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China's Insidious Illiberal Influence

The Chinese Communist Party is intent on controlling the narrative worldwide, not just within China. Some Western businesses and institutions are aiding and abetting this effort.

by Jeryl Bier


The West is suffering from an identity crisis as it struggles to maintain a firm commitment to the principles of liberal democracy in the face of illiberal temptations left and right.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to reap the economic benefits of engagement and trade with the West while maintaining and even increasing its authoritarian hold on its own people. Increasingly, the CCP has turned outward, intent on broadening its influence worldwide. To that end it has motivated a rash of self-censorship across our cultural and entrepreneurial institutions, in addition to more direct intimidation.

Google “China Censorship,” and you’ll find an abundance of disparate examples of the CCP exerting its influence in Western education, entertainment, sports, business, publishing, and social media. What we aim to do here is to show not only the scale of creeping Western deference to the CCP, but the scope of these particular incidents - including the lengths many are willing to go to satiate communist leadership in the name of trade.

Given the paramount importance of free speech and freedom of the press in a free society, the publishing industry is a good place to begin. We at Pluribus have documented the pressures of illiberalism the industry is already under in the West. The CCP is not shy about using indirect pressure and even explicit threats to get its way, but at times its involvement goes well beyond simple pressure. German media company Deutsche Welle reported on one such case in 2020:

[...] Thalia, a large chain of [German] bookstores, suddenly designated an unusual amount of shelf space to Chinese literature in some of its stores. Clients quickly noticed that the shelves lacked any literature critical of the Communist Party. Instead, speeches by Xi Jinping were front and center. Thalia later admitted that the display had been curated by China Book Trading, a German subsidiary of China International Publishing Group, which is owned by the ruling Communist Party. Thalia didn't disclose whether China Book Trading had paid for the prominent shelf space.

The influence of the Chinese government in the publishing sector is not limited to bookstores. In 2017, the venerable Cambridge University Press censored content on its website in China after receiving an ultimatum from the government. Shortly thereafter, the New York Times reported that another company had followed suit:

One of the world’s largest academic publishers was criticized on Wednesday for bowing to pressure from the Chinese government to block access to hundreds of articles on its Chinese website. Springer Nature, whose publications include Nature and Scientific American, acknowledged that at the government’s request, it had removed articles from its mainland site that touch on topics the ruling Communist Party considers sensitive, including Taiwan, Tibet, human rights and elite politics.

That same year saw an uproar in Australia when the publication of a book on China’s influence (ironically enough) in that country was postponed by the publisher and ultimately published by a different company over concerns about the Chinese government’s reaction.

Here in the U.S., Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin recently wrote his own book on China. Published by Mariner Books in March 2021, Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century explores China’s relationship with the U.S. during the Trump administration. Rogin, who writes extensively on China in his column, told Pluribus that “​​state media propaganda trolls” often attempt to undermine his work on social media and Chinese government-run or affiliated “news” sites.

Rogin said he is not aware of any attempt by China to directly interfere in the publication of his book or reporting, but that the personal attacks on Twitter can be intense when coordinated by Chinese state media outlets. He says the Chinese Communist Party has a “massive propaganda” operation “to try to make you feel pain and shame and to muddy the information” journalists publish about the inner workings of that country and its interactions with other nations.

Disinformation over the recently announced U.S. diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics is a good example of how this works, Rogin says. When Rogin himself first revealed the Biden administration’s intention to boycott in a column, Liu Xin of China’s state media outlet CTGN publicly accused Rogin of making it up. When the boycott was confirmed, Xin switched gears and accused Rogin of driving U.S. policy. “It's a disinformation campaign masquerading as a journalistic enterprise that does the party's political bidding, truth has nothing to do with it. The goal is not to win the argument, the goal is to make sure nobody does,” Rogin said.

Indeed, a recent investigation by the New York Times reveals how Chinese government entities literally buy influence using the power of social media to control the narrative:

On May 21, a branch of the Shanghai police posted a notice online seeking bids from private contractors for what is known among Chinese officialdom as public opinion management. Officials have relied on tech contractors to help them keep up with domestic social media and actively shape public opinion via censorship and the dissemination of fake posts at home. Only recently have officials and the opinion management industry turned their attention beyond China.

The Times investigation shows a growing effort by Chinese authorities to not only manage the messaging, but to use its social media mercenaries to intimidate and silence those who are seen as threats to the state.

China has also set its sights on education in the West to help insinuate its values beyond its own borders. Since colleges and universities are intended to be nurseries of free expression, the influence exerted by the CCP on institutions of higher learning is perhaps the most disturbing theater of operations of this war.

A recent report from ProPublica found that not only do Chinese students and scholars on U.S. campuses face harassment and retaliation when they speak out, but the schools themselves often remain silent rather than risk consequences for themselves.

Students who don’t conform to the “views and ideology of the Chinese Communist Party,” said Mike Orlando, who leads the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, “risk being targeted for harassment.” China’s efforts to “suppress free speech and debate on U.S. campuses are concerning,” he said. At Brandeis University near Boston, Chinese students mobilized last year to sabotage an online panel about atrocities against Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region. Viewers interrupted a Harvard-educated lawyer as she tried to describe her brother’s plight in a concentration camp, scrawling “bullshit” and “fake news” over his face on the screen and blaring China’s national anthem. To the dismay of participants, the university’s leaders failed to condemn the incident. At the University of Georgia, a graduate student became the prey of an intelligence officer in China who pressured him over the phone to become a spy and inform on fellow dissidents in America. When the student made the conversations public, Chinese security forces harassed his family back home.

In May of this year, members of The University of Chicago’s Chinese Students and Scholars association protested an event featuring a guest speaker who they claimed fell “outside of the purviews of free speech” since they were a “convicted criminal” who has “glorified violence.” The speaker was not, as you might think, a January 6th Capitol rioter, but Nathan Law, a pro-democracy activist from Hong Kong. While the event went forward, Law says it is far from the only opposition his appearances on campuses have generated due to China’s National Security Law.

Due in part to such pressure, The Wall Street Journal reported in August 2020 that some U.S. universities, including Harvard and Princeton, had taken steps to warn and protect students from the reach of China. Princeton even assigned codes in lieu of names for some Chinese students in a Chinese politics class to shield their identities. These steps reflect growing concern that Chinese intelligence services use U.S. university settings to gather information on as well as intimidate those who express ideas contrary to the official CCP line. From a Voice of America report in January 2020:

"I think it is a concern that we have organizations on campus that have significant ties to the Chinese government, and are used to monitor the behavior of my PRC students," said a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland. Classroom discussions "are typically dealing with PRC sensitive issues, for example, history or political science," the professor said.

The Chinese government’s moves to quash opposition and pushback on foreign soil have recently garnered the attention of human rights organizations. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reported in July on a Human Rights Watch report that documented China’s “repression” of academic freedom in Australia’s universities. Both FIRE and HRW view these cases as a warning to other countries who host students from China or partner in some way with the Chinese government.

The activities of the Chinese government, however, do not simply consist of efforts to intimidate and censor, but involve active recruitment measures, as the Heritage Foundation detailed earlier this year:

Thousand Talents Programs. Beijing’s Foreign Thousand Talents Program aims to attract “high-end foreign scientists, engineers, and managers from foreign countries.” Invitations and advertisements to participate come directly from Chinese research institutions that manage individual programs. But those institutions report to and are overseen by the government and the party, which provides financial compensation for participation.

The State Department revealed in 2020 that participants in these programs were required to agree to “legally binding contracts that often compel recipients to conceal their PRC [People’s Republic of China] relationships and funding[.]”

In addition, for almost 20 years now, the Chinese government has established “Confucius Institutes” throughout the world, including in the U.S., as ostensible “language and cultural centers.” But questions regarding influence and non-disclosure of funding arrangements led the Trump administration to designate the Confucius Institute U.S. Center as a “foreign mission” of the PRC.

The move contributed to a drastic reversal of what had been a rapidly growing program. A December 2021 Congressional Research Service report says that while the number of Confucius Institutes reached 103 in 2017, only 31 exist presently, and that while “the Institutes sponsor Confucius Classrooms in U.S. primary and secondary schools, which totaled roughly 500 in 2019…, [m]any Confucius Classroom programs also have ended.”

While the influence of the Chinese Communist government in U.S. educational circles may be particularly worrisome given the potential impact on impressionable young people and on institutions intended to be arenas of openness and free expression, for-profit enterprises have proven to be equally vulnerable to China’s appetite for control.

A 2019 Mashable article compiled a list of major companies (including Apple, American Airlines, Nike, Gap) who had given in to Chinese pressure, but other examples have accumulated in the interim. While some incidents have directly impacted investment decisions involving their bottom lines, a recent anecdote illustrates both the sensitivity of both the Chinese government and some U.S. business executives, as the New York Times reported:

At the Boston College Chief Executives Club on Tuesday, [JPMorgan’s] Mr. [Jamie] Dimon relayed a recent joke he had made comparing the longevity of the multibillion-dollar bank and China’s ruling party. “I made a joke the other day that the Communist Party is celebrating its 100th year,” he said at the event. “So is JPMorgan. I’d make a bet that we last longer.” He added: “I can’t say that in China. They are probably listening anyway.” On Wednesday, Mr. Dimon provided an additional comment through a statement from his spokesman. “I regret my recent comment because it’s never right to joke about or denigrate any group of people, whether it’s a country, its leadership, or any part of a society and culture,” Mr. Dimon said. “Speaking in that way can take away from constructive and thoughtful dialogue in society, which is needed now more than ever.”

That the CEO of such a large and influential corporation felt compelled to issue an abject apology for a flippant remark is a testament to the growing power of the Chinese government in the global economy, and the apparent fear of potential retaliation absent Dimon’s public contrition.

Disney’s removal of an episode of the Simpsons from its Disney+ service in Hong Kong because of a reference to Tiananmen Square reflects the same low bar. (In October, Harvard International Review published an article documenting numerous earlier examples of Disney’s acquiescence to the CCP going back decades.)

China’s thin skin over jokes stands in stark contrast to the reluctance of some businesses to allow China’s treatment of Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong and even its own Uyghur population (termed “genocide” in a recent State Department document) to interfere in relations with that country’s government and state-related business interests.

In November, the Marriott corporation had to apologize after its Prague hotel refused on the grounds of “political neutrality” to host the World Uyghur Congress. The NBA has also been the target of ridicule in recent years because of its growing relationship with China involving millions of dollars that the organization is loath to put in jeopardy by criticizing the actions of the CCP or even tacitly approving such criticism by team personnel or players. Nike, a chief supplier of NBA equipment and apparel, has exhibited similar behavior. (It’s worth noting that the Women’s Tennis Association has shown significantly more courage in its recent response to China’s apparent persecution of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai by suspending its operations in the country.)

While the entertainment industry sees itself as a champion of free expression, often pushing back the boundaries of cultural norms and taboos, the business side of Hollywood has all too often succumbed to China’s censorious tendencies. PEN America (a non-profit free-expression literary advocacy organization) released a 71 page report in 2020 entitled “Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing.” The sheer size of the market tempts filmmakers to kowtow to the pressures and demands of the Communist Chinese government to design or change content that will be acceptable to the censors. The report notes the significance of the industry’s deference to China:

Hollywood is an important bellwether. The Chinese government, under Xi Jinping especially, has heavily emphasized its desire to ensure that Hollywood filmmakers—to use their preferred phrase—“tell China’s story well.” Within the pages of this report, we detail how Hollywood decision-makers and other filmmaking professionals are increasingly making decisions about their films—the content, casting, plot, dialogue, and settings—based on an effort to avoid antagonizing Chinese officials who control whether their films gain access to the booming Chinese market.

Recently, actor John Cena apologized for simply referring to Taiwan as a country, highlighting the same sensitivity revealed by the Jamie Dimon incident. In a more serious case, the credits of Disney’s Mulan remake includes thanks to various departments of the Chinese government for their cooperation with the film. Some of the same departments have been complicit in that government’s persecution of its Uyghur population, raising questions about Disney’s willingness to overlook human rights abuses for the sake of its bottom line.

It takes fortitude for individuals like Josh Rogin to withstand blowback, and not all are up to the task. And when even massive companies like Disney and JPMorgan and storied institutions like Harvard and Princeton are intimidated into illiberal actions and stances, it is increasingly clear that the West can’t merely rely on the muscle memory of liberalism, but must make a concerted and organized effort to resist such coercion.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was hope that China would see the writing on the wall and mend its authoritarian ways. Instead, Beijing has retrenched and in recent years has expanded its efforts to extend its influence globally. Leaders in business, education, entertainment, government and elsewhere in the free countries of the world must rise to meet this challenge head on to ensure that the twenty-first century doesn’t see a repeat of the worst mistakes of the twentieth.


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