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De-Risking’s Blind Spot: China’s Targeting of Global Civil Society

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De-Risking’s Blind Spot: China’s Targeting of Global Civil Society

Any de-risking strategy that does not include a focus on protecting civil society from CCP interference will fall short.

De-Risking’s Blind Spot: China’s Targeting of Global Civil Society
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

“De-risking” has become the buzzword in China policy circles since G-7 leaders endorsed the concept in May of last year. The task of reevaluating the complicated global supply chain with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has catapulted to the top of elites’ minds from Washington to Brussels to Tokyo. However, this laser focus on vulnerabilities in the economic relationship with China ignores a critical blind spot: the vulnerability of democratic societies and their non-governmental sectors. 

Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-affiliated entities have pierced – and in some cases, subsidized – civil society groups around the world. Universities, researchers, media outlets, overseas Chinese, and a variety of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) grapple consistently with the impact of the PRC’s tactics of censorship, propaganda, transnational repression, and bribery. 

Whereas governments can craft laws and regulatory processes enacting safeguards to de-risk their economies from China, civil society’s very existence in functioning democracies depends on government not regulating it. Without new civil society-led initiatives and better efforts by democratic governments to protect the space for non-governmental actors from the CCP’s pressure, policymakers will find these critical drivers of democratization neutered and, in some cases, working at cross-purposes. Any de-risking strategy toward China without a focus on protecting civil society will fall short.

Document No. 9’s Decade-long, Global Ripple Effect on Civil Society

To better understand the CCP’s vision for the role of civil society in democracies, one should simply look at what the CCP says it wants for it. One year after Xi Jinping’s ascent to the post of general secretary in 2012, the CCP General Office issued secret Document No. 9 to all Party members. The edict comprehensively repudiated the legitimacy of civil society, media, and the market of ideas and organizations that might in any way “oppose the Party’s theory or political line.” 

As just two examples of this repudiation, take media and the knowledge sector (universities, research institutions, and think tanks), both critical sources of freedom of expression and government accountability. Document No. 9 stated that “the media and publishing system must be subject to the Party’s discipline,” and “be infused with the spirit of the Party,” in order to guard against “overseas media and reactionary publications.” 

China is now home to one of the world’s most restrictive media environments and its most sophisticated system of censorship. Within the knowledge sector of universities and research institutions, the Party sees “ideology as an intense struggle” requiring Party members to “seize their leadership authority and dominance” in promulgating Xi Jinping Thought. The Party’s decades-long campaign to bring universities and ideological elites under its control reached a milestone in January as university “Party cells” have now merged with presidents’ offices in order to ensure that the CCP’s ideology remains the dominant strand of thinking on Chinese college campuses.

A decade since Document No. 9’s issuance and its establishment in 2017 of an autocratic overseas NGO law, that same ideology and approach within China has gone global. The ripple effects of the CCP’s intensified crackdown on civil society at home are now reaching the shores of nations and non-governmental sectors eager to benefit from engagement with China.

In a June 2021 speech to the Politburo, Xi reaffirmed Document No. 9’s application to the Chinese party-state’s engagement in the world, pointing to the “system of internal and external propaganda” that should “build a media cluster with international influence.” The Party’s “struggle on the ideological battlefield” is part and parcel of its efforts to, in Xi’s words, “expand the circle of international public opinion friends who know China and who are friendly with China.” 

The CCP’s position that non-governmental entities – with some exceptions in the business realm – simply have little to no legitimacy holds enormous implications for independent civil society beyond China’s borders.

Globally, Party-controlled radio, news, social media companies, and TV outlets have massively expanded into new global markets and have struck licensing, content-sharing, and advertising agreements to influence foreign narratives about China. Leveraging these arrangements, Chinese embassies have coordinated harassment and pressure campaigns against outlets that publish news or opinions disfavored by the Chinese government. Freedom House’s deeply researched Beijing Global Media Influence report found these types of highly repressive tactics in 16 of the 30 countries they surveyed. 

Even in the relatively open society of Brazil, a content partnership with the PRC’s CCTV and a 24-hour cable news channel, Bandnews TV, led journalists to censor themselves on China-related topics and more positively framing China’s engagement in Brazil and Latin America. 

Within the knowledge sector of many democracies, China studies programs across Latin America, Africa, and Asia are propped up by China’s Ministry of Education or other Party-affiliated entities. After the closure of many Confucius Institutes in Western societies, some simply re-branded themselves under a new Party-directed initiative. Even on foreign university campuses, the CCP’s capacity to compel Chinese diaspora members and researchers have for many made “living outside of China feel like living inside of China.” These subsidization and intimidation techniques create pervasive self-censorship, where what is not said by public intellectuals can far outnumber what is said about the PRC. 

The CCP’s ongoing pressure campaign against civil society goes well beyond university and media officials. Its global campaign of transnational repression against Chinese citizens who speak out is rooted in Document No. 9’s labeling of “internal dissidents as anti-government forces.” Its squashing of any Chinese political party not under the CCP umbrella has manifested globally in its rapid expansion of CCP-led political party exchanges with parties of all ideologies and its training on one-Party rule of African politicians and diplomats at a new facility in Tanzania.

Civil Society’s Power and Independence

As the world sees time and time again during natural disasters, non-government organizations are often the first to arrive on the scene. Governments can’t (and shouldn’t) do everything on their own. Civil society, on the other hand, can be fast, entrepreneurial, and responsive. Its suite of activists, protest movements, investigative journalists, academics, and opposition groups can prevent – and have prevented – autocratization when illiberal leaders or parties rise to power.

A strong non-governmental sector and the accountability and scrutiny of government decisions is a competitive advantage for democracies. When left largely unregulated by the state, they remain that way. A media organization under pressure from or co-opted by a government or ruling party won’t hold that government accountable. A university unable to elevate voices that dissent to the prevailing views of a government will simply choose not to elevate them – or at worse, silence them. Civil society’s power is in its independence, providing it credibility in the public sphere and sensitivity to citizen needs and shifting public opinion.

Government support to civil society is best implemented by, first and foremost, protecting their space to operate. Free and independent media needs an enabling environment of laws and regulations to ensure media can thrive, journalists are protected, and news gathering rights are upheld. Universities and research institutions need measures to ensure their intellectual freedom, spaces to educate the public, and – if needed – funding unencumbered by control over their political views.

De-Risking Civil Society from CCP Pressure

In a healthy democracy, the autonomy that civil society enjoys from government regulation presents unique challenges in combating pressure on the non-governmental sector coming from outside a country’s borders. 

As with China’s trade and economic ties, Chinese entities’ engagement in nearly every country’s society is inevitable. Decoupling Chinese media, universities, students, and NGOs from the world is not only untenable, but probably counter-productive toward other critical aims, like maintaining democratic freedoms of expression, association, and the press. The current U.S. debate over TikTok is a microcosm of the range of available policy options. Do you allow a CCP-influenced social media platform to operate openly in your free society? Or do you cut your society off from the platform entirely, including from all of the benign aspects of it? Or is there a middle ground that properly balances risk, values, and opportunity?

Civil society in democracies finds itself at a similar crossroads of options, and at a particularly vulnerable moment. The rate of China’s engagement with the world over the past two decades has outpaced the ability of governments, civil society, and businesses to adapt and prove the resilience of their democratic models. These vulnerable societies need effective, democracy-affirming strategies to de-risk themselves from the PRC’s malign, authoritarian impacts in their non-governmental spaces.

These strategies for resilience go above and beyond traditional mechanisms and roles used to beat back authoritarian drifts. They involve cross-sectoral collaboration within civil society and with government entities, assertive messaging and exposure campaigns about these vulnerabilities, and intense competition with China’s overseas investments in non-governmental sectors by funders, the business sector, and democracy support groups. 

More than a decade ago, the CCP took direct aim at Chinese civil society, striking a near-fatal blow, after which it then began targeting civil society abroad. Civil society, government, and other stakeholders now face the urgent need to shield themselves and prove the resilience of their democratic societies to this authoritarian pressure.

Guest Author

Kevin Sheives

Kevin Sheives is the deputy director for the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy, the world's foremost foundation that supports freedom, democracy, and civil society around the world. 

He helps oversee the Forum’s staff and research on authoritarian influence, disinformation, emerging technologies, and transnational kleptocracy. Previously, Kevin served nearly 15 years in the U.S. government with the State Department’s China Desk and the Global Engagement Center, and in positions at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Department of Defense, and the U.S. House of Representatives. His writings have appeared in War on the Rocks, The Diplomat, Asia Nikkei, and the International Forum’s platforms.