The 2016 American presidential elections turned the world’s attention to Russian influence and rightfully so. Russian intelligence services and their emissaries pulled off the unthinkable in electing Donald Trump by deftly manipulating the festering disunity in American society. Through what has now revealed to be an incredibly targeted campaign down to the voting district, Russian bots fomented hatred of political enemies and sowed distrust in democratic institutions.
That this was so effective is startling, and reveals the underlying vulnerability inherent in free and open societies. Fortunately, there is a silver lining. We can take solace in the fact that Moscow seems to have overplayed their hand. Much like Osama bin Laden was shocked to learn the full extent of the carnage he caused on 9/11, Putin was similarly unmoored when the election results were released. The plan was to discredit democracy and damage the expected favourite, not elect an unpredictable charlatan. Victim of his own success, progress on any of Putin’s pet project is now radioactive and blocked by a staunchly anti-Russia Congress.
Yet we still do not have cause for optimism. Recently, China has proved much more adept at exploiting open societies and reaping the benefits such policies afford. The combination of sophisticated state-controlled media companies, the brute force of the second-largest economy in the world, and the unity of action directed by the Party leaves most western societies defenceless to concerted information campaigns.
Of course, this is not the first time we have witnessed Chinese influence (Chinese agents directed funds to the DNC prior to the 1996 presidential election), but they were isolated incidents. Now, scarcely a day goes by without a new report detailing western institutions or companies kowtowing to CCP pressure. Newly alert to the danger state-directed propaganda campaigns can cause, western governments are reaching a tipping point in their attitude toward China. This presents a very different picture than that of a budding bromance between Trump and Xi. Unless China reverses course, a frost may descend on Sino-Western relations which would end progress on the one issue most threatening of global peace and prosperity: North Korea.
Tremors can be felt which presage the earthquake. Xi may praise the liberal world order at Davos, but this is cold comfort to western companies being forced to disgorge intellectual property and executive control. A former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing, John Pomfret, penned an open letter to President Xi describing Sino-American relations to be at an all-time low – only this time, the world isn’t laying the blame on Washington’s doorstep. He calls China out for benefitting from access to global markets and societies, while continuing to erect borders at home.
One need not search hard to see examples of what Pomfret speaks. Academia has been particularly effected given its proclivity to avoid offence. One of the largest academic publishing houses, Springer Nature, acquiesced to CCP demands to censor the mainland website. Subjects the CCP considers sensitive like Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen were scrubbed. Cambridge University removed 300 articles from their online China Quarterly under similar pressure. A recent report by the U.S. National Association of Scholars wrote that Confucius Institutes, the Chinese cultural centres found on college campuses all over the West, function as arms of the Chinese government. Teachers are paid by the Chinese Education Ministry, and they are subject to legal action if they “tarnish the reputation” of the CCP. An Australian professor, Clive Hamilton, was planning to release a tell-all book about Chinese interference in Australian universities, but his publishing house, Allen & Unwin, backed out for fear of legal backlash from Chinese interests thereby proving his point. The watershed moment for this whole discussion may in retrospect be located at UC Davis where a professor and a few students felt confident enough to start up their very own Communist Party chapter on campus. It was quickly shut down for not complying with the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
Perry Link in his seminal article likened the CCP censorship regime to an anaconda in the chandelier – massive and intimidating without having to prove its strength. Smaller entities quickly learn how to behave accordingly within its orbit. The Dalai Lama is persona non grata on many American college campuses. Wang Dan, a former prisoner of seven years for his role in the Tiananmen Square Protests, hears those who intend his talks are “informed on” and “asked for tea” when they return home. Some have their families threatened.
This disregard for the laws in western societies and negative effects of unfair trade practices have led to a growing impatience culminating most significantly in Trump’s appointment of a new US Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer. He has always been known as a hardliner. Previously, there were those on both sides of the aisle who thought it beyond the pale to actually implement his recommendations. Now, few can put forth a convincing counterargument. We will soon see if he his actions track his message, but in any event, the status quo is untenable.
The issue is reciprocity, or in this case, the lack of it. President Clinton thought that allowing China into the WTO would eventually open the country up to the irresistible forces of democracy and human rights. This did not happen. Before the situation becomes truly critical, the world must find a way to temper the CCP censorship regime, or we risk hastening an end to the post-war global order generations have worked so hard to maintain.