This report describes how the party has increasingly employed many of these domestic tools to unite foreign friends and isolate foreign enemies. Ambassador Gui’s remarks are but one example in an expanding universe of cases. The threat of losing business in China means that foreign corporations are routinely pressed to censor themselves and their employees to avoid topics the party considers sensitive. Meanwhile, Chinese companies have built and sold the party’s tools of digital authoritarianism in South America, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. Chinese diplomats have also tried to rally other countries in support of greater governmental control over the flow of digital information inside national borders. In Southeast Asia, party-state linked actors have sought to covertly alter the outcome of elections throughout Southeast Asia, combining cyberespionage prowess with the financial firepower of the PRC’s enormous policy banks. And the party has used the same vision of triumphant ethnic solidarity it pushes on its own population to justify its attempts to threaten, censor, and co-opt the Chinese diaspora. In so doing, the party hopes to influence democratic politicians and politics by controlling the external narrative presented of China.
These interference activities are all in service of the party’s singular goal –protecting and expanding its power. As the PRC has grown economically and gained an increasing global footprint, its external activities have expanded. Analyst Liza Tobin provides an assessment of the party’s expanding global objectives, asserting that Beijing hopes that its “global network of partnerships centered on China would replace the U.S. system of treaty alliances, the international community would regard Beijing’s authoritarian governance model as a superior alternative to Western electoral democracy, and the world would credit the Communist Party of China for developing a new path to peace, prosperity, and modernity that other countries can follow.” Although Tobin’s analysis focuses on the consequences for U.S. national security, her conclusions highlight the urgent need for all democratic countries to comprehend the full scope and scale of China’s interference abroad. In particular, foreign leaders need to understand why interference occurs and establish general principles in the search for solutions.
This report is an initial attempt to advance understanding of these tactics, building on a growing body of work on the party’s global influence. Although the degree of success the party has enjoyed in building global influence is debatable—and there are certainly examples of failure—party leaders appear to be increasingly confident in this toolkit. Understanding the roots of this confidence requires careful assessment of the many ways the party influences and interferes in other countries’ and which actions the party deems to have been successful. This report identifies five components, which often interact with one another, that together characterize China’s political interference in industrialized democracies:
Weaponizing China’s economy: Party leaders generate political compliance in foreign societies by communicating the benefits of cooperation, alongside the costs that Beijing can impose upon countries, companies, or individuals who step out of line.
Asserting narrative dominance: In the global conversation on China, the party manipulates and controls information to downplay and crowd out adversarial narratives and advance those that serve its interests.
Relying on elite intermediaries: The party relies on intermediaries abroad to shape foreign perceptions of China, often adopting many of the same ambiguous, opaque, and misleading methods that it utilizes to co-opt elites at home.
Instrumentalizing the Chinese diaspora: The party identifies valuable diaspora members and groups in an effort to penetrate and co-opt Chinese diaspora communities.
Embedding authoritarian control: The party’s way of doing business, and its efforts to demonstrate a viable alternative to liberal democracy, both strengthen authoritarian norms beyond China’s borders.
These characteristics of the party’s foreign interference have deep roots in how the party governs China. They are not accidental, and they did not first appear after Xi Jinping’s assumption of power. Rather, they grew out of the strategies, structures, and political warfare doctrines the party has used to address the many internal and external threats it perceives to its primacy within China. These components are the result of purposeful choices with deep roots in the party’s “us versus them” approach to power. This report is therefore also an attempt to look at the party’s expanding global footprint through its own eyes. The following sections explain the doctrine behind these components and provide examples of their use.
One implication of this analysis is that—because the party attributes some of its growing power and success to its ability to interfere in other countries—Chinese interference will pose an enduring challenge. Leaders of democratic countries will have to build cooperation, capability, and resilience to respond. Cooperation is necessary because the party seeks to prevent a united opposition by inhibiting the formation of coalitions and counter narratives. Capability is required because many countries lack the expertise and competence to address aspects of the challenge. Resilience is needed to preserve foreign governments’ ability to resist pressure and to protect the rights of citizens and organizations to express their views on the growing list of issues the party considers sensitive. Together, these efforts can help to protect against the growing challenge of the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign interference.
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