China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

The World Is Awakening to China’s Sharp Power

China’s sharp power first began to be displayed in Hong Kong. Now it is seen all over the world.

By Simon Shen for
The World Is Awakening to China’s Sharp Power
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

A term coined by Juan Pablo Cardenal in 2017, “sharp power” is wielded by authoritarian regimes to “manipulate and co-opt culture, education systems, and media.” This approach takes advantage of the asymmetry between free and unfree systems, allowing regimes to limit free expression and distort political environments in democracies while simultaneously shielding their country from outside influence. China’s foreign policy has transitioned in recent years from attraction-based soft power to sharp power, leveraging its economic might. The world’s democracies have felt the pain of China’s sharp power over the issues of the Hong Kong protests, Uyghur internment camps, and now the COVID-19 pandemic. However, China is unlikely to withdraw this foreign policy because of the domestic climate, fueling further tensions in its relationship with the United States and other democracies.

Before China’s breach into the West, Hong Kong was the test site for sharp power. When the Hong Kong entertainment industry reached its pinnacle in the 1990s, Cantonese music icons were able to co-host the June Fourth 10th anniversary Memorial Vigil with no political repercussions. Similarly, the late Taiwanese diva Teresa Teng, despite being labeled as a Chinese “traitor” for her politically sensitive songs, was invited by China to perform in the 1980s. Politics rarely got in the way of individual liberty and artistic expressions for artists based outside mainland China.

The industry has changed dramatically since Hong Kong started co-producing films with China. Entertainers often have to publicly toe the nationalist party line to secure job opportunities. Any ambiguous comments or actions would be quickly labeled as “pro-Hong Kong independence” and “unpatriotic,” impacting not only young artists but also household names in the Mandarin-speaking world.

Over the years, China’s sharp power has smothered Hong Kong’s civil society, from the media to the business sectorsupposedly protected by the “one country two systems” principle. Now China’s push for the national security law, bypassing the city’s legislature, drives the final nail in the coffin of Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Western countries initially welcomed China’s soft power approach until Beijing started funding China studies centers to influence opinions in academia. The most notable example are the Confucius Institutes (CI), educational organizations promoting Chinese language and culture. The lack of transparency in their financial transactions with host universities and their censorship of CCP-sensitive discussions on campuses have spurred CI closures around the globe.

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Other Chinese government-associated funding offers were rejected by American universities over infiltration concerns. In Australia, legislators with ties to the Chinese propaganda groups are under fire. The international community no longer considers China’s economic incentives harmless.

Most recently, the West senses a threat to national security as China propagandizes its success in controlling COVID-19. Many scholars believed that the international community would prioritize profit and Chinese market access, but this is no longer true when China crosses the line of national security. Its aggressive use of sharp power will unite democracies and set off a global backlash instead. After all, China is not the only superpower in the world.

China has been showing its true colors via a long list of bullying incidents. In just the past two years, China has targeted the NBA (over the Houston Rockets’ general manager’s tweet), Arsenal (over star player Mesut Özil’s message supporting Hong Kong’s protests), and a plethora of international businesses from airlines to banks for listing Taiwan as a country.

International brands could be banned from the market for stances, or even just their employees’ social media activities, that China sees as “hurting Chinese peoples’ feelings.” Conversely, Chinese brands would never suffer such consequences abroad for openly criticizing leaders or capitalism. The controversial market advantages resulting from Chinese governmental subsidies and potential intellectual property infringements further stoked the dissatisfaction in the West.

Furthermore, the incident of Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airlines was a wake-up call, revealing the danger of international companies operating under China’s supervision. Amid the Hong Kong anti-extradition protests, China pressured Cathay Pacific Airlines’ mother company Swire over staff members publicly supporting the protest, leading to layoffs and the resignation of CEO Rupert Hogg. As a result, a reputable corporation had its name tainted. It’s doubtful the United States and other European countries would allow Chinese corporations to continue unregulated while disadvantaging their firms.

During the Cold War, intelligence agencies in the West heavily monitored covert Soviet investments operating in the homeland. The current Chinese infiltration in Western enterprises and media is more widespread than that of the Soviet Union, as demonstrated by the global propaganda campaign amid the pandemic. The Chinese Communist Party is also pulling the strings of Chinese enterprises, both state-controlled ones and “private enterprises” that are now often run by CCP members. Founders of mega-corporations such as Jack Ma and Pony Ma had to step down from their executive positions. The West’s scrutiny of Chinese corporations will only ramp up after COVID-19 and become an important topic in the U.S.-China trade talks.

Under international pressure, a politically realistic country would have a wide range of policy responses available. China, however, is regressing to a Cultural Revolution-like era where the CCP Publicity Department and hardline nationalist factions dominate public discussions and force all areas, from economic activities to foreign policy, to conform to the unbending Party ideology.

The Cultural Revolution was a campaign initiated by Mao Zedong 50 years ago to consolidate power and purge his political opponents by labeling them enemies of the state. Moderates were humiliated publicly by Red Guards for “opposing revolution.” Even then, there was some flexibility in leadership and policies. For example, despite a climate of strong anti-American sentiments, the public did not greet with hostility President Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972 to normalize the China-U.S. relationship. The CCP leadership also distanced themselves from the anti-imperialists in the 1967 riot in Hong Kong, and they did not pursue the extreme option of taking over Hong Kong either.

Today, hardline nationalism is more pervasive with the help of Chinese social media and, intriguingly, linked to the nationalist factions’ economic interest. Foreign businesses that enter China’s market are susceptible to their competitors’ smear campaign: a few online comments by nationalists labeling a business as “pro-Hong Kong protest” will give the business a difficult choice: remain silent and be boycotted in China, or publicly side with the CCP and lose its international reputation. This not only stifles economic vitality but also gives the nationalist factions sway over the economy.

The lack of diverse voices also limits policy options for the CCP leadership. The internet is locked behind the Great Firewall and censorship has marginalized liberal voices for a long time. The leadership may avoid the risks of taking middle-of-the-road policies in fear of backlash from the dominant nationalist interest groups. How the Hong Kong government failed to pursue moderate policies in the current worsening crisis is a cautionary tale.

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The world is heading toward a polarized tomorrow, with no end in sight for China’s sharp power policy.

Dr. Simon Shen is the Founding Chairman of GLOs (Glocal Learning Offices), an international relations start-up company. He also serves as an adjunct associate professor in the University of Hong Kong, Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and associate director of the Master of Global Political Economy Programme of the CUHK. The author acknowledges Jean Lin, Coco Ho, Stanley Ho, Daniel Cheng, Chris Wong and Alex Yap for their assistance in this piece.