Concerns Grow Over Chinese Political, Media Influence Far Beyond Its Borders

US senators are calling for a concerted strategy to counter the newly emerging 'sharp power' of the Chinese Communist Party.

An undergraduate student shows off her painting at the Confucius Institute at George Mason University in Virginia, May 2, 2018.

The Chinese Communist Party is increasingly making its influence felt in European and North American countries, through the "manipulation of information and foreign institutions," U.S. politicians and commentators have warned.

In a letter to senior officials in President Donald Trump's administration, 12 U.S. senators called on Washington to come up with a strategic response to growing Chinese influence beyond its own borders.

"We are concerned that while some of these efforts may seem innocuous when taken independently, collectively they represent an attempt to increase the appeal of autocracy and strengthen Chinese leverage over U.S. allies," said the letter, which was signed by senators from both major political parties.

The letter cited a number of attempts by the Chinese government to influence politicians in the European Union, as well as Beijing's increasing clout with smaller nations dependent on it for crucial loans and investment.

It cited a recent report by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which highlighted China's "sharp power" influence campaign in the EU.

"Political elites within the European Union and in the European neighborhood have started to embrace Chinese rhetoric and interests, including where they contradict national and/or European interests," the report authors said.

"Rather than only China trying to actively build up political capital, there is also much influence courting on the part of those political elites in EU member states who seek to attract Chinese money or to attain greater recognition on the global plane," they wrote.

Among those who signed this week's letter was Republican senator Marco Rubio, who has called on U.S. educational institutions to terminate programs sponsored by the Chinese Ministry of Education.

"[Beijing's] long-term objectives with these operations are to undermine liberal democracies, erode the strength of U.S. alliances, weaken the ability of democracies to work against China, supplant U.S. leadership in the world and shape the future of the international order," the senators wrote.

They called for a "coordinated strategy" among U.S. government agencies to counter Chinese efforts to wield overseas influence.

"While nations around the globe seek to influence public opinion and policy debates beyond their borders, the nature of Chinese efforts goes well beyond those legitimate activities," the letter, dated June 11, said.

"Indeed, we believe the nature and scope of China’s influence operations suggest it is time the United States look at them holistically, and respond with a similarly unified strategy," it said.

Well-founded concerns

Xia Ming, a political science professor at the City University of New York said he believed the concerns were well-founded.

"China is embracing globalization; it has already infiltrated the political and economic life of Western nations with its own interests, and its influence," Xia told RFA.

"Under such circumstances, it is very hard for Western countries to summon the necessary immune response to this infection, because they would have to carry out surgery on their own body politic to achieve this," he said.

He said there is also plenty of resistance to attempts to undermine Chinese influence.

"Such a response is being undermined and neutralized by certain interest groups within those countries, and by representatives of the Chinese government," Xia said.

Sen. Rubio, a prominent China critic, has already called for an end to the practice of embedding Confucius Institutes on U.S. campuses.

Last month, a Confucius Institute at Savannah State University in Georgia removed reference to the democratic island of Taiwan from the biographical information of journalism award winner Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, who gave a keynote address at the university’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communications.

Allen-Ebrahimian's award was underwritten by the Confucius Institute, whose Beijing-funded staff are trained in China and instilled with Communist Party teachings before being posted overseas. She was also criticized by its director for talking about Beijing's crackdown on freedom of expression and persecution of ethnic minorities in her speech.

Rubio has warned that Confucius Institutes are used to identify students who could become "agents of Chinese influence," and warns that they form part of a deliberate strategy on Beijing's part.

Wu Lebao, a Chinese student studying in Australia, said the country is currently looking carefully at Chinese influence following a series of damaging revelations in the past two years.

"Most Confucius Institutes in Australia have been set up in well-known universities," Wu said. "We are already at the stage of Chinese Communist Party infiltration. This has been having an impact in Australia for quite some time now."

He added: "I think the Australian government will be reviewing the status of Confucius Institutes ... in future."

Australian author and professor of public ethics Clive Hamilton’s new book, Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia, was initially turned down by three publishers citing fears of reprisals from Beijing.

Finally published in February, Silent Invasion argues that Australia’s elites, and parts of the country’s large Chinese-Australian diaspora, have been mobilized by Beijing to gain access to politicians, limit academic freedom, intimidate critics, gather information for Chinese intelligence agencies, and organize protests against Australian government policy.

'Appealing to wallets'

Meanwhile, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has warned that cooperation agreements underpinning Confucius Institutes feature nondisclosure clauses and unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China.

It says such political agendas are typically allowed to flourish in U.S. colleges and universities, even when curriculum choices and academic debate are restricted as a result.

The University of Chicago, Texas A&M University, Pennsylvania State University and McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario have already shut down their Confucius Institutes, while the University of West Florida has announced it won't be renewing its contract with the Confucius Institute, citing lack of student interest in its exchange programs.

Giving evidence to Congress last December, University of Michigan historian Glenn Tiffert said China often wins the propaganda war with money.

"What distinguishes the Chinese efforts to wield influence in the United States is that they are spending a great deal more money to do that—they have commercial advantages and so they are able, through, for example, Confucius institutes, to promote a particular view of China and to close out discussion of certain topics on campus," Tiffert said in his testimony.

"They are able to donate money to a particular cause—much of this is legal activity but they can simply wield influence because they can write checks," he said. "China is not necessarily appealing to hearts and minds, it is appealing to wallets."

Reported by Jia Ao and Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.