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China’s Subtle Soft Power Means It Thinks The US Is A Paper Tiger


With the impending abolition of term limits in China, the coronation of Xi Jinping as the modern Mao is complete.

Xi’s consolidation of power has led to a flurry of articles taking stock of the tangible power of his regime. Many have focused on China’s staggering qualitative and quantitative advances militarily, its aggression in the South China Sea and its “One Belt, One Road” economic initiative.

While Mao said that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” Xi evidently understands that ideological and economic power goes hand in hand with and supplements military might.

Admiral Harry Harris, outgoing Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, left America with a disconcerting message regarding Xi’s China in his final Feb. 14, 2018 testimony to the House Armed Services Committee:

China’s ongoing military buildup, advancement, and modernization are core elements of their strategy to supplant the U.S. as the security partner of choice for countries in the Indo-Pacific, but China also holds clear global ambitions. But don’t take my word for it. Just listen to what China says itself: At the 19th Party Congress, President Xi stated he wanted China to develop a “world class” military and become a “global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence.”

… China’s intent is crystal clear. We ignore it at our peril.

It is evident that China wishes to dominate in its “near abroad.” But Harris’ assessment of China’s “global ambitions,” and its desire for “international influence” should likewise concern us. When it comes to evaluating how far along China is in achieving these ends, Beijing’s actions speak louder than words — and these actions are quite alarming.

One might point first to China’s devastating 2015 hack of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, yielding the deepest personal information of over 20 million government and government-affiliated individuals, as indicative of its global ambitions for international influence. This was an absolute coup creating opportunities to recruit assets, blackmail and gain powerful leverage over current and former public officials, their families and friends. This followed China’s apparent successful efforts to literally kill U.S. espionage on Chinese soil.

But perhaps the more insidious and telling element of Chinese power projection abroad does not concern efforts to steal our secrets or prevent us from stealing theirs, but China’s more subtle affronts.

In 2017 the invaluable National Association of Scholars (NAS), a network of scholars and citizens dedicated to defending academic freedom and liberal arts education, released a landmark report on China’s Confucius Institutes.

One way to describe the more than 100 such Institutes opened on college campuses throughout the U.S. since 2005 is as research and teaching centers dedicated to educating Americans in Chinese language and culture. Another way to describe these purported “cultural exchange” centers is as Chinese overseas propaganda fronts, as Li Changchun, former head of propaganda for the Communist Party, admitted openly in a 2009 Economist article.

The NAS report writes of educational centers subject to Chinese law while operating in the U.S., under full control of the Chinese Ministry of Education and dedicated to putting forth a Chinese government-approved curriculum. The Party-approved teachers whitewash or ignore facts on politics and human rights abuses damaging to the nation’s image, while treating disputed territories as China’s own.

NAS’ Rachelle Peterson, author of the Confucius Institutes report, illustrates the nature of the centers with a profoundly sad anecdote: “The Chinese director of one Institute told me that if a student asked about Tiananmen Square, she would ‘show a picture and point out the beautiful architecture.’”

The Trojan Horse nature of the Confucius Institutes was brought into firm relief during a recent Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in which the FBI asserted it is investigating the centers not only as influence operations, but also as potential enablers of covert spying. Hopefully, the U.S. government will take action commensurate with the threat.

During the hearing, FBI Director Wray notably added that foreign powers generally are using “nontraditional [intelligence] collectors — especially in the academic setting, whether it’s professors, scientists, students … exploiting the very open research-and-development environment that we have,” due in part to the “naiveté” of academics regarding the aims of foreign nationals in U.S. educational institutions.

But it is not just in the realm of academia where China is subtly exerting soft power. Recently, China has threatened corporations who do not hew to the Communist Party line.

In January 2018, Marriott International had the temerity to send a survey email to members of its rewards club listing Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet and Macau as independent countries as opposed to Chinese territories. A U.S.-based Marriott employee “liked” a tweet endorsing Tibetan independence using a corporate Twitter account. The Chinese government reacted angrily, forcing Marriott to shut down its six Chinese websites and mobile applications for a week. The offending tweeter faced disciplinary action.

In an episode reminiscent of a hostage begging for mercy on state-run television for a crime he never committed, the president and managing director of Marriott’s Asia-Pacific office was quoted in China Daily saying, “This is a huge mistake, probably one of the biggest in my career.”

Marriott’s CEO bowed to Chinese pressure as well, in a statement reading in part: “Marriott International respects and supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China … we don’t support anyone who subverts the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China and we do not intend in any way to encourage or incite any such people or groups. We recognize the severity of the situation and sincerely apologize.”

Marriott was not alone. The fashion company Zara had a dropdown menu on its site similarly listing territories as distinct from China. The automaker Audi featured a map in presentation during its annual meeting depicting Taiwan and Tibet as separate and apart from China. The Chinese government rebuked them. These businesses joined more than two dozen other corporations facing a backlash from the Chinese government — including airlines Delta and Qantas and medical device maker Medtronic — over listing Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet and Macau as separate countries.

In February 2018, Mercedes-Benz posted the following “MondayMotivation” quote from the Dalai Lama on Instagram: “Look at the situations from all angles, and you will become more open.” This was simply too over-the-top for the Chinese authorities. The nation’s state media attacked Mercedes-Benz, causing the company to apologize to the Chinese government and promise “no support, assistance, aid or help to anyone who intentionally subverts or attempts to subvert China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Should major corporations be bending to the Chinese Communist Party line? They are surely making decisions on the basis of their bottom line. China is a massive market, and companies wish to play in it. But I would suggest that these incidents say more about the confidence of the Chinese government than the fecklessness of the felonious firms.

That China believes it can push around private Western enterprises with impunity over even the slightest of “infractions” indicates they believe in some respect that the West is a paper tiger, either willing to sell out for a buck, or unwilling to put up a defense lest we risk the wrath of the Red Dragon.

And in a “Broken Windows” foreign policy paradigm of sorts, if we cow over attacks on small items, what will we do when China attacks over bigger ones? China’s effective mind control efforts extend well beyond their policing of multinational corporations.

The Communist nation is increasingly becoming a dominant player in the film industry, “colluding” as it were with Hollywood. Facebook and Apple are both working to make their products compliant with the wishes of the Chinese government. Last but not least, and perhaps surprisingly only to those who know nothing of Communism, The Washington Post reported in January 2018 that “American and European companies involved in joint ventures with state-owned Chinese firms have been asked in recent months to give internal Communist Party cells an explicit role in decision-making, executives and business groups say,” including a “a formal role in approving management decisions, such as investment plans or personnel changes.”

The ramifications of all of these moves need to be seen as part of a greater effort to propagandize worldwide as part of a comprehensive information warfare effort, to project power well beyond China’s shores and to potentially threaten the national security and prosperity of China’s “partners,” by embedding itself within their cultural and economic architecture.

Of course backing these efforts up with ownership of trillions of dollars of sovereign debt and covert and overt military and intelligence efforts helps. But as this author sees it, China’s end goal is not to physically dominate every landmass. Rather, it wants the freedom to act with impunity wherever it wishes, and to bend other countries to its will without ever having to fire a shot. This includes cultivating dupes, useful idiots and complicit colluders, while instilling fear within the rest of those who might threaten China’s rise abroad.

Based on its actions, China feels it has significant leverage already, that “the emperor wears no clothes” — that the West has no appetite to push back against such behavior. The Chinese are generally long-term oriented, exhibiting patience and prudence rather than the more open aggression we have seen recently. Until and unless we see concrete acts indicative of retrenchment, it is clear they do not believe the West poses a credible deterrent threat.

This is a calculation America must change by direct action, overt and covert, using all elements of national power. China must not believe it can act without consequence in ways that violate our sovereignty, security and most of all, our freedom.

While a nation that must censor and control its population by way of a mass police state apparatus, centrally plan and engage in widespread political purges in order to keep any semblance of order surely must have major internal weaknesses, its threat to our way of life is no less acute.