China is unhappy with the growing use of the term “sharp power” to describe its overseas influence activities. Unfortunately, its criticism is unfounded.
China is unhappy with the growing use of the term “sharp power” to describe its overseas influence activities. A spokesperson (pictured above) for the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s top political advisory body, has denounced it as “a new term created to tarnish China’s image.” China’s state- and party-run media, including the Global Times (an unsigned editorial and an authored opinion piece), Beijing Review, Xinhua News Agency, and China Global Television Network, have also published articles critical of the concept.
In general, Chinese critics point out a double standard: whereas similar efforts by Western countries are labeled as cases of soft power, China’s activities are framed as instances of sharp power. In their words, “sharp power” is a “myth,” a “pseudo-academic” term, and a “discourse weapon” that forms part of an “invisible” “conceptual offensive” by the US and other Western countries against China.
Unfortunately, this line of criticism is unfounded.
Chinese critics’ perception of a double standard arises from a misunderstanding of the concept of sharp power.
First, China’s overseas influence campaigns are being termed “sharp power” not because they come from China but because of the deceptive character of some of those activities that render them qualitatively distinct from what is normally labelled “soft power.”
As a refresher, “sharp power” refers to the use of distraction and manipulation by authoritarian countries to “pierce, penetrate, or perforate” the information landscape in democracies. It was introduced in a 2017 report by the National Endowment for Democracy, a nongovernmental organization largely funded by the US Congress.
“Sharp power” was coined precisely because the earlier and more established concept of soft power had failed to capture the increasingly intrusive character of overseas influence activities by authoritarian states. Examples of these intrusive actions include interfering in elections; co-opting local political elites; creeping into the local cultural, academic, media, and publishing sectors; using businesses or civil society groups as fronts to conduct state operations; and sowing divisions, spreading fake news, and stirring up self-censorship in the target country’s information and communications spaces.
Second, not all of China’s overseas influence campaigns are being termed “sharp power.” “Sharp power” differs from “soft power” in that the former espouses illiberal and antidemocratic aims. Indeed, not all overseas influence activities by authoritarian states are instances of sharp power. Insofar as those activities are benign, they remain properly within the conceptual realm of soft power.
Third, “sharp power” is not specific to China. Russia also engages in similar activities, as do Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. All these countries are what the political scientists Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, and Christopher Walker have called the “Big Five” authoritarian states that present the most serious challenges to the global spread of democracy.
Concept versus Reality
Chinese critics focus on the concept, but more important than the label is the reality that it describes.
Indeed, the intrusive character of China’s overseas influence campaigns is well documented and is undeniable. The political scientist Anne-Marie Brady has noted that China’s ruling party itself, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), classifies these activities as part of its “united front work.” The party even describes its growing international clout as one of its “magic weapons.”
The CCP’s united front work aims to steer policies in other countries toward China’s favor by exploiting the vulnerabilities of democratic regimes. Strategies include reaching out to overseas Chinese communities; establishing people-to-people, party-to-party, and enterprise-to-enterprise linkages with foreign countries; expanding partnerships with foreign media networks and universities; and promoting the Belt and Road Initiative to increase the economic dependence to China.
In New Zealand, for example, Brady has documented how the CCP targets local business, political, and intellectual elites; directs ethnic-Chinese business people to donate in local political parties favored by the party; influences local Chinese-language media networks, ethnic-Chinese communities, and ethnic-Chinese politicians; and pursues partnerships, mergers, and acquisitions with local companies, universities, and research centers. In essence, these activities allow the CCP to embed itself deeper into New Zealand state, market, and society.
More recently, the CCP has been pressuring foreign businesses with close ties to China, including the National Basketball Association, Apple, and Blizzard (a US-based video game company), to censor expressions of support for prodemocracy protests in Hong Kong.
Back to New Zealand, the consequences of CCP’s united front work for democracy are already being felt, according to Brady. The freedoms of speech, religion, and association of ethnic-Chinese New Zealanders are being curtailed; free debates on China are being silenced, whether in academic forums or in government policy discussions; and lack of transparency and corrupt practices among politicians are being encouraged.
Sharpening the Concept
In sum, “sharp power” goes beyond “soft power” and offers a conceptual tool that allows democracies to recognize and respond to efforts by authoritarian states to erode democratic institutions from the outside through information deception and manipulation.
“Sharp power” is a powerful concept for democracies; thus, China’s dislike for it, while mostly unfounded, should be unsurprising. “Sharp power,” after all, exposes China’s strategy to exploit the vulnerabilities of democratic regimes.
“Sharp power” is also built to discriminate against authoritarian states, at least in the original conceptualization. Here, Chinese critics are correct to point out the ideological bias of the term.
But this should not be a reason to quickly dismiss the concept. Instead, “sharp power” could easily be refashioned to be regime-neutral, in the same way that “soft power” and “hard power” are agnostic to regime types. Thus, “sharp power” could denote the use of information deception and manipulation by any foreign country, whether autocratic or democratic, to undermine the target country’s current regime.
Refining the concept this way could help “sharp power” gain acceptance within Chinese academic and policy circles. Chinese officials could find the concept similarly useful for detecting and calling out intrusive influence operations by Western countries. But in using the concept, China must be also careful with its own overseas campaigns. And with China itself recognizing the concept, democracies too should be careful not to resort to sharp power.
More important, getting the Chinese to acknowledge the validity of the concept would equip both China and democratic countries a common vocabulary to discuss the problem of sharp power, clarify intentions in undertaking specific overseas activities, and draw explicit boundaries for unacceptable behavior.