China’s Sharp Power

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 10, No. 8, August 2022

A series of paintings of communist leaders lined up along a Hong Kong road, 2016. Source: Flickr.

Roman Štěpař
Charles University

If we understand geopolitics as a “representation of space”, then the Indo-Pacific region can be seen as an emerging geopolitical hotbed in which major powers struggle not only for control but also for discourse of values and worldviews. In this particular geopolitical competition of values and mindsets, a sharp power is gradually gaining prominence, and in the Indo-Pacific region, China is at the center of the action.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the lessons of Gorbachev’s “failure” were passed on to Chinese citizens. They denounced Moscow’s ideological neglect for this catastrophe and warned that it was possible that it would happen in China as well. Chinese foreign policy has as a result been transformed. After 40 years of remarkable rise, China has now clearly demonstrated its desire to lead the world by reasserting itself in a position that its leaders consider “historically correct.”

China’s ambition is not to replace the United States as a global superpower. In this new era, China’s role on the global stage is to promote its own ideas, norms, and approaches to governance that are favorable to China to the point of its own hegemony, what Xi Jinping calls a “community of shared destiny.”

The Chinese government formally accepted Joseph Nye’s soft power theory. However, Joseph Nye is critical of the Chinese interpretation of his theory. According to Nye, China does not understand the meaning of soft power. Nye focuses on the role of civil society in strengthening the country’s soft power. However, China uses party-state institutions and those associated with them to develop power.

This has created the need for a new way of thinking about Chinese power. The term “sharp power” was coined, first used by Joseph Nye in 2018 when he published two articles in Foreign Affairs describing Chinese sharp power as something between soft and hard power. Sharp power is an approach to international affairs that involves efforts to censor and use manipulation to undermine the integrity of independent institutions. Sharp power has the effect of limiting freedom of expression and distorting the political environment. Sharp power is the ability to influence others to achieve a desired outcome, not by attracting others as in soft power, but by influencing others, disseminating and manipulating information.

China’s sharp power is mostly concerned with proving that the CCP has an unchallenged monopoly on political power and with controlling the debate on sensitive issues abroad.  Xi Jinping is pushing for China’s model of governance based on state-led development and one-party decision-making to be seen as an alternative to the liberalism proposed by Western countries. He hopes that a “socialist system with Chinese characteristics” will become a new model for developing countries seeking economic development, but in a dependency relation to Beijing.This development reflects a broader definition of security that includes anything that could weaken the Communist Party’s ability to maintain power at home and abroad. 

Increasingly authoritarian rule at home, especially the significant concentration of power in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Xi Jinping, has spread to the international community and manifested itself in Beijing’s sharp power. Xi Jinping has de facto removed the boundary between domestic and foreign policy. The Chinese model of governance is central to the formulation and implementation of its foreign policy. With China now rebalancing its political values and norms, Beijing portrays sensitive issues abroad as posing a serious challenge to the sovereignty of the CCP and China that must be addressed at all costs at home and abroad. Security issues have expanded to areas of thought and ideas that the CCP thinks may be dangerous to China’s existence.

Xi Jinping, more than any of his predecessors, has sought to expand China’s ability to shape foreign public opinion and thus influence the decision-making process of foreign governments. The CCP wants to preemptively change the world in which it operates, shaping foreign elites’ understanding of China and its political system. This reflects not only the Chinese government’s growing confidence in China’s international influence, but also Xi Jinping’s strategy to maintain and enhance China’s power by promoting economic growth and strengthening control of information. Like Mao Zedong, Xi Jinping emphasizes the importance of information control. In the modern environment, this means not only China’s public space, but also how the international media and international academia comment on China and issues related to China. That is why we continue to see the Chinese censorship system gradually penetrating these areas abroad.

Most of the momentum for Sharp Power comes from the work of the United Front, which is not limited to one specialised organisation. The United Front has a far-reaching programme in a variety of activities for its agents, officials from all walks of life and a wide range of sympathetic workers. The United Front is an essential part of the domestic and foreign policy toolkit of the CCP. It is the integration of organizations under the CCP government into a comprehensive strategy aimed at controlling, indoctrinating, and mobilizing the masses (domestic and foreign) who are not CCP members in the service of the CCP’s political goals. The activities of the United Front include cooperation with prominent figures in groups and society, information management and publicity, and often, a means of facilitating espionage. 

Unlike familiar forms of public diplomacy, influence operations are conducted in secret, with the purpose of corruption or coercion. Influence operations have occurred before, during the Cold War, but the tools to carry them out have expanded exponentially in the last decade and China is using them in unprecedented ways. 

In the 21st century, we are seeing a wave of democratic retreat around the world, for example in Venezuela, Turkey,  and to some extent in the United States under the Trump administration. Unlike events in the past, however, they do not begin violently as a result of crisis or external pressure, but rather under the influence of fierce political competition and constant attacks on democratic institutions, there is a gradual internal erosion. Given this trend, the sharp ability of those in power to deceive and sow alternative narratives is particularly daunting.

To combat Chinese influence operations, political leaders must work with other democratic governments and invite civil society to participate in the fight against China’s sharp power.

Roman Štěpař was born and raised in Prague, Czech Republic. He spent time studying in Taiwan, China, and Korea before earning a Master’s degree in International Relations from Charles University.