Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the sharpest of them all?

By Xu Shaomin Source:Global Times Published: 2017/12/30 10:37:46

Western politicians, scholars and journalists increasingly warn against China's use of so-called "sharp power" to pierce, penetrate or perforate the political and information environments of targeted democratic societies. They find China has effectively hijacked the concept of "soft power", exerting influence through programs in the spheres of culture, academia, media, think tanks and even politics, in an attempt to shape and manipulate public opinions and perceptions around the world. 

Recent media bombardment about China's efforts to buy influence in Australia and New Zealand seems to add substance to claims of corrosive sharp power. China's sharp power in this context starkly contrasts with soft power as typically understood in the West. Soft power centers on attraction and persuasion. Yet, sharp power revolves around manipulation and distraction. Soft power is benign, but sharp power is insidious. 

China's sharp power should not be understood as a synonym for hard power. That is, sharp power does not operate in such a way as Walter Russell Mead puts it, that "you will feel the sharp points of bayonets pushing and prodding you in the direction you are supposed to go." After all it is difficult to nail down proof that is the work of the Chinese state. China's use of stealth to shape public opinions and influence the influencers is undoubtedly sharp, but not coercive at all. 

It is hardly surprising to see Western observers being wary of the negative political implications of China's sharp power against the background of democracy in recession over the last decade. China's remarkable economic growth and corresponding global ascent, notwithstanding problems and challenges still ahead, indeed presents another viable alternative to the Western mode of liberal democracy. China's geo-economic and geopolitical heft in the future may attract more countries to buy into its socio-political and economic model and experience. As the global expansion of democracy since the end of World War II can be mainly attributed to American hegemony, the future of the so-called "China model" or "Beijing Consensus" is logically based on China's power projection in the long run. 

With binary logic of authoritarianism versus democracy deep in its mindset, Western pundits and scholars tend to assume that the rise of Chinese sharp power comes at the cost of Western soft power. The ongoing power transition from the US to China has accentuated concerns in the West regarding China's global sharp power campaigns. In this sense, the recent inflation of China's global sharp power can be seen as a new sophisticated version of the old China threat thesis. 

Blaming the alleged globalization of authoritarianism on China and other countries for undermining expansion and consolidation of democracy seems to be barking up the wrong tree. After all, democratization takes time and functions well only with good governance in non-Western societies. Therefore it is natural to see the ebb and flow of democratization in young democratic societies. Further questions remain as we are not sure whether the recent setbacks to democracy were prompted by authoritarian sharp power or due to a lack of the confidence in the democratic system designed to serve the general public rather than those in power. 

An alarmist view of China's malign deployment of sharp power also overlooks a fact that China is not responsible for the recent rise of populism — a suspicion of and hostility toward elites, mainstream politics and established institutions — in Western democratic societies. Like other countries, China has been taking advantage of the situation rather than undermining the Western democratic system. To say the least, Western democracy is resilient enough that it is far from vulnerable to external players like China. 

For many decades, China was a useful "otherness" created to serve the political and economic interests of Western countries, the US in particular, on the domestic and/or international stage. The recent wave of anti-China rhetoric in response to China's assertiveness in wielding sharp power in the West is illustrative. In short, fears of China often tell as much as about those who fear as they do about China itself. 

As Western powers seize the moral high ground, China's exertion of sharp power will be strictly scrutinized. A China witch-hunt is even on the horizon if this anti-China trend goes viral. While the US and its allies have long been bent on transforming China through peaceful evolution, what an irony it is to see this trend in reverse. 

The author is a research fellow of the Institute of Public Policy, South China University of Technology. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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