Event Details


Thursday, May 31, 2018 - Thursday, May 31, 2018




The Stimson Center

China's Sharp and Soft Power

China's Sharp and Soft Power

Thursday, May 31, 2018 - Thursday, May 31, 2018  |  14:00:00   |  The Stimson Center

On Thursday, May 31, the Robert Strauss Center, in partnership with the Stimson Center, welcomed Bonnie Glaser, Director of China Power Project at CSIS, Joshua Eisenman, Assistant Professor of Public Affairs at University of Texas, Austin, and Yun Sun, Co-Director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, for a discussion on China's sharp and soft power campaigns and influence. This session also explored their implications for the United States and the U.S.-China relations. The event was streamed live:

As China projects greater influence overseas economically and politically, a debate has emerged about the nature and impact of China's sharp and soft power on the rest of the world and the international system. China's sharp and soft power campaigns appear to be a global effort, as signs of such influence are observed both in developing countries, such as in Africa, and developed countries, such as the United States and Europe. These campaigns seem to be aimed primarily at creating a friendly and benevolent interpretation of China and its rise. However, as China becomes increasingly confident and assertive about the China Model of development and governance, the promotion of such a model is raising deeper questions about the contest of ideas, political philosophies and corresponding systems.

Each speaker addressed different aspects of Chinese foreign influence: Strauss Distinguished Scholar, Josh Eisenman gave an explanation of China's United Front and the implications such tactics have on modern Chinese foreign policy, Bonnie Glaser addressed the distinction between soft and sharp power, calling for further international clarification of acceptable forms of influence and intervention, and Yun Sun commented on the development and success of China's soft power campaigns.

According to Eisenman the purpose of China's United Front is to win friends and to influence others. United Front' tactics originated from Lenin's Soviet Union; the tactic is to build temporary alliances with sects of non-communists to fight a common enemy. Along the way, you also win over forces to add support for the Communist Party. Mao Zedong once said that United Front Tactics are one of China's three secret weapons.

Eisenman covered the history of China's United Front spanning from the Sun Joffe agreements with the Soviets in 1923, through the establishment of the PRC in 1949 and the later Cultural Revolution, to Chairman Xi's establishment of the Small Leading Group on the United Front in 2015. Throughout its history, the purpose of United Front has been to alter perceptions of others both internally and internationally to serve the CPC's interests. In this process, information is power. The CPC must learn as much as it can about its target, build a substantive file, and gauge the relative friendliness of the target to the CPC. The ranking ranges from progressive forces most in line with CPC thought to middle forces who may or may not be won over to die hard forces those who directly oppose the CPC. Ultimately Eisenman noted that United Front is a weapon of the weak, a weapon by which you buy time and slowly attempt to win over enemies.

Today, United Front is experiencing a resurgence of importance. The United Front Office is growing, it was discussed explicitly by the 19th Party Congress, and, upon inspection of its leadership, it now ranks above propaganda and organizational departments. However, Eisenman concluded by listing challenges for United Front going forward: (1) navigating politics, (2) garnering effective information, (3) diffusing suspicion of people doing United Front work, and (4) effectively using United Front tactics as a relatively stronger power. United Front doesn't seem to be working in Hong Kong or Taiwan it is unclear if United Front can still work in other parts of the world now that China has become a major power.

Glaser began her talk by elaborating on soft versus sharp power. Soft power, as defined by Joe Nye is: the ability to shape preferences of others via appeal and attraction. It comes from your society and your culture. In contrast, sharp power, entails efforts to manipulate and influence political and information environments in targeted countries.

Glaser stipulated that there aren't many true examples of Chinese soft power; sharp power seems to be Beijing's weapon of choice. To counter Chinese sharp power, Glaser stated: We have to make our democracies more resilient. There are a lot of steps [democracies] need to take, but we also must encourage China to be more transparent. The next step towards these aims is to define what is and what is not problematic behavior. There is a difference between political influence and political influence, and, admittedly, a great deal of what Beijing does is just public diplomacy and outreach. However, Beijing will utilize sharp power stratagems in order to bolster the legitimacy of it's the CPC government. By undermining the legitimacy of western democracies, China weakens its critics and is able to more effectively export its development model.

Glaser concluded with five policy prescriptions:

  • (1) As a nation, we must inventory what is going on within our own country and what influence the Chinese diaspora really has on institutions like think tanks, media outlets, and universities.
  • (2) Not everything China is doing is something we should push back against we must assess each action with regard to our laws, we must enforce existing laws, and we must assess if further legislation is necessary to curtail unacceptable behavior.
  • (3) We should generate a bilateral agreement on limiting unacceptable influence in each others countries just as we worry about China, China worries about the U.S.
  • (4) We must make efforts to make Chinese efforts more transparent. Propaganda should be labeled as such, and Universities should make contracts with Confucian institutes public.
  • (5) Finally as a democracy we should not counter Chinese sharp power with authoritarian measures. We must remain open to others' ideas, but we also must resist influence.

Sun discussed the existence of a China Model, analyzing Chinese influence through the lens of soft power campaigns in developing countries. Sun stated that Chinese economic development blazes a trail for other developing countries. It has shown the world that a country can speed up the development process while preserving independence. The China Model serves as a kind of inspirational power for the developing world, and it is the core of Chinese soft power. There is a conscious effort to allow Chinese soft power to serve as the basis for China to replace the current hegemon in the future.

According to Sun, the central tenants of the China Model are China's economic success, its relative domestic stability, and the idea that this model can be replicated in other countries. Beijing promotes this model in its own capacity building, particularly when this is done as part of its aid portfolio. Sun listed four examples of this: (1) training programs for young political leaders from developing countries to receive the Chinese perspective on China's success, (2) the recruitment of ministerial to technical level government officials to go to china to promote China's balance of economic development and internal stability, (3) training for other authoritarian governments, and (4) educating other countries on information and media controls.

China engages in these activities for three purposes to promote the legitimacy of the CPC, to promote China's development experience, and to promote bilateral cooperation. China actively pushes government representatives to come to China, to personally experience Chinese economic success, and to teach them China's past: to absorb, assimilate, and replicate. Ultimately it is a different kind of ideological push, and it will have a psychological impact on the developing world.

Joshua Eisenman, Assistant Professor of Public Affairs at University of Texas, Austin
Joshua Eisenman, Ph.D. is assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin's Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs and senior fellow for China studies at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.  His research focuses on Chinese politics and foreign relations with the United States and the developing world. He published, "Red China's Green Revolution: Technological Innovation, Institutional Change, and Economic Development Under the Commune" (Columbia University Press, 2018).  He also co-edited "China Steps Out: Beijing's Major Power Engagement with the Developing World" (Routledge, 2018), which analyses China's strategies in various regions of the developing world and evaluates their effectiveness. 

Bonnie Glaser, Director, China Power Project, CSIS
Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at CSIS, where she works on issues related to Asia-Pacific security with a focus on Chinese foreign and security policy. She is concomitantly a nonresident fellow with the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia, and a senior associate with the Pacific Forum. Ms. Glaser has worked for more than three decades at the intersection of Asia-Pacific geopolitics and U.S. policy. 

Yun Sun, Co-Director, East Asia Program, Stimson Center
Yun Sun is the Co-Director of East Asia Program and the Director of China Program at the Stimson Center. Her research is primarily focused on Chinese foreign policy, U.S.-China relations and China's relations with authoritarian regimes.  Yun earned her master's degree in international policy and practice from George Washington University, as well as an MA in Asia Pacific studies and a BA in international relations from Foreign Affairs College in Beijing.  

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