How To Fight China’s Sharp Power

A ChinaFile Conversation

There is a debate raging about China’s “sharp power” and how to defend against it, whether it’s investment screening, shuttering Confucius institutes, or forcing visa reciprocity for journalists. But how does a fractious, divided world not only resist Beijing’s sharp power but also find ways to constructively engage with China? Or to use a soccer metaphor, how can the international community—governments, civil society actors, and individuals—avoid just saying “no” to Beijing and playing “defense” by protecting rather narrowly defined national interests? To what extent could the lowering of liberal-democratic standards by becoming increasingly illiberal and paranoid about Chinese Communist Party influence operations lead to proverbial “own goals”? And are there new strategies of continued, considered interaction—a new way of playing “offense”—that policymakers could adopt? —The Editors


For years, the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) has taken advantage of the one-sided openness of Western states and societies to Chinese capital, ideas, and actors. C.C.P. influence has entered through the open front door, eagerly courted by those in the West hungry for a large slice of the growing China cake. That is why “sharp power” is a misnomer. Despite significant covert activities, most of C.C.P. influence-seeking is overt. The C.C.P. elites understood that almost anything in Western capitalist societies can be bought. There was hardly any protective layer that Chinese would-be “sharp power” had to pierce. It is a welcome and overdue development that open societies are taking steps to address vulnerabilities to C.C.P. influencing efforts.

In doing so, they need to make sure not to copy China’s illiberalism. Some restrictions are necessary (e.g. on foreign funding of parties and certain investments), but for the most part, liberal democracies can rely on leveraging one of the key assets of open societies: the power of critical public debate. This means implementing transparency requirements for media agencies, universities, think tanks, lobbyists, and other professional service providers concerning cooperation with Chinese actors.

Western states are just getting started with this, with Australia taking the lead. In most European countries (especially those part of the 16+1 grouping) there is hardly a trace of moving in this direction. We could not be further from an “easy nihilism” of “just saying no” to Beijing. If exchanges (especially of the people-to-people kind) have become more difficult, it is mostly because of an authoritarian tightening of the screws under Xi Jinping (including the foreign NGO law).

In the West, there are strong economic and political incentives to continue cooperation activities with China including in the academic, cultural, and people-to-people fields. And that is a good thing. But we need to invest in the capacity of all Western actors to manage interactions with Chinese actors. Too many players lack both awareness and capacity to engage with counterparts that are all subject to the absolute claim to power by the C.C.P. apparatus. This includes mayors who sell out their critical infrastructure to Huawei (like in Duisburg) or accept the C.C.P. gift of an oversized Marx statue that is unveiled in the presence of a C.C.P. propaganda official (like in Trier) without thinking much.

We find ourselves in what Germans call Systemwettbewerb, a “competition of systems” between liberal democracies and the C.C.P.’s authoritarian state capitalism, which is increasingly projecting its absolute claim to power beyond its borders. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be bridges of exchange and cooperation between the West and C.C.P.-run China. To the contrary. We need those the same way we need defensive measures. But most of all, Europe needs to invest in the competitiveness of its own political, economic, and social model. The stronger Europe is at home, the easier it will be to also play offense. Ely Ratner provides some excellent ideas on how to regain the initiative. Europe should allow itself to be inspired.

“Sharp power” has been defined as a combination of subversion, bullying, and pressure, which promote self-censorship. Whereas soft power builds attraction through culture and values, sharp power comes with a strong connotation of manipulation. While soft power is presented as alluring, sharp power seems dangerous. But thinking this way harbors the danger of falling into the trap of simplifications and black-and-white depictions of China and international relations. Rather than “defending” against China, in order to constructively engage, three elements are crucial: knowledge, pragmatism, and building on existing initiatives.

Just saying no to Beijing will not yield satisfactory results in today’s interconnected world. Firstly, actors—be they from governments, civil society, or as individuals—need to understand the multiple facets of China. This implies a higher level of education and information about China in all its dimensions, including geography, politics, language, and culture, among others. Yes, public awareness in Europe about China is rising, though from a relatively low base. A recent study by MERICS on China competence in Germany found that misconceptions and clichés about China are still prevalent in various segments of society. This can have potentially dangerous effects, and constructive engagement without being naïve will only be possible with a comprehensive understanding of China, including the policies, goals, and processes of the Chinese government.

Secondly, the EU’s Strategy on China rightly emphasizes pragmatism in its relationship with China. This also entails taking Chinese initiatives seriously and finding entry points to engage within them, for instance by finding synergies between China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative and the Juncker Plan such as through the China-EU Co-investment Fund. Increased participation in Chinese-led initiatives such as the 16+1 forum with Central and Eastern European Countries (and especially with the participating EU Member States), as well as within the AIIB, can also be fruitful. As reports questioning the sustainability of Belt and Road projects are increasing, the issue of standards applied in these projects is gaining prominence and engagement in this area could yield positive results.

In the current environment, in which China is engaged in conflicts over tariffs with the U.S., the Chinese government seems more accommodating towards the EU. Despite persisting differences, the EU and national governments can take advantage of this situation and make use of the avenues that may currently be opening up to a larger extent than in the past decade. In addition to the examples above, there are several initiatives that can be built on and pushed forward: for instance, steadily progressing in the negotiations over the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, further engaging China in multilateral frameworks such as ASEM or the G20, or through the EU’s forthcoming strategy on connecting Europe and Asia. Building on these long-term engagements ensures the continuity of the relationship beyond the commotion of daily politics.

How can outsiders engage with China both critically and constructively? Following the hard authoritarian turn under Xi Jinping, this question remains as salient as ever. While European companies continue to face obstacles in terms of market access, international NGOs have their operations restricted by China’s controversial Foreign NGO Law. Chinese individuals, academic organizations, and companies, on the other hand, can take advantage of unfettered access to overseas markets and civil societies. In light of such an unequal treatment of Chinese and non-Chinese businesses and social actors, the French political scientist Francois Godement has argued for “reciprocal engagement,” where the “benefits of developing the relationship should be shared between the two sides of the aisle.” More recently, he suggested that the “European Union must also devise policies fit for an era in which China rejects reciprocity.”

But what kind of European Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) is a fit for this purpose? For commerce, reciprocal restrictions—in the form of European screening of Chinese investments in industries with national security implications—could be the right answer. European governments should also firmly respond to Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.)-led influence operations in order to protect the integrity of European democratic institutions. In the socio-cultural realm, however, where the battle of ideas about sustainable forms of governance is fought, purely defensive measures are not enough.

The University of Nottingham’s Asia Dialogue recently published the policy paper “Towards Asynchronous Reciprocity in EU-China Relations?” (Part 1 and Part 2), in which my co-authors and I argue that the EU should take a more self-confident approach and make an offer to the Chinese people to forge a comprehensive dialogue across civilizations. Both European and Chinese civilization are changing, plural, and open. Such a dialogue should be conducted in the spirit of potlatches, a ceremonial feast practiced by indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and Canada. Potlatches included the exchange of gifts and led to the forging of strong bonds among participants. Gift exchanges did not need to be reciprocated immediately. Instead, it was up to the receiver of a gift whether or not and when to repay the good deed. Such asynchronous reciprocity created the conditions for a virtuous circle of mutual indebtedness.

For such a dialogue across civilizations to work, certain key principles would need to be adhered to: policymakers would need to have faith in people, uphold freedom of speech, accept cultural difference without questioning universal values, and tolerate intercultural ambiguity and disagreements, especially those relating to norms and values. Furthermore, professional facilitators should be employed to ensure that these key principles are put into practice. To advance these goals, the EU should end the compartmentalization of EU-China dialogues by mainstreaming civil society inclusion in its EU-China dialogue architecture, provide funding for a well-resourced EU-China People-to-People Dialogue support facility, and mainstream civil society inclusion across all tenders aimed at strengthening EU-China relations.

The discussion on how to engage with China tends to center around different short- and medium-term political and economic measures in the field of trade and political dialogue. Such policy remedies are typically defensive, and undermined by an obvious but often overlooked fact: There is no real relationship between Western societies and China. Unlike with Russia or Middle Eastern countries, historically there has been only limited cultural contact between European and Chinese civilization. This partly explains why the Western public remains somewhat bewildered when witnessing China’s new global role—it appears to many observers as something unreal, incommensurable, something which is rationally accepted but for which there are no known patterns to integrate it in.

This precarious in-between status of knowledge without realization could become dangerous, because every possible strategy taken by European policymakers will not be grounded in a broader understanding of the cultural, intellectual, and social reality of the distant counterpart. This is why it is so important that Western societies relate themselves in a rational and realistic manner to this new phenomenon, which cannot simply be reduced to an abstract system (e.g. authoritarianism versus democracy). In order to get a consciousness for the horizon of expectations of Chinese politics and society, Western societies must make Chinese history and culture a part of their own horizon. Skeptics may object and warn of the real danger of an uncritical European public being taken for a ride by soft power propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party. An answer to this challenge can be found within the concept of “New Sinology,” developed by Australian China researcher Geremie Barmé. Barmé argues that it is important not to let the Chinese government hold a monopoly on interpreting what Chinese culture is or should be. For Europeans to be able to distinguish between Party and society, it is essential that they know and understand the original concepts and collective imaginations the Chinese government tries to instrumentalize.

This would be the first step to an even more comprehensive task: to find out how to maintain the universalism which first appeared in Europe—democracy, human rights, rule of law—in the new era. Together with the knowledge about the Chinese horizon of expectations, Europe has to gain a new consciousness about its own horizon of expectations. This will be a mutual process, which requires the creation of a real cultural contact with the help of education, universities, media, and public debate. Just one thing is clear: for Europeans to simply hope that nothing may change in terms of Europe’s position in the world will not be enough.

The key to balancing preventive measures against Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) influencing operations with constructive engagement with China lies in engaging with Chinese society, as Andreas Fulda rightly pointed out in his contribution. This means, specifically, with individual Chinese citizens.

Individual encounters matter—our life histories are shaped by them. How we think and feel about any collective entity often depends on our experiences (or lack of experience) with individuals belonging to that entity. And because of those encounters, individuals can and have changed history: Think about Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat, Chinese and U.S.-American table tennis players—or imagine Chinese and Europeans who build a personal relationship and then become future leaders in their respective countries.

As non-Chinese China observers, we can start right where we are, in the midst of our professional and private circles, by how we talk to and interact with Chinese people:

  1. Follow and analyze debates among Chinese people.

    Being knowledgeable about current debates can help to strike up a conversation signaling informed interest. Knowing the spectrum of opinions allowed to be voiced in Chinese media, online platforms, or academic journals can be used to build questions and arguments during a more focused or official meeting. Doubts and questions expressed by Chinese themselves about a topic, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, can be used be Western scholars to counter the C.C.P. claim that only “Westerners” criticize China because they apply their own “Western” values.

  2. Set up clear standards and introduce new meeting formats.

    Chinese officials sometimes request scholars from liberal democracies not to talk and act on the basis of their own values. But on what grounds can we talk and act if not based on the values we have grown up with, as many Chinese do naturally likewise? Being open about one’s beliefs won’t create more conflict, but more respect.

    To take the Belt and Road Initiative example again, one could explain that it contradicts our belief that smooth project implementation needs multi-stakeholder involvement and accountability.

    And why not add some practice? When hosting events with Chinese participants in Europe, introduce them to new conversational formats, like the “World Café,” to structure knowledge-sharing and discussion. Or organize visits to projects where multiple stakeholders will be taking questions and offer experiences, with best and worst cases as takeaways.

  3. Meet Chinese in their ambiguities.

    Living in an environment driven by digitalized consumerism and rigid one-party state-rule creates a lot of pressure on individuals. Chinese need to navigate their feelings of being rooted in a rich, pluralistic cultural heritage on the one hand, with anxiety towards a government which is increasingly restrictive on the other hand, along with sometimes conflicting opinions from family members and colleagues.

    Being willing to explore, to question, and to contrast their thinking with one’s own thinking is maybe the most challenging, but also most important, way of engaging with the Chinese.