Jaw-Jaw: How Chinese Sharp Power Takes Aim at American Democracy

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As Chinese power grows, Larry Diamond, the renowned scholar of democracy, breaks down Beijing’s efforts to direct “sharp power” against institutions in the United States. The key battleground appears to be American colleges, universities, and think tanks, and China’s main tool is its United Front Work Department, a critical part of the Communist Party apparatus that aims to enlist, coerce, and induce support for the party around the world. The department’s efforts involve intimidation of Chinese and ethnic Chinese students in the West, corrupting and non-transparent funding to universities, and more. Don’t miss this fascinating exploration of an important topic.




Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. For more than six years, he directed FSI’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, where he now leads its Program on Arab Reform and Democracy and its Global Digital Policy Incubator. He is the founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy and also serves as senior consultant at the International Forum for Democratic Studies of the National Endowment for Democracy. His research focuses on democratic trends and conditions around the world and on policies and reforms to defend and advance democracy. Under his leadership, the Hoover Institution recently released a major report, Chinese Influence & American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance, on Chinese influence activities in the United States.

Brad Carson is a professor at the University of Virginia, where he teaches in the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001 to 2005 and was undersecretary of the Army and acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness in the Obama administration. He welcomes comments at brad.carson@warontherocks.com.



Brad: Larry Diamond, you co-chaired with Orville Schell of the Asia Society, a recent report on Chinese influence in American interests. Can you tell us a bit about the thesis of that report and the concerns you think it raised?

Larry: It’s a report that is co-sponsored by the Hoover Institution and the Asia Society’s China program with support from Sunnylands Trust, as well. We basically are trying to raise concern, not hysteria, but intelligent, careful, thoughtful vigilant concern about China’s growing efforts to penetrate and sway our democratic institutions as it has been trying to do in Australia and New Zealand, where their efforts are much further along, in Canada and Europe and probably with less capacity to resist, in many other political systems in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. We looked at a number of sectors, Brad. We can talk about some of those and we noted different methods of approach. Some which are perfectly legitimate within what countries do in the realm of soft power, others of which we think are illegitimate in using techniques that have been called sharp power because they seek to penetrate and to use, in the language of the Australian former prime minister, methods that are covert, coercive, and corrupting and that democracy should not stand for.

Brad: One of the groups you talk about in the report, you mentioned we really somewhat misunderstand, is the United Front Work Department. Can you talk about what that institution is and perhaps what it is not or what it’s more broadly representative of?

Larry: It’s a part of the Chinese Communist Party that has as its formal purpose to reach out to and enlist the cooperation and loyal patriotic engagement of the Chinese diaspora around the world and to get them to see themselves as part of an extension of China, to feel pride in China, which is, in some ways, natural. Look, the United States is a conglomeration of people from many different places around the world and I think feeling pride and heritage is a good and positive thing that distinguishes the United States as a nation of immigrants, but China tries to cross the line when it tries to enlist or even coerce and intimidate Americans of Chinese descent and particularly recent immigrants to do more explicitly the bidding of China in terms of its foreign policy aims and there’ve even been instances that have been documented of Chinese émigrés to the United States who’ve been subject to intimidation and Chinese émigrés elsewhere in the world and Chinese overseas residents including students whose family members in China are pressured if they don’t tow the line.

The United Front Work Department is part of a larger structure of Chinese influence operations around the world that seeks to build friendships and alliances and partnerships that see the world through China’s eyes and that try to influence the policies of their countries, in this case, the United States, to be receptive to China’s rise and to be silent about China’s global ambitions that might, for example, its claim to all of the South China Sea that might contradict the national security objectives and interests of, in this case, the United States. One should see the United Front Work Department, Brad, as part of a classic Leninist structure of trying to build alliances abroad and use them, again, often in a kind of coercive and covert way that compromises the integrity of democratic institutions.

Brad: Well you talk about a lot of different aspects of American society from academia to think tanks to businesses. I’d kind of like to talk about each of those. Let’s start with academia where the Confucius Institutes of which you note in the report, there are now more than 100 in the United States as well as some similar organizations that are in secondary schools and they’ve been very controversial. Some places have outright banned them. You have a more nuanced view of that in the report though. Can you tell us, for the listeners, what should they think about Confucius Institutes, both the possible pitfalls as well as the opportunities they might provide for meaningful interaction and training?

Larry: The purpose ostensibly of Confucius Institutes is to provide resources, both financial resources and human resources, in the form of Chinese language instructors from China, from Chinese universities and Chinese instructional, language instructional materials, that would enable particularly universities that might not have the resources to mount a significant Chinese language instruction program on their own to teach Chinese language. Our point is that looking at the curriculum, the written curriculum of the Chinese language instruction books, the China experts in our working group who’ve examined them, don’t see anything particularly objectionable. So the concerns, Brad, arise around the edges of all of this and some of the edges that kind of raise concern are the following.

First and foremost, the contracts between the central institution in China, within the Ministry of Education, that manages and runs all the Confucius Institutes, something called the Hanban, the contracts between the Hanban and each individual American college or university are not transparent. They’re secret agreements that are not open to the wide knowledge and general inspection of faculty, students, alumni and so on. We view this as completely unacceptable and so if the Confucius Institutes arrangements are going to remain, they just need to be above board and you can’t have secret commitments to not discuss this subject or not have a speaker about Tibet or Taiwan or whatever it might be, that faculty aren’t able to inspect and evaluate.

Brad: Let me just ask a question about that, if I could. Is the concern there that a contract, which would be entered in between a university administration, for example, and the Chinese government or Hanban, that maybe the administration would agree to something that the faculty themselves would say this contradicts free inquiry and open expression.

Larry: Yeah, basically. That’s the concern.

Brad: Is there any evidence that that’s happening at Confucius Institutes?

Larry: Well, we can’t see the agreements, so we don’t know. But it’s a matter of general principle that secret agreements with an authoritarian foreign government should be unacceptable. And it’s a matter of documented fact that Chinese authorities, Chinese consular officials, the Chinese Embassy has pressured American universities not to have the Dalai Lama visit, not to have speakers on certain subjects and of more concern to us than the Confucius Institutes, if this issue of transparency can be resolved, is the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations. These are chapters on different American and other college campuses …

Brad: More than 150 U.S. campuses, you write in the report.

Larry: That’s right, thank you for reading our report very carefully. That and in many other countries around the world, where if you have a significant number of Chinese overseas students, they establish one of these Chinese Students and Scholars Associations and then they get instructions and funding from the Chinese Consulate in their area or, if they’re near Washington, the Chinese Embassy. And again, these are not at all transparent and might involve reporting on what Chinese students are saying and writing and possibly expressing their open and free intellectual inquiry about that could put them at risk when they return to China. If they are being critical of Chinese government policy, might get back to their families and result in Chinese government pressure on their families back home.

No Chinese foreign student in the United States should need to live in fear that they’re being monitored by some designated student observers or minders or monitors and are at risk of being punished in some way for the questions they ask or the statements they make or the things they want to discover and know. And no collection of Chinese students through an organization like this on an American university campus should be taking non-transparent money from their government, I’d say, or from any foreign government to push a government line or protest a university visitor or something like that.

Brad: You talk about a number of incidents in the report, they usually involve a controversy about, as you mentioned, the Dalai Lama, Xinjiang, Tibet, sometimes Taiwan, that those are areas that are verboten, really, for universities to get involved in and that the Chinese government will retaliate against universities that invite speakers who might have a position that’s contrary to the Chinese Communist Party.

Larry: Yes, that’s right, Brad. Those have been the kind of lightning rods for Chinese protests, but if it’s these today, and if these forms of pressure and censorship of free inquiry and open debate on American university campuses are happening now and those are bad enough, and they get away with it, who knows what might be the subject of future Chinese government pressure and censorship. I think the line needs to be vigorously drawn, that when a student from any country, I don’t care if it’s China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran or any other country in the world, is on American soil on an American college campus, they ought to have the same rights of free and open expression and discovery and intellectual inquiry and association that any other student in the United States has.

Brad: Could we tease it out just a little bit and let me play devil’s advocate for a moment if I could, and that is how is what the Chinese government’s doing … So for example, in the case you write about where the University of California at San Diego invited the Dalai Lama to give a commencement address, the Chinese government threatened to no longer send students to UCSD. UCSD went through with the speech and the Chinese did, in fact, follow through on their threat. How is that different than what we see all across the country today where, for example, various corporate interests may be sponsoring something, if the students or the faculty or someone protests, the corporation may say, well we choose not to continue to fund or subsidize our involvement with the school. And I know many faculty members don’t like that kind of thing, but it happens probably all the time. How is this different when the Chinese are doing it?

Larry: Well, first of all it’s a government. It’s not a corporation. This is a government that’s a lot more powerful than most corporations and second of all, this is not just a government, it’s a government that has large numbers of people, over 300,000 studying in American universities around the United States and the human rights of those 300,000 people are at risk in terms of freedom of expression. That’s a lot of people to have their human rights be at risk, and our principle point is that should not happen to any students in the United States of America, whether they’re from China or from the United States or from any other country.

Brad: Is it possible to distinguish that, such as covert intelligence collection on Chinese students, which does seem beyond the pale, from the government saying, “We’re not going to surveil our students, but we’re not going to send any students on our dime to your school if you choose to invite somebody like the Dalai Lama who, in the Chinese Communist Party’s eyes, is not a legitimate representative and foments discord there.

Larry: These students, Brad, are not coming on the Chinese government’s dime; they’re coming on their families’ dimes. And it says something about the level of authoritarianism in China that they would be able to and, indeed, they are able to turn off the flow of students even with families’ private money. So it speaks to how centralized and over-awing the control of an increasingly, once again, authoritarian Chinese Communist Party state we are dealing with now.

Brad: You also talk a lot about business in the U.S. from Chinese-Americans and increasingly, many Chinese-Americans have economic interests tied up with Mainland China, some have made fortunes related to business activities in Asia and the ability to manipulate perhaps these kind of folks. The question, I think, there that raised for me about it was, yes, we have these Chinese Chambers of Commerce, if you will, and if you could talk a bit about how they’re susceptible to Chinese Communist Party influence and then also how they might differ from many nations around the world, many diaspora populations will have a chamber of commerce, an Armenian Chamber of Commerce or a group of businessmen, many of whom have ties to their home country and business interests there and no doubt find a bit of a conflict in advocating for that. How is the Chinese Chambers of Commerce, if you will, different than that?

Larry: I think you’ve got to start with the structure, and the way the Chinese Communist Party system works. It’s still, this is what I need to and what we, as a working group, find ourselves needing to keep emphasizing over and over. This is still a communist system run on Leninist principles of a highly centralized direction with a strong international mission of penetration and central direction toward that end. We tend to think in the United States that if you have a business that’s a private enterprise, it’s private, it’s separate from the government. If you have a think tank, or an association that is not part of the government, then it must be independent of the government.

The problem is, in China, the Communist Party state is so penetrating and so controlling and so demanding of ultimate obedience and subjugation that nobody is fully independent from the party and the state, and everybody can be bent to the will of the party state and threatened with very severe consequences if they don’t respond to direction. When you have a local Chinese Chamber of Commerce in the United States from a city or a province or a collection generally in a certain American city, the question at least has to be asked, as to whether they are responding to a party direction when they advocate something or say something or promote something or pursue something in the United States. And when you then have evidence, which we cite in the report, of party publications or something taking pride in a position or advocacy or achievement of some local chamber of commerce in the United States, Chinese Chamber of Commerce, it raises questions and at least merits further, closer inspection and awareness of the possibility that they’re not fully independent actors.

Brad: You also talk in the report about think tanks and the influence of Chinese money into them. One example you give is the Center at Yale for the Study of China, which was funded by a graduate of Yale Law School, Chinese, big investor in Alibaba, billionaires. Is that something that when we read reports from think tanks that deal with China, that we should be skeptical of reading them or look at them at least with a jaundiced eye to think who’s funding this? Maybe it’s Taiwan, maybe it’s Mainland China, maybe it’s indirect influence from Chinese businessmen who themselves suffer from great conflicts.

Larry: Well, I’d say that universities, think tanks, NGOs, first of all have an obligation to be transparent about funding, particularly from foreign sources and second of all, need to do due diligence on who their interlocutors are who might be coming to them with proposals for generous philanthropic support. We’re not suggesting in the case of this individual that anything is wrong, off-kilter, we’re simply giving examples of a growing trend. The thing that we’re most concerned about with respect to think tanks, Brad, is the possibility of self-censorship. When think tanks become increasingly dependent on funding from the People’s Republic of China, even from putatively, entirely private sources, and then they start asking, “Well, if we pursue this line of research, if we publish this report, if we host this scholar or speaker, what’s it going to do in the future to our ability to raise money from China or to continue to be receiving money from certain Chinese sources,” and our research demonstrated that a number of think tanks concede that they do ask these questions and even individual think tank scholars and university-based scholars and even our own working group members conceded that they themselves struggle with these issues and questions of whether they have to phrase things in a certain way or hold back a little bit.

In this case, with respect to individual scholars, not so much in order to get funding, but just to be able to get into China, to get a visa and if you get a visa, to get access to government officials and think tanks and university interlocutors to be able to do research and learn about what’s happening in China and we worry that, first of all, this is not a healthy situation in terms of enabling fully free expression and inquiry, and second of all it’s not a fair situation because Chinese researchers and think tanks face none of these restrictions in the United States and so we want a more reciprocal and level playing field in terms of Americans having the access in China that Chinese have in the United States.

Brad: One of the questions, which I asked earlier, playing a bit of a devil’s advocate, is lots of the think tanks in Washington, DC, around the country take money from foreign governments. The New York Times ran big reports about how the Norwegians were funding research at Brookings and things. It comes back to what China’s doing. In some ways reading your report I was taking away that they were engaged in that much activity that other countries weren’t either doing, chambers of commerce, or think tank dollars, it’s that the Chinese are a different kind of government. It’s not that they’re doing anything like maybe the Russians are, which is subterfuge or illegal or manipulative. It’s that they realize how the American system works, and they’re playing it in the same way the Norwegians are. The difference is that China is now … We have hardening attitudes towards its authoritarian regime. Would you agree with that summary or do you think that I don’t quite have it right there?

Larry: Well, I think there are valid aspects to what you say, but I would tweak it in the following ways. Number one, I just think there’s a huge gulf of difference between the way other democracies support foreign intellectual work in think tanks and universities and issue grants and so on. I would even … Look, I have been involved with the program to study democracy in Taiwan and the surrounding region that has received support from the Taiwan Foreign Ministry, and I know they never put any conditions on us on what we could say or report, and we produced books and articles that have been quite critical of Taiwan government policies. That’s unthinkable with respect to the People’s Republic of China, but it’s typical of what other democracies do in terms of the way they provide financial support for projects. And if the Norwegians want to study, support a program in the United States to study climate change or human rights in Africa or poverty in the developing world, I just don’t think you can begin to equate it with the way that China is using its money in the think tank world.

I think there’s a really fundamental difference here. At the same time I would say that a lot of what China’s doing is similar to certainly the way the Russian oligarchs have been compromising the integrity of think tanks, the way Saudi Arabia and Qatar, perhaps, have been trying to do so. I think the gulf is, to some considerable extent, between democracies and authoritarian states in how they use their foreign funding.

Brad: One particularly shocking story in your report deals with the venerable Voice of America, which seems to be completely corrupted, can you talk a bit about Voice of America and how it has been voluntarily kind of censored itself in broadcasting into China.

Larry: You’ve basically said it. I’d like to think that this is a partial and limited development. Certainly Radio Free Asia, I think, has had a more extensive willingness to be critical, but the most serious problem is not with the Voice of America on the media front, the most serious problem is what’s happening in our own countries. We document in Australia, now here in the United States, where American citizens who wish to listen to news and programming in the Chinese language on Chinese language radio stations, some cable television stations, and in Chinese language print media, are having their freedom and pluralism of information vastly constricted by what appears to be a concerted effort to basically buy up the Chinese language media and tilt them to a pro-Chinese Communist Party line. On the media front, Brad, I think this is far and away the most disturbing aspect of what’s happening.

Brad: And should the U.S. prohibit those in some way? A CFIUS-style process to media organizations, because you do outline in there how many Chinese language papers that serve the immigrant community, first generation community have been bought up by Mainland China interests that used to be perhaps owned by Taiwanese or Chinese-Americans themselves and how now PRC interests own them. Is that something we should prohibit?

Larry: I think we should look at it fairly carefully in the future. I don’t think you can seize the existing ones, but I do think we should look at it in the future and indeed, the Chinese efforts to buy up American language radio stations have been blocked and it’s why the Chinese ultimately turned to buying … This is a great story, a radio station in Tijuana, [Baja] California, just over the border from San Diego with one of the largest transmitting wattages in all of North America to broadcast from Tijuana because they couldn’t get a radio station in Southern California. I think that we should be looking at this very carefully. I would also say, Brad, I would actually favor, this is my personal recommendation, not a working group recommendation, some kind of charitable foundation to ensure, not government, because once you start getting into media stuff, you gotta keep U.S. government hands off it in the domestic market but some sort of nonprofit foundation to ensure that there’s adequate pluralism and maybe a Chinese language version of National Public Radio to ensure that people in the United States, citizens and non-citizens who wish to get news and information in the Chinese language have adequate access to alternative perspectives including ones that are not controlled the U.S. government, but are certainly not feeling more or less deferential to the Chinese Communist Party line either.

Brad: Later this year you’re going to have a book come out entitled, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition and American Complacency. Does it build on the things that the Hudson Institution report talked about as well and can you talk a bit about what Chinese ambition is and why you see Americans as complacent to it?

Larry: Again, this is a report of the Hoover Institution and my book, yes, does very much expand upon the larger problem, which is not only a Chinese problem, but a Russian problem of authoritarian state efforts to project sharp power, not in a way to persuade but to cut into, penetrate, and subvert the integrity of democratic institutions around the world in the United States and Europe and in many other emerging democracies, and it calls not just for the constructive vigilance that we do in the report, Brad, but also more robust efforts to, as you say, strengthen Foreign Agent Registration Act, strengthen the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, strengthen precautions against illicit technology transfer. Beyond that, my book argues what I think you would be sympathetic to, that if we’re going to win what is an increasingly robust competition with authoritarian states now led by China to shape a very different kind of world, we’ve really got to reform our own democratic institutions and make them work better, more transparently, and more cooperatively to address our own problems.

You can’t beat something with nothing and if our democracy doesn’t become more effective, less polarized and more democratic, I think that we will be hard pressed to rebuff the rising challenge of authoritarian states around the world.

Brad: We will put a link to Ill Winds on the website where people can pre-order that for its release in May of 2019. We always end “Jaw-Jaw” by asking people to recommend anything they think people interested in China might be eager to pick up. What would recommend to folks who want to learn more about the issues that you study and are concerned about?

Larry: I would recommend two books, in addition to mine. One is the wonderful book that Clive Hamilton wrote in Australia called, Silent Invasion which talks about China’s efforts to penetrate Australian society and political economy and then I would certainly recommend the new book of one of our leading working group members, Elizabeth Economy, The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State, which is an extraordinarily perceptive and, I think, balanced survey of China’s rise and continued ascendance under Xi Jinping, some of the forward steps it’s taking and fighting corruption and projecting global power but some of the dark side, too, in terms of the advance of authoritarianism and an Orwellian surveillance state.

Brad: Larry Diamond, one of the world leading scholars on democracy. We eagerly await your book and thank you for being a guest on Jaw Jaw tonight.

Larry: Well thank you, Brad, for having me, and for taking our report so seriously.