Recently, US Vice President Mike Pence called
out American corporations for “kowtowing to the lure of China’s money” and censoring criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — like a “wholly-owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime.” His remarks emerged out of a widespread outcry in the US over the country’s basketball league, the National Basketball Association (NBA) apologising
to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) — its burgeoning USD 5 billion market — for the “regrettable” offence caused by the “inappropriate” “Stand with Hong Kong” tweet
sent out by one of its teams’ General Manager. The apology didn’t keep the CCP from inflicting
severe financial damages to the league, with the NBA’s Hong Kong hurt dragging companies such as Nike
along to the self-censorship spree in a bid to keep their businesses in the PRC afloat.
The NBA episode is only one of the recent cases where an otherwise virtue-signalling corporation has gone silent when it comes to China. Over the last few months, an increasing number of companies
that include luxury brands, big retailers, hospitality chains and airlines have been toeing the CCP line on contentious issues, ranging from the status
of Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea
to human rights abuses
in Tibet and Xinjiang.
China’s attempts at influencing public opinion and limiting free expression abroad go beyond exerting pressure on corporations that rely on its 1.4 billion strong market.
However, China’s attempts at influencing public opinion and limiting free expression abroad go beyond exerting pressure on corporations that rely on its 1.4 billion strong market. The last few years have seen the PRC expand the CCP’s worldview to countries of geopolitical interest through local media
organisations, academic research institutes
and political leaders
to seek foreign conformity with the objectives of the Party.
have argued that such authoritarian influencing techniques are not sufficiently captured by the Post-Cold War tendency of understanding influence only through a ‘soft power’ lens. Instead, this injection of influence in target countries — usually, open democracies — which is achieved through “instruments of manipulation, distortion, and distraction” is best understood as ‘sharp power’.
Although the depth of Chinese sharp power in Eastern Europe, South America
and the West
has been widely discussed — with Australia already having legislated
on it, a careful analysis of the information and political space in India — primarily, its media, academia and parliamentary politics — reveals that substantial efforts are being made by the PRC to frame a ‘party-positive’ public opinion in New Delhi also— Beijing’s regional geo-strategic competitor.
With ‘Media Warfare’ constituting one of the officially instated ‘Three Warfares’ that direct the work of the CCP and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), PRC has been pushing paid content that justifies its totalitarian domestic policies, defends its foreign policy objectives, and furthers political polarisation in target countries through some of the most reputed platforms including the BBC, The Washington Post and the New York Times.
Local media — as Spanish journalist Juan Cardenal notes — has been often used as a “borrowed boat
” for the dissemination of party propaganda abroad under the garb of “openly sharing information and perspectives”. With ‘Media Warfare
’ constituting one of the officially instated ‘Three Warfares’ that direct the work of the CCP and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), PRC has been pushing paid content that justifies its totalitarian domestic policies, defends its foreign policy objectives, and furthers political polarisation in target countries through some of the most reputed platforms including the BBC
, The Washington Post
and the New York Times
. The problem is now appearing on the pages of Indian newspapers, too — paid for by the CCP
. When these Indian dailies are not carrying glossy party-sponsored China Daily inserts
about Tibet’s “shining years of success” under the communist regime, they are publishing op-eds authored by high-ranking Chinese diplomats themselves — justifying
the brutal actions of the Hong Kong police against “radicals” or penning
high praises in honour of the “Xi Path to Prosperity.”
Perhaps more potent than the use of conventional media, these diplomats are now telling the story of “real China
” to their large following of foreign social media users on Twitter — ironically, a platform banned in the PRC. These ‘twiplomats’ have been confronting prominent critics of PRC’s white-elephant projects
and ‘debt-traps’ in India’s neighbourhood with bellicosity, responding to Xinjiang-related condemnation with racially charged come-backs
, and threatening defenders of Taiwan’s independence with “fire
Confucius Institutes (CI) — legally
permitted to direct university curriculum to Beijing’s liking — have helped the CCP’s censorious long arm of influence reach campuses in Australia, New Zealand
, the UK
and the USA
. China also ensures favourable scholarship through individual academics — either by cultivating warm
personal relations with them or trying to scare them away from CCP-criticism by intimidating
them. Although India’s security establishment has raised
an alarm on CIs, Indian institutions
continue to enter research partnerships
with China’s, and the CCP continues to fund scholarships
for Indians. As examples from the UK
, the US
and Latin America prove
, lavish injections of yuan in foreign academia from Chinese institutions that have totalitarian
, institutionally mandated restrictions
on academic freedom have allowed China to export its regression, and build a large network of foreign influencers. China has also been reaching out to students and professionals
— including those in India
— with enticing offers of employment and all-expense-paid trips. These well-funded student programmes and career opportunities are allegedly aiding the Chinese state’s interference and espionage activities
Huawei’s recent outreach to Indian telecom officials drew domestic political ire, bringing home concerns about Huawei lobbying for a favourable 5G security decision.
China’s influence operations go beyond media and academia, making their way to the highest decision making bodies of target states. Increasingly occupying centre stage in its foreign policy defences, Huawei has been ferrying large numbers
of foreign policymakers to its “Disneyland
” HQ, leaving them “dazzled
”about China’s seemingly ‘harmless’
tech prowess. The company’s recent outreach to Indian telecom officials drew domestic political ire
, bringing home concerns about Huawei lobbying
for a favourable 5G security decision. Beijing’s attempts to build
lucrative relationships with a diverse
array of Indian political leaders
require serious attention, considering how severely such suspiciously
developed relationships have impacted domestic debates on China in other countries, especially Australia
and New Zealand
The possible collateral damage of China’s sharp power could be borne by India’s film industry — a potent carrier of Delhi’s soft power. With Indian films developing a large fan base in China, one wonders whether Bollywood
will start losing its essential Indian flavour and sinicise itself to meet China’s strict censorship regulations and keep its Chinese movie-goers happy? Going by trends
in Hollywood, adherence to the CCP’s policy objectives, China’s territorial claims and the “dignity
” of president Xi is the rule — be it in animated kids’ fantasies
or action thrillers
It is not unusual for countries to promote their interests abroad, and closing up open systems in the face of threats from ‘foreign influence’ raises legitimate questions about the ethics of restricting the free flow of information in democracies where access to diverse ideas is otherwise critical. However, Chinese sharp power penetration is concerning
— and requires attention. Propaganda delivered by the CCP, a regime that has zero-tolerance
towards pluralist viewpoints at home but relies on free speech outside China only damages
the cause of free expression.
Given the extent of its spread and impact elsewhere, and India’s continually complicated relationship with its powerful neighbour to the North, it is vital that the world’s largest democracy has an open debate on the degree of China's sharp power in the country.
The author is a research intern at Observer Research Foundation.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.