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Defending Democracy in an Age of Sharp Power

Defending Democracy in an Age of Sharp Power

A new collection of hard-hitting essays reveals how autocrats undermine democracies from within.

Ellen Bork
Defending Democracy in an Age of Sharp Power
by William J. Dobson, Tarek Masoud, and Christopher Walker, eds. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 226 pp., $34.95)

Approving comments about Osama bin Laden’s 2022 antisemitic “Letter to America” posted on TikTok after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel have rightly renewed attention to the social media platform and its operation under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government dictates. “Beijing’s carefully censored domestic information space has permitted a torrent of antisemitic content, while the Beijing-controlled algorithms and censors of TikTok have promoted pro-Hamas and anti-Israel content,” according to Matt Pottinger, David Feith, and Ben Noon, “apparently, with major influence on the views of American TikTok users, who increasingly rely on the platform for news.” 

The promotion of antisemitic, pro-Hamas views is just one element in what Edward Lucas notes is China’s “bid for outright dominance of the world’s information systems.” The Chinese government and its “favored private companies”—including TikTok and the message app WeChat, which the government censors and monitors—“are seeking to become the ‘gatekeepers’ of news and information in other countries via influence and control over key content dissemination platforms and infrastructure.” 

Lucas’ essay appears in Defending Democracy in an Age of Sharp Power, edited by William Dobson, Tarek Masoud, and Christopher Walker. Although Russia receives some attention, the authors’ main focus is China, and deservedly so considering the scope and ambition of China’s efforts. 

Walker and Jessica Ludwig coined the term sharp power in 2017. Writing in Foreign Affairs, they distinguished it from soft power, which has become “a political science catch-all for forms of influence that are not ‘hard’ in the sense of military force.” Sharp power likewise does not include force or violence, but, in contrast to soft power, it “centers on distraction and manipulation.” Its purpose is to “pierce, penetrate or perforate the political and information environments in the targeted countries,” using the openness of democratic society “to cut into the fabric of a society, stoking and amplifying existing divisions.” 

Appreciation of sharp power has been central to mounting a response to the authoritarian resurgence after the end of the Cold War. Leaders had imagined an “end of history” in which democracies were in a commanding position to oversee the demise of the remaining authoritarian regimes that would inevitably fall under the influence of investment and the free flow of ideas. Instead, a China-led assault on liberal democratic norms has challenged the United States and its allies around the world. 

Indeed, as Dobson and Masoud write in their introduction to the volume, autocrats perceive democracies as “an existential threat.” Rather than being “content to shore up their own rule, they are now reaching across borders to prevent democracy where it does not yet exist, and to undermine it where it does.” 

Recognizing China’s sharp-power efforts also helped transform U.S. China policy from the earlier “engagement” approach that imagined the CCP leadership willingly deferring to American leadership not only in Asia, but around the world. At the same time, the legacy of earlier policies that minimized the Leninist character of the Chinese regime makes it more difficult to neutralize China’s sharp power. 

What is China trying do with the influence and control it is acquiring? China, Nadège Rolland explains, seeks “discourse power,” that is, 

what Chinese elites define . . . as the ability to voice ideas, concepts, propositions and claims that are respected and recognized by others, and in the process to change, without violence or coercion, how others think and behave. 

To put it another way, “getting others to do the CCP’s will through the use not of force, but of words.” 

Much of what China does in its sharp-power efforts is overt. For example, through a tactic known as “borrowing the boat,” it takes advantage of foreign media outlets to publish state media content, often through paid inserts or published opinion pieces by Chinese officials. As they become familiar to readers, they normalize Beijing’s presence in American media as a respectable actor, even as China refuses reciprocal access to American media and diplomats. This content helps Beijing convey that there is another side to the story about China that is told by editorials and journalistic investigations in the same outlets. Why otherwise would they have access to these platforms? 

In the knowledge sector, which includes, for example, institutions of higher education and book publishing, writes Glenn Tiffert, China uses financial and other leverage to circumscribe speech and advance its narrative on certain issues—whether it’s Taiwan or Tibet—while simultaneously eroding principles of freedom of expression. 

The picture presented by these essays is not all doom and gloom. Accounts of resistance in several countries are especially cheering and show how vital individuals and civic society have been to turning back Chinese sharp power. 

After Beijing meddled in Taiwan’s 2018 local elections, grassroots and civil society groups pushed back against psychological warfare by the People’s Liberation Army, microblogging and content farms spreading disinformation, and even efforts to coopt local farming and fishing societies. Ketty Chen describes an extraordinary response led by NGOs that included training in media literacy and dissemination of trustworthy information. By the 2020 national election, writes Chen, “Beijing’s political warfare was not only falling flat but backfiring.” President Tsai Ing-wen, who had staunchly resists Chinese pressure, won reelection in a landslide.  

Australia’s experience is particularly relevant to the United States because both have federal political systems and both have citizens of Chinese descent who are prime targets of Beijing’s influence efforts. In Australia, John Fitzgerald writes, civil society, not the government, led the exposure of the PRC’s surveillance and political interference. These were driven not by “geopolitics and international rivalries, but rather with a concern for freedom, rights, and equal treatment for all Australian citizens.” 

In Eastern and Central Europe, Martin Hála writes, the experience of Leninist regimes should have made countries skeptical about China’s sharp power tactics. Instead, a combination of factors, including the 2008 economic crisis and U.S. and UK engagement policies, worked in Beijing’s favor. 

Beijing uses “strategic corruption” in its investment and infrastructure projects to capture elites in countries with weak institutions. Nonetheless, many of Beijing’s projects are now in bad odor at least in part because “in free societies there are always people talking back.” Hála notes that, tellingly, “it is now only those members with authoritarian tendencies (such as Hungary and Serbia) that still maintain the façade of ‘friendly cooperation’ with the PRC.” 

When China has suffered setbacks to its sharp-power agenda in the past, it has redoubled its efforts. In a conclusion to the volume, Walker warns that most countries are not prepared to confront sharp power effectively. He offers a set of achievable recommendations that play to the democracies’ strengths: rebuffing the secrecy and opacity that autocrats favor, unleashing the power of individuals and NGOs, and answering autocrats’ media narratives. Above all, “policymakers and citizens in free societies must be clear eyed about what is at stake,” and resist becoming “inured to autocrats extraordinary depredations” through “the neutralizing and conditioning effects of present-day disinformation and propaganda.”

The essays in this book show the extent of the challenge, and the strengths that democracies must summon to meet it. 

Ellen Bork, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a fellow at the George W. Bush Institute.  

Image: A smartphone with the TikTok logo and a background with the flag of the People's Republic of China. (Unsplash: Solen Feyissa)

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