China Exerting ‘Sharp Power’ Influence On American Institutions

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China is penetrating American institutions in ways that are coercive and corrupt, while the United States has not fully grasped the gravity of the situation, a Hoover Institution scholar says.







“An ultimate ambition for global hegemony” is driving China’s multifront efforts to manipulate US state and local governments, universities, think tanks, media, corporations, and the Chinese American community, said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Hoover and at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, who recently codirected the report, “Chinese Influence & American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance.”

Researchers convened by the Hoover Institution and the Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations, along with support from The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, contributed to the research findings. Project cochairs included Diamond and Orville Schell, the Arthur Ross Director at the Asia Society Center on US-China Relations.

Diamond was recently interviewed about the issue:

What were the three most important findings of your report?

Diamond: The most important finding is that we are in a new era in several respects. First, China is now a genuine superpower in terms of global reach, influence, and ambition, arguably rivaling the United States and even in some places eclipsing it. Second, it is racing forward technologically to economic and potentially military superiority in many cutting-edge fields, in part because of relentless efforts to misappropriate Western (particularly US) intellectual property. Third, to achieve its global ambitions it is exercising a new form of power—not the hard power of military force, but not the soft power of transparent persuasion either. Rather, this is "sharp power" that seeks to penetrate the institutions of democracies in ways that are often what a former Australian prime minister called "covert, coercive, or corrupting." We need to learn to recognize these forms of influence and strengthen our institutions to resist them.

Another crucially important finding of our study is that in the United States and other advanced liberal democracies, freedom of expression is being compromised by the long shadow of Chinese sharp power. Most Chinese-language media in the United States are now owned by interests sympathetic to the People's Republic of China and are basically serving the Chinese Communist Party's line on news and world affairs—or at least not reporting anything that Beijing wouldn't want Chinese Americans to hear. Chinese overseas students in the United States and other democracies are monitored and fear to criticize the policies of their government in an open way—sometimes, even, to express this criticism in the classroom if there are other Chinese students present. 

American scholars of China—including some who participated in our working group—conceded that they hold back on what they say and write (if you will, self-censor at least to some degree), mindful that they could be punished by Beijing with visa denials or lack of research access if they are too bluntly critical. And American think tanks get nervous that overt criticism of China and Chinese influence could harm their ability to raise funds both from Chinese individuals and from institutions.

As a result of all this, we believe that the old era of engagement—when we presumed that exchanges would be transparent, reciprocal, and to mutual benefit—is over. This is not the game China is playing, if it ever did. We must now pursue a new type of relationship, what we call "constructive vigilance."

Why does the Chinese government or entities seek to meddle in American institutions?

Diamond: I don't think the members of our working group would agree on this answer. At a minimum, I think we all agree that China is trying to get its narrative out, to censor, deter, and preempt criticism of it, and to smooth its rise to global superpower status. I take a darker view, however. If you look at the Orwellian system of domestic controls that China is putting in place to monitor all citizens, to punish dissent, to mash up every digital footprint of every citizen into a "social credit score" of loyalty to the system; if you look at the brutal lengths to which the Chinese Communist Party has gone to try to wipe out any expression of dissent or any trace of authentic cultural or religious identity in Tibet and Xinjiang, where the Chinese state is committing what can only be called cultural genocide; and if you examine the breathtaking and often bullying expansion of Chinese economic power and military presence, including its unilateral and illegal claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea, I think it is hard not to discern an ultimate ambition for global hegemony. 

China has been over the last four decades the most dynamic economy in the world. It has the largest population in the world. It has every right to seek and claim a place of global leadership alongside the United States. But the days when we saw China's rise as peaceful and benign, leading to China becoming a "responsible stakeholder" in the global multilateral framework of governance, are over. What China's government is seeking is to gradually erode the liberal international order and to refashion it in its own authoritarian and deeply corrupt image. Anyone who thinks China's intentions are benign should remember two things. First, China is still ruled by a Communist Party with a Leninist power structure and infrastructure of global influence. And second, the China of today is far more authoritarian than it was a generation ago, with a leader who has eliminated term limits and a party-state that is developing a neototalitarian system of control that can only be adequately described as "George Orwell meets Aldous Huxley."

What impact are these efforts having on American values and the rule of law?

Diamond: So far the impact has been limited. When they spend a quarter of a million dollars on a big insert in a major American newspaper, who really reads it carefully or takes it seriously? When they bring over American state and local officials for junkets and tours, not to mention members of Congress, I don't think it is necessarily winning them real political allies in the US. But freedom of information for the Chinese-language media is definitely being constrained and there are Chinese Americans who have been visited, pressured, and intimidated by Chinese agents—on American soil. And then there are the graver concerns about the way the Beijing authorities (and their diplomatic posts in the US) are monitoring and using, or isolating, Chinese students in the United States. We don't see at Stanford anything like what occurs at some big state universities, where you may have over a thousand Chinese undergraduates on campus, living together in the same dorms and not really integrating with the rest of the student body—while paying full tuition rates that are bringing in desperately needed revenue streams to these universities. 

If you are a university that has come to depend on those revenue streams, how closely do you really want to probe these unsavory practices or question the purposes and prior affiliations of graduate students and postgraduate visiting scholars in fields of high technology that have potential military applications? If you are an American business eager to get or maintain access to the incredibly lucrative and almost indispensable Chinese market, how vigorously are you going to resist when the Chinese government asks you to please lobby your home government in Washington about this policy or that? If you are a Hollywood filmmaker and your studio says, “Recast your female lead as a straight person rather than a lesbian or we won't be able to sell your film in China,” how resolutely are you going to stand on abstract artistic principle when it could mean the financial success or failure of the film? I am not making these examples up. All of them were encountered in our research and some of them were told to me in first-person accounts. It is these more subtle and hidden forms of influence, and of compromise of our norms and way of life, that I am concerned about most.

What did US leadership and China experts through the years misunderstand about the United States helping to lift China onto the world stage as an economic power?

Diamond: We lost sight of the fact that China is still a communist country. It still has a vast Leninist structure of international influence projection through the United Front Work Department and other instruments of party and state organization, infiltration, and propaganda. That global propaganda apparatus has been vastly expanded and modernized in recent years. And the Chinese Communist Party is very patient. For about three decades after Deng Xiaoping came to power in the late 1970s and launched this miraculous pace of development, the mantra for the country was, in essence, keep your head down, develop your strength, and bide your time. The idea was that China would surface in a bolder and more demanding way once it had the power. Well, now it is beginning to feel that the global balance of power is shifting its way and that it can accelerate and enlarge its ambitions. This is not a reciprocal or mutually beneficial relationship any longer. China is seeking dominance, and it is playing by its own set of rules.

What does the future hold for the US-China relationship?

Diamond: I hope for a return to cooperation, but with greater sobriety on each side. The US must sober up to realize that the "unipolar moment" in world affairs has long since passed, and it must now share more power and global responsibility with China and other emerging market countries. Yet Americans must also recognize that we are being played by a Chinese government that does not in the least share our values of freedom, openness, and accountability. China must sober up to realize that it cannot continue to steal and misappropriate Western technology and to exert other "covert, coercive, and corrupting" forms of power in democracies around the world without provoking an intense reaction. 

I hope that out of this transformative moment of tension in US-China relations will come a new and more mature partnership. But I fear that we are now heading toward more dangerous confrontation and that a fundamentally healthier US-China relationship will have to await leadership changes on both sides of the Pacific. In the meantime, we think the watchword must be "constructive vigilance." 

Not paranoia or a new anti-Chinese McCarthyism. Not reflexive hostility or suspicion either. But a healthy skepticism that questions and investigates who we are dealing with in each overture and whether the proposed terms for any institutional relationship are fair and transparent.

What has been the reaction to your report by critics or supporters of the Chinese government?

Diamond: That's a timely question. We are starting to get "feedback" from Chinese actors who claim they have been unfairly singled out or have had their intentions misrepresented. Lots of think tanks and universities and corporations in China claim to be independent of the government. And some are more independent than others. But this is not an open society or a market economy like we have in Western countries. Every organization is ultimately subject to the monitoring and control of the party-state. Anyone who fails to recognize that is missing something fundamental about the way China works. I repeat: It is a communist authoritarian system with some increasing totalitarian properties, with no real rule of law and no secure property rights—not to mention rights of free expression. So I will tell you what kind of Chinese feedback has so far impressed me the most. It is the comments—very privately delivered to me—from Chinese students who have come to admire the climate of intellectual freedom in the US, from Chinese entrepreneurs who have emigrated to the US because of the lack of security for their property rights and the pervasive, obscene levels of corruption, and from Chinese Americans who, even while they are concerned about the potential for an ethnocentric backlash, also worry about the kinds of inappropriate Chinese influence and power projection we discuss in the report. These people are saying to me and my colleagues: “You have it right. Thank you for what you are doing.”