. To criticize one is tantamount to attacking the other.
Because the CCP needs justification for its authoritarian one-party rule, it is extremely sensitive to criticism both from within and without its borders. Earlier this month, for example, the Pentagon released its annual assessment of China’s military capability. China responded angrily, with Zhao Weibin from the PLA Academy of Military Sciences complaining it was “full of clichés in exaggeration and criticism about China’s normal military development”.
China’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) also accused the report of being speculative. MND spokesman Wu Qian said, “China is committed to peaceful development and defense-oriented security policies” and that it “neither seeks military expansion nor a sphere of influence, and [it] will always be a firm force in maintaining world peace”. “We hope the U.S. will view China’s defense construction and military development in a rational and objective manner,” Wu pointedly concluded.
In fact, the Pentagon report was extremely measured, and many pundits in the West were frustrated because it did not go far enough in highlighting the capability expansion of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The extreme sensitivity of Chinese people was recently illustrated when student Shuping Yang praised the fresh air in the U.S.A. with her college commencement speech. She exulted, “But when I took my first breath of American air, I put my mask away. The air was so sweet and fresh and utterly luxurious.”
She also drew parallels with freedom of speech: “I have learned the right to freely express oneself is sacred in America”. However, her comments caused a storm of protest amongst netizens at home. One accused her of being “successfully brainwashed by the American education system”. Such was the fury directed at Shuping that she apologized on Weibo: “I completely had no intention of demeaning or saying something negative about my country…” Yet such reactions are typical for any supposed slight against China. Citizens are very quick to take offense and to defend their nation’s honor.
How different this is to the U.S.A., where criticizing and making fun of President Donald Trump has become a national pastime, or in the UK, where newspaper headlines spoke of “Mayhem” after the shock election results earlier this month. The CCP appears unable to take even mild criticism, let alone the robust cut and thrust that freedom of speech in the West relies upon. This is true at an individual level, as the hapless Shuping demonstrated, as well as at the state level.
There is thus a fatal vulnerability to Chinese soft power, where people bristle at the slightest critique. Take, as another example, recent news reports in Australia detailing close dalliances between the CCP and student groups, academic institutions and Australian politicians. These allegations obviously go deeper than the mere wielding of soft power, but they do show the lengths Beijing is going to exert influence on others. Indeed, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) has commenced an investigation into foreign attempts to influence Australian politics.
Duncan Lewis, the ASIO’s director-general of security, told a senate committee, “Espionage and foreign interference continue to occur on an unprecedented scale and this has the potential to cause serious harm to the nation’s sovereignty, the integrity of our political system, our national security capabilities, our economy and other interests.” Political parties have accepted donations from Chinese sources, and politicians have accepted junkets to China.
Attorney General George Brandis revealed, “The threat of political interference by foreign intelligence services is a problem of the highest order and it is getting worse. Espionage and covert foreign interference by nation states is a global reality which can cause immense harm to our national sovereignty, to the safety of our people, our economic prosperity, and to the very integrity of our democracy.”
Furthermore, former Chinese diplomat Chen Yonglin, who defected to Australia in 2005, warned that Beijing was operating a network of “over 1,000 Chinese secret agents and informants in Australia”. He predicted this number will have grown larger in the intervening period. However, the Global Times responded to these Australian media reports, saying it was “loose speculation and evidence-less conclusions”. China’s Foreign Ministry also waded in, complaining the reports were “groundless and extremely irresponsible”. Yet, there is evidence that the CCP has set up networks at universities to control Chinese students.
Li Yuanhua, a former history professor in Australia, stated, “Many student groups directly take orders from the Chinese consulates. The consulates assign them tasks and provide funding, such as welcoming CCP leaders. They also oppose those they think are detrimental to the regime or work to instil so-called patriotism. Students do not realize they act as spies. Many provide information to the CCP without thinking.” Li added, “The CCP threatens its people by means of terror and suppresses people’s thoughts overseas. It does this so that they cannot think freely or speak freely. The CCP also threatens those who express their thoughts.”
Dr. Chongyi Feng, an associate professor in China studies at Sydney’s University of Technology, was detained when he visited China in March. After his eventual release, he warned that the CCP is taking advantage of the “institutional arrangements of liberal democracy to promote its communist ideology”. It has done so in Australia by molding Chinese-language media. Whether by coercion or favor, Beijing puppet masters “have created financial and political imperatives for overseas Chinese media outlets to toe the party line and ‘tell the China story well’ on behalf of the party,” according to Chongyi.
He noted, “Given that most Chinese migrants in Australia rely on the Chinese media for information and cultural guidance, the CCP’s domination of Chinese local media means they are still living in the state ideology of the Chinese Communist regime. This, in turn, leads to widespread cognitive dissonance, a psychological disorder that automatically eliminates unpleasant facts and inconvenient truths that are readily available.”
Chongyi explained that China uses civil society organizations as an extension of its power. Examples are the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, and the Australian Federation of Overseas Chinese Associations that has the backing of the consulate-general in Sydney. In addition, government or Chinese money funds certain organizations on Australian campuses, including Confucius institutes and the Australia-China Relations Institute. This helps shape public perceptions favourable to the CCP.
There is a well-worn mantra that the CCP-led China into a great revival and that Xi Jinping has initiated a great rejuvenation of the Chinese people despite hostile foreign forces that are trying to keep China down. This is a repetitive strain, and certainly, it is often heard in Hong Kong but always without any evidence to back it up.
The party narrative also highlights how the CCP has lifted 300 million people from poverty since the 1980s, and that, without strong leadership, the nation will descend into chaos. It is ironic that nobody asks why it took until the 1980s for China to begin modernizing. What was the glorious Communist Party doing for the first 30 years of its existence? Of course, history records that a despotic CCP regime caused millions of deaths. Even now, the cost of economic development has been heavy under the CCP. There is widespread corruption and nepotism (where often party membership is seen as nothing more than a tool to personal advancement), social injustices, a moral vacuum, censorship on any form of speech, and routine violations of human rights.
Moving to another facet of China’s international appeal, or lack of it, innumerable leaders such as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada repeatedly stressed the need for a “rules-based international order” at the 16th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in May. China’s refusal to abide by the findings of the Permanent Court of Arbitration regarding its territorial claims and construction of military bases in the South China Sea has created unease. The clear sentiment across Asia is that China represents a threat to accepted norms, and that it has been throwing its weight around to coerce neighbors.
Certainly, pathetic reasoning such as the following from the China Daily should be rejected outright: “If US warships continue to patrol the waters off the Nansha Islands under the garb of ‘freedom of navigation’, China will have to firmly safeguard its sovereignty and security, including fortifying its territorial waters in the South China Sea.” Everyone knows that China planned to fortify its reclaimed reefs no matter how the USA reacted. In response to complaints aimed at Beijing at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Chinese media pointed its finger right back and said the USA, not China, was the source of instability.