Political warfare, or sharp power, is a critical component of Chinese statecraft. States influence policies of others, to varying degrees, in order to secure respective national interests. Governments strive to influence emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals in a manner favorable to one’s own political-military objectives.
As a Leninist party-state, however, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are different. The Chinese party-state relies on authoritarian statecraft to define and influence the discourse of international relations, including interference inside democracies. The importance of political warfare in Chinese statecraft stems from the authoritarian nature of its political system. Seeking to reframe perceptions of objective reality, Leninist statecraft adopts extraordinary measures to shore up legitimacy domestically, reframes international rules of the road, and promotes autocratic alternatives to widely accepted universal values.
Guided by the doctrinal principle of “uniting with friends and disintegrating enemies,” Chinese statecraft, operating as a system-of-systems, mobilizes resources to promote the rise of China within a new international order and defend against perceived threats to sovereignty and territorial integrity. As a Leninist party-state, Chinese political warfare integrates intelligence, strategic psychological operations, propaganda, and united front work as means to influence targeted parties in the United States, Taiwan, and other like-minded democracies. Chinese statecraft employs coercive persuasion against audiences in the United States and Taiwan to weaken resolve and compel courses of action favorable to Beijing’s interests. Propaganda amplifies or attenuates the political and psychological effects of economic and military instruments of national power.
Taking advantage of US ambivalence regarding Taiwan’s international political legitimacy, the CCP has been steadfast in imposing its “One China Principle” on the US through a long-term, concerted influence campaign. Viewing political legitimacy as a zero-sum game and applying its so-called “One China Principle” internationally, the CCP seeks further political isolation of Taiwan and co-management of US-Taiwan relations as means to coerce the island’s democratically elected leadership into a political settlement on terms favorable to Beijing. Overtly or covertly, authorities have sought to influence an amendment to the Taiwan Relations Act, the legal US basis for bilateral relations since the break in diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (ROC) in 1979.
Relying heavily on formal and informal party, state, and military organizations as instruments of statecraft, Chinese influence operations can be viewed from a system-of-systems perspective. Notionally, the five systems consist of external affairs, propaganda and ideology, united front work, the military and security community, and economic and finance work. As compared with other targeted countries, authorities in Beijing dedicate relatively significant resources toward influencing US policy toward Taiwan.
- External Affairs. For operations on US territory, the external affairs system, guided by the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, appears dominant. Party and state actors include the Central International (Liaison) Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, organs of the State Council and National People’s Congress, and associated platforms. The external affairs system most likely functions as the principle interlocking mechanism for authoritarian influence in the United States.
- Propaganda/Ideology. China’s propaganda and ideology system is global in reach. Under the Central Propaganda and Ideology Leading Small Group guidance, the Central Propaganda Department functions as the nerve center. System integrates the work of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Ministry of Education, Ministry of Culture, China Academy of Social Sciences, People’s Daily, New China News Agency (Xinhua), and the State Administration for Radio, Film, and Television. Beijing’s propaganda system actively seeks to manipulate broader American public perceptions of China, leveraging media outlets, education, and culture to manage public perceptions within American society. The propaganda and ideology system is particularly active on US university campuses.
- United Front. The united front work system, guided by the Central United Front Leading Small Group and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee (CPPCC), generally targets ethnic Chinese and Asian-American communities in the US, in part mobilizing support for Chinese Communist Party policies regarding Taiwan, Tibet, Falungong, One Belt One Road, and a host of other issues. Activities carried out on US territory appear to be guided by the Overseas Chinese Section within the PRC Embassy and five consulates. The Leading Small Group and CPPCC are significant players in Beijing’s cross-Strait policymaking.
- Military/Political-Legal. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), guided by the Central Military Commission (CMC), along with the political-legal community, are perhaps the most prominent employers of Chinese sharp power targeting Taiwan. The CMC Political Work Department Liaison Bureau probably assumed most of the responsibilities of the former General Political Department Liaison Department. They also are active in shaping US national security policy, including Taiwan-related defense policy and planning.
- Economic/Finance. The economic and finance system targets US economic, trade, and technology policies and supports other facets of Chinese statecraft. Under the leadership of the Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission, this system leverages economic statecraft to support national plans, such as Made in China 2025. State-owned enterprises, party-controlled companies, and individual corporatist entrepreneurs are instrumental in the work of the previous four systems.
Because public information is limited, assessments regarding the effectiveness of Chinese Leninist statecraft can be a speculative endeavor. Autocratic regimes, in comparison to democracies, may enjoy a relative advantage in the ability to mobilize and focus resources needed to manipulate perceptions and influence foreign policies. On the other hand, open societies enjoying a free and open press may be better positioned to counter authoritarian influence.
All five systems of influence are heavily weighted toward bringing the US into line with Beijing’s positions regarding Taiwan. Reflecting its relative importance, the most significant and enduring success of Chinese sharp power over the last 50 years may be US cross-Strait policy. Taiwan, under its current ROC constitution, exists as an independent, sovereign state. While progress has been made, the US and the broader international community have yet to align policies with this objective reality. Reflecting its own Cold War mentality, Beijing’s intransigence in recognizing the political legitimacy of Taiwan remains one of the most significant obstacles to regional peace and stability.
The main point: Taking advantage of US ambivalence regarding Taiwan’s international political legitimacy, the CCP has been steadfast in imposing its “One China Principle” on the US through a long-term, concerted influence campaign. Chinese statecraft employs coercive persuasion against audiences in the United States and Taiwan to weaken resolve and compel courses of action favorable to Beijing’s interests.