It takes a pretty big shock to the system to transform the way the United States engages the world. A spate of German submarine attacks on American merchant ships was the final trigger for American entry into World War I. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into World War II. The attacks on September 11 led the United States to invade Afghanistan and then Iraq.
More relevant to the current moment was the Soviet launch on October 4, 1957, of Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth. The Soviet Union’s leap ahead in the space race—followed in November by the successful launch of Sputnik 2 and then a month later by the fiery failure of America’s first attempt to launch a satellite into orbit— stunned the American public. In response, the United States undertook one of the most concerted efforts in its history to expand its scientific, technical, and educational capacities. Legislative milestones soon followed, including the creation of NASA to establish American leadership in space and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to ensure American superiority in military technology. These enormous investments catalyzed striking innovations in the civilian economy as well, including the revolution in information technology. In 1958, the United States passed the National Defense Education Act, which poured federal money into supporting foreign language training, area studies centers, graduate fellowships, and advanced training in science, math, and engineering.
Today, if a major American university is looking for government support to promote study of the foreign language—Chinese—that will be most crucial to the future shape of global competition, it may well come instead from the Chinese government, in the form of the Confucius Institutes that provide funding, teachers, and curricula to study Chinese language and culture. The goal of these institutes, explains the website of Hanban (their coordinating headquarters within the Chinese Ministry of Education), is to help develop “multiculturalism” and build “a harmonious world.” But for the Chinese Communist Party, “harmony” means never being questioned by society. China’s vast global network of some 500 Confucius Institutes (most of them on university campuses) may be the most benign dimension of an increasingly visible and troubling Chinese government effort to penetrate and influence democratic cultures and societies.
The experience of New Zealand and Australia suggests that what begins with the cultural and social progresses to the political. In November, an Australian commercial publisher postponed its commitment to publish a book by a highly respected professor, Clive Hamilton, detailing China’s efforts to shape and censor public expression in Australia. The clumsy cave-in to China’s sensitivities, reflecting rising Chinese pressure on Australian publishers and media companies, outraged the Australian public and appeared to confirm the book’s title: Silent Invasion: How China is Turning Australia Into a Puppet State.
More recently, as reported in the Telegraph this week, “An Australian MP was forced to quit over revelations he adopted pro-China positions after accepting donations from a wealthy Chinese property developer with links to China’s Communist Party.” As accounts have piled up of Chinese government-linked donations to Australia’s two major parties, Australia’s government has proposed legislation that would ban foreign donations to political parties and groups that lobby the government and institute a public register for foreign lobbyists. The political scandal—coming amid years of accelerating Chinese influence activities—may represent a “Sputnik moment” for Australia.
But the situation in neighboring New Zealand is more urgent still. A recent analysis by that country’s most influential China watcher, University of Canterbury Professor Anne-Marie Brady, finds that “China’s covert, corrupting, and coercive political influence activities in New Zealand are now at a critical level.” China is eager to pull vulnerable New Zealand away from its military and intelligence alliance with Western democracies, and to get access to its unexplored oil and gas resources and its cheap and plentiful arable land (goals that China is also aggressively pursuing in Africa and Latin America). Over many patient years of work, Brady warns, China has been using “business opportunities and investments, honors, political hospitality, scholarships, party-to-party links and vanity projects” to compromise and win over New Zealand’s “business, political, and intellectual elite.” Reinforcing this campaign have been political donations from ethnic Chinese business figures “with strong links to the CCP”; “massive efforts” to extend CCP control over the media, community groups, and politicians of New Zealand’s ethnic Chinese; and the penetration, through “mergers, acquisitions, and partnerships,” of New Zealand’s businesses, universities, and research centers in order to capture critical technology and corporate secrets and to deepen influence ever more organically. The result has been direct and mounting threats not only to New Zealand’s national security, but to its freedom as well. These include: “curtailing [the] freedom of speech, religion, and association for the ethnic Chinese community, … silencing debates on China in the wider public sphere, and a corrupting influence on the political system.”
This is not the latest chapter in the long parade of global powers using “soft power” to win friends and extend influence. Soft power, Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig write in a new report for the National Endowment for Democracy, consists of open efforts to attract and persuade. The proliferating global influence activities of China and Russia diverge from traditional means of public diplomacy. Instead, they use wealth, stealth and coercion to coopt influential policy voices and players, control information flows, censor unfavorable reporting and analysis, and ultimately mold societal attitudes and government postures.
The methods vary. Each regime has relied heavily on the promotion of its state-controlled media abroad, such as Xinhua News Agency, CGTV, and RT (formerly Russia Today). Russia has been perfecting a new form of geopolitical warfare, using social media to intensify political polarization, inflame social divisions, sow doubt and cynicism about democracy, and promote pro-Russian politicians and parties. Through investments, partnership agreements, donations, exchanges, positions on boards of directors, and other “friendly” relations, China has fostered wider and deeper penetration into the vital tissues of democracies—media, publishing houses, entertainment industries, technology companies, universities, think tanks, and non-governmental organizations. These intrusions are rapidly expanding not only in the West but in Latin America, post-communist Europe, and Africa as well. In different but perhaps equally devastating ways, China and Russia are using the openness and pluralism of democracies to subvert and bend them to their strategic objectives—principally, the weakening of Western democratic alliances and the relentless expansion of their own economic and geopolitical power.
What these two resurgent authoritarian states are projecting, argue Walker and Ludwig, is power that is not “soft” but rather “sharp,” like the tip of a dagger: It enables them “to cut, razor-like, into the fabric of a society, stoking and amplifying existing divisions” (in the case of Russia) or to seek, especially in the case of China, “to monopolize ideas, suppress alternative narratives, and exploit partner institutions.”
There is also an alarming technological dimension to China’s sharp power: a relentless, multidimensional, and highly orchestrated campaign to capture, transfer, and innovate the technologies of the future, including artificial intelligence, supercomputing, drone vehicles, robotics, gene editing, and other advanced medical technology. Within a decade, China could well overtake the United States in the development of these critical technologies, which will increasingly drive the next generation of global economic growth and China’s continued rise to superpower status. China is now spending a much greater proportion of its GDP on research and development than is the United States, and because of these investments, it is starting to attract many of the world’s leading scientists, not only ethnic Chinese. If the challenge is not addressed, China will some day—possibly sooner than we want to think—neutralize or surpass the military superiority of the United States.
The United States may now finally be reaching a new Sputnik moment in realizing the dangers posed by authoritarian sharp power projection, not to mention the growing hard power projection of Russia (in Georgia, Ukraine, and the whole rim of NATO) and China (throughout East Asia and especially in the South China Sea). Members of Congress from both parties, spanning wide ideological divides, are concerned about Chinese sharp power activities that threaten both freedom of expression and American technological leadership.
Last month a bipartisan group of House and Senate members introduced legislation to broaden the authority of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which reviews potential foreign investments in the United States for possible risks to national security. With China in mind, the lawmakers proposed giving the Committee broader authority to scrutinize joint ventures and minority shareholder investments, and to expand its jurisdiction over a wider array of critical technologies. Broadening the scope of CFIUS is vitally important to protecting U.S. national security. Congress should go further by empowering CFIUS to examine authoritarian country investments in our cultural capital, such as media, movie studios and publishing firms. Democracies should not allow dictatorships to control (even indirectly) these enterprises—which are part of our “critical infrastructure” of freedom. The burden of proof for supposedly “private” Chinese investors should be to demonstrate with a very high degree of confidence that they are not subject to control or manipulation by their own government.
Another step would be for administrative action or legislation to introduce a broad principle of reciprocity into the question of Chinese and Russian media access in the United States. It isn’t obvious why the Chinese and Russian governments should be able to sell their newspapers and transmit their television broadcasts freely in the United States when American media companies have no such rights inside China and Russia. When we weigh this gross asymmetry in access, which is the greater cost to freedom of information: the current denial to the Russian and Chinese publics of access to American news media, or the greater difficulty American consumers would face in needing to go to the Internet, rather than cable television or the street corner, to access Chinese and Russian media?
Most of all, we have a lot of work to do to research and document precisely what China’s Communist party-state is doing to insinuate itself into the deep tissues of our democracy. This requires not only professional academic research but also prudent government monitoring and investigation that remains respectful of basic American freedoms of information and association. American citizens, think tanks, and universities should have a right to forge partnerships and exchanges with Chinese and other foreign actors, but the constituencies they serve and engage also have a right to hold them accountable. Accountability requires disclosure of foreign donations and grants, thus giving observers a chance to assess what impact that funding may have on subsequent statements and publications. If sunlight is not the best disinfectant, as Justice Louis Brandeis suggested, it is surely a good and necessary one.
There are other things the U.S. government must do. True recognition that we are in a Sputnik moment would entail a dramatic increase in U.S. government investments in science and technology, including basic and applied research and development. Federal spending (including military spending) on R&D has declined sharply since the 2008 financial crisis. For our long-term security and economic health, we cannot afford to continue that trend. And if we don’t want the Chinese government funding Chinese language instruction and writing the curricula, how about a new National Defense and Education Act that makes the investments we need in Chinese language and area studies, from grammar school through graduate school?
The challenge before us now is urgent: to expose and safeguard against authoritarian sharp power, before it severely compromises our national security and even our freedom. Despite all of the polarization and division in our politics, this should be a challenge that can rally a broad bipartisan coalition on Capitol Hill and between Congress and the Trump Administration. Part of the challenge involves confronting what can justifiably be termed unfair trade practices by China and Russia, something that should appeal to trade skeptics.
The bottom-line stakes are existential: Will the United States—and liberal democracies collectively—retain global leadership economically, technologically, morally, and politically, or are we entering a world in which we conspire in our own eclipse?