October 16: China’s Influence and Information Campaign
Wednesday, October 16, 2019 from 4:30 PM – 6:00 PM at the Global Taiwan Institute
Over the past six years, under the rule of Xi Jinping, China has radically overhauled and expanded its strategy to wield influence within other states’ domestic politics and societies. This strategy is most apparent in Asia-Pacific states near China, although it is also increasingly evident in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. This influence and information campaign is designed partly to bolster China’s power but also partly to undermine the space for rights and democracy in other states, and to potentially support pro-China authoritarian leaders. The campaign has had, and could have, a substantially negative impact on rights and democracy generally, and on the freedoms of democratic politicians, media outlets, and other civil society groups in Asian nations specifically. This seminar will explore how China’s influence and information campaign is affecting civil society, politics, and foreign policy in Taiwan and in other states.
Panelists are Dr. Shih-hung Lo from National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan, Isaac Stone Fish from the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, David Shullman from the International Republican Institute, and Russell Hsiao from Global Taiwan Institute. Carnegie Council Senior Fellow Devin T. Stewart will moderate the panel. Join GTI on October 16 for a discussion on China’s influence and information campaign. This panel discussion is co-organized by the Global Taiwan Institute and the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and sponsored in part by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office – New York.
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Dr. Shih-hung Lo is a professor at the Department of Communication & Graduate Institute of Telecommunications from National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan. In addition to his appointment at the National Chung Cheng University, he is currently the chairman of Taiwan Media Watch and the chairman of The Campaign for Media Reform in Taiwan. Dr. Lo has published extensively in media such as CommonWealth Magazine, UP Media, and Initium Media, among others. His research interests include critical political economy of communication, media and communication policy, communication theories and Chinese media studies. Dr. Lo received his Ph.D. in Media and Communications from the London School of Economics and Political Science in the UK as well as a B.A. and an M.A. in Journalism from National Chengchi University in Taiwan.
Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist, a Washington Post Global Opinions contributing columnist, and a senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations in New York City. He is also a contributor to CBSN, an international affairs analyst for PRI’s The World, a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, and a frequent speaker at events around the United States and the world. Previously he served as Foreign Policy Magazine‘s Asia Editor: he managed coverage of the region, and wrote about the politics, economics, and international affairs of China, Japan, and North Korea. A fluent Mandarin speaker and formerly a Beijing correspondent for Newsweek, Mr. Fish spent seven years living in China prior to joining Foreign Policy. He has traveled widely in the region and in the country, visiting every Chinese province, autonomous region, and municipality. His views on international affairs have been widely quoted, including in MSNBC, ABC, NPR, CBS, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, Slate, The Guardian, the BBC, the Sydney Morning Herald, Talking Points Memo, and Al-Jazeera, among others; and in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese media. Mr. Fish is a graduate of Columbia University, where he studied Chinese literature. He is also a Truman National Security Project fellow, a non-resident senior fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, and an alumni of the World Economic Forum Global Shaper’s program.
David Shullman is senior advisor at the International Republican Institute, where he oversees IRI’s work addressing the influence of China and other autocracies on democratic institutions and governance in countries around the world. Prior to IRI, Dr. Shullman served for nearly a dozen years as one of the US Government’s top experts on East Asia, most recently as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for East Asia on the National Intelligence Council. He earned his PhD in Political Science from UCLA, a MALD from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and a BA in Government from Georgetown.
Russell Hsiao is the executive director of GTI and adjunct fellow at the Pacific Forum. He previously served as a senior research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, National Security fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Penn Kemble fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. Prior to those positions he was the editor of China Brief at The Jamestown Foundation from October 2007 to July 2011 and a special associate in the International Cooperation Department at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. While in law school, he clerked within the Office of the Chairman at the Federal Communications Commission and the Interagency Trade Enforcement Center at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Mr. Hsiao received his J.D. and certificate from the Law and Technology Institute at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law where he served as the editor-in-chief of the Catholic University Journal of Law and Technology. He received a B.A. in International Studies from the American University’s School of International Service and the University Honors Program. Mr. Hsiao is proficient in Mandarin Chinese.
Devin T. Stewart is senior fellow at Eurasia Group Foundation as well as at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, focusing on East Asian politics and US foreign policy. He is also a Truman Security Fellow and has served as adjunct professor of international affairs at Columbia and New York University. He founded and directed Carnegie Council’s Asia, globalization, and corporate programs and previously ran global programs at Japan Society in New York. Mr. Stewart’s writings have appeared in more than ten languages in numerous publications, including Foreign Affairs, the American Interest, Foreign Policy, Ethics & International Affairs, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, The Hill, and the National Interest. He is a contributing author to several monographs and books, including What Do We Do about Inequality? (the Wicked Problems Collaborative, 2015), International Relations: Perspectives, Controversies, and Readings (Cengage, 2013), Reimagining Japan: The Quest for a Future that Works (Simon & Schuster, 2011), Tsunami: Japan’s Post-Fukushima Future (Foreign Policy, 2011), and Energy Security Challenges for the 21st Century: A Reference Handbook (Praeger Security International, 2009). He earned an MA at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a BA from the University of Delaware.
On Wednesday, October 16 GTI and Carnegie Council held a public seminar on China’s influence and information campaign. Moderator Devin T. Stewart initiated the panel by introducing China’s political warfare. He referred to the phenomenon of gray power competition, which he defined as the type of political warfare that falls just under actual warfare. Mentioning a recent controversy where a Houston rockets manager came under a coordinated attack on Twitter after posting a tweet supporting Hong Kong’s freedom, Stewart stressed how timely the issue of China’s influence is in the present day.
Panelist Isaac Stone Fish provided an analysis of Beijing’s influence operations. He first pointed out the importance of distinguishing between the different foreign influences that the world has seen recently, specifically pointing towards Russia and China. He asserted that while Russia’s influence aims to cause chaos, China’s influence is directed at changing the way people around the world think about the PRC. Using the NBA as an example, Stone Fish highlighted the phenomenon of self-censorship of non-Chinese nationals on issues related to China. He asserted that Beijing reacts to certain issues in a way that is meant to show that the country stands with one voice—and that there are issues pertaining to China that non-Chinese cannot understand. Stone Fish also contended that self-censorship and pro-China messages by non-Chinese nationals abroad, especially Americans, are significantly more effective. As non-Chinese, they are more a more trustworthy, and therefore effective information channels for pro-China views in influencing their local societies. These channels internalise Beijing’s values which, when conveyed through them, become more credible due to its origin outside China.
Stone Fish stated that currently, many American entities are censoring themselves, allowing Beijing to amplify positive information and further suppress negative information about the PRC. The CCP has formed a deliberate framework on how to view China which is now being implemented around the world—and finding ways to counter its influence abroad is a challenge. Stone Fish affirmed that it is difficult for smaller countries to counter Beijing’s influence because their financial interests outweigh their normative values. He concluded with the thought that only through collective action—only when countries act together against China—will Beijing yield its influence.
Russell Hsiao presented insights from his research on PRC’s influence in Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. He first asserted that looking at China’s influence is an important issue because it not only affects the United States, but also the rest of the world. Citing the US Department of Defense’s China Military Power Report, Hsiao pointed to Beijing’s influence on cultural, business, political, and academic institutions, media organizations, foreign countries, and international institutions, to exert power. He then referred more specifically to the works of the United Front, which he described as a societal strategy that aims to influence, indoctrinate, and mobilize to serve the CCP’s objectives. Hsiao also pointed out that Beijing’s political warfare is little understood by the public and that the research on the issue is insufficient, which causes the countries’ lack of ability and capacity to respond to China’s influence. Hsiao stressed that having at least a situational awareness of this issue is imperative.
Hsiao detailed three preliminary conclusions from his research: one, that while CCP’s specific objectives may vary as they target different countries, the channels in which they engage in such influence operations against various countries are similar, such as through political elites, the media, academic institutions, community organizations, associations, and labor unions; two, that while the Propaganda and the United Front departments are different bureaucracies, the operations of the departments reinforce one another and should be considered part of the same influence apparatus coordinated through central leading small groups and conditions within the CCP; and three, that CCP influence targets both Chinese and non-Chinese population. Speaking more explicitly about Japan and Singapore, Hsiao emphasized the ways in which CCP propaganda flows through various channels within the countries to promote a picture more favorable to China, irrespective of nationality. He identified identity and cultural association as important factors that facilitate propaganda flow in the two countries.
Dr. Shih-hung Lo spoke about the impact of China’s fake news in Taiwan and the efforts to combat the influence of information campaigns. From his research so far, he has found that China is imposing influence on Taiwan by all means available; that the impact of China’s influence on Taiwan can already be seen within Taiwan’s societies; and that the influence is growing rapidly, thus threatening Taiwan’s democracy. On the issue of China’s coalition building in Taiwan, Lo pointed to the phenomenon that more often than not, foreign politicians, businessmen, and elites amplify Beijing’s political views related to Taiwan. Lo warned that China’s coalition building in Taiwan’s media is a major concern.
Lo highlighted the trends of increasing self-censorship on China-related issues in Taiwan and the long shadow that has been cast by China’s censorship. Citing some examples of online information operations, he asserted that there is a growing number of information campaigns online in Taiwan originating in China, which is weakening Taiwan’s democracy. Lo believes that Taiwan’s government does very little to combat the circulation of fake information in the country but claimed that the very existence of Taiwan as a democracy is a strategy to combat CCP’s spreading of false information.
David Shullman addressed China’s influence in developing countries and focused particularly on his report titled “Chinese Malign Influence and the Corrosion of Democracy” published by the International Republican Institute (IRI) this year. He first stressed that China’s influence is a global problem, but one that looks very different in each country. Shullman maintained that China’s influence boils down to economic factors, such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the debt traps which many BRI projects lead to. Opacity is at the heart of China’s BRI projects, while behind-closed-doors meetings set up terms that are only beneficial to China. Shullman claimed that China is able to have such strong influence on countries—especially those that have yet to develop—because China creates cycles of dependence which make countries repeatedly and increasingly reliant on China. These debt cycles originate due to the opacity in trade deals and from the breeding of elites in countries that are favourable to China, usually through monetary benefits. When China operates economically in developing countries, its investment shapes the way in which local media report on China. In such cases, China obtains a free pass and an absolute advantage in that country. At the same time, local democracies and their internal independence is weakened.
In his report, Shullman asserted that despite growing recognition of the risks of engagement with China, especially among developing countries, there has been little in-depth research looking at China’s methods of influence and the possible responses to the efforts. The IRI report presents research from twelve vulnerable democracies around the world—Cambodia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Serbia, Ecuador, Zambia, Mongolia, Hungary, The Gambia, Myanmar, Malaysia, and the Maldives—studying the nature of CCP influence in individual developing countries and the determinants of democratic resilience to CCP tactics. The findings from the studies emphasize the destructive effects of unchecked CCP influence in democracies’ internal discourses on China and on their economies. The manipulation of the information space creates institutions that do not and will not expose the risks of China’s corrupt practices and opaque economic deals; tactics that robust democracies would surely disclose.
Shullman also spoke about the no-strings attached investment projects that China provides to developing countries. China grants political status to local politicians and autocrats by allowing them to be associated with these grandiose projects. This strategy, Shullman contended, allows China to export CCP’s political methods and disconnect democracy through economic development measures. As the report underscores, CCP is increasingly using similar practices abroad to manipulate countries’ internal information and political environments to its own benefit, leaving them indebted to their creditor.
Shullman maintained that China’s influence will only increase with time and its control will spread beyond the borders of media, speech, and the economy. As emphasized in the report, the CCP’s tactics, in addition to China’s support for illiberal, likeminded partners who advocate for its authoritarian model, have the potential to draw even more fragile democracies into China’s dangerous orbit and further away from democratic institutions, from the US, and from the democratic West. CCP’s methods of influence also vary and are targeted according to the state of governance and transparency in individual countries. It is important to focus on the context in particular countries and proactively target specific fragile democratic institutions to counter the malign efforts. The CCP’s means of influence should not be taken lightly as its tactics clearly represent a powerful threat to US economic and strategic interests and has the ability to destroy the liberal democratic order led by the US.
Shullman concluded with a positive outlook: thanks to growing awareness of China’s power capacity in the world and discussions between leaders on establishing sustainable democracies, countries can collectively come up with tools to push back against China’s influence worldwide.
The panel discussion ended with a Q&A session with the audience.
This summary was written by GTI Fall Intern 2019, Ivory Lee.
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