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Asia Stream: China's Media Mind Games

Examining Beijing's efforts to shape global narratives through propaganda, censorship, political influence and more

NEW YORK -- Welcome to Nikkei Asia's podcast: Asia Stream.

Asia Stream tracks and analyzes the Indo-Pacific with a mix of expert interviews and original reporting by our correspondents from across the globe.

Listen on: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | YouTube

This episode, we look at China's media and political influence efforts, which are only just starting to be taken seriously by the rest of the world. We bring in the expertise of Josh Kurlantzick, author of the new book Beijing's Global Media Offensive: China's Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World.

First, host Waj Khan walks us through Beijing's uses of soft and sharp power. Then, correspondent Monica Hunter-Hart interviews Kurlantzick about Beijing's motivations, the biggest mistakes it's making, how world leaders should respond, and the recent protests in China. Asia Stream is hosted by Wajahat S. Khan, our digital editor, and produced by Monica Hunter-Hart.

Related to this episode:

China builds global media muscle to amplify its message, by Pak Yiu


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WAJ KHAN, HOST: Hello and welcome to Asia Stream, where we track, report and analyze the issues and interests of the world's largest region.

I am Waj Khan, Nikkei Asia's digital editor, here in New York City.

Today's episode -- China's Media Mind Games.

As the war in Ukraine rages on, much of the world's attention is focused on the disinformation and fake news that Russia is peddling. In fact, when it comes to global media offensives that are being perpetrated by major powers, that's the front we've all been watching for years. Moscow's strategies are largely overt, and for the most part, easily traceable. Heck. There are even whole TV series dedicated to the power of Moscow's propaganda machine.

But Russia's not the only major power engaging in a massive global influence campaign. Today, we're going to focus on a country whose media and political influence efforts are only just starting to be taken seriously by the rest of the world: China.

Unlike Russia, China's approach is subtle, and isn't really intended to cause chaos. China has no interest in dramatically weakening other economies -- it needs them as trading partners and export markets. But Beijing does want to increase its own power, and ultimately replace the United States as the world's most dominant nation. For that, of course it wants to win allies and goodwill to better enact its agenda. And under the tenure of its extremely assertive leader Xi Jinping, it's also aiming to export its ideology, and reshape the world in its image.

In today's episode, we're discussing China's influence operations, and how they could -- and do -- impact not just Asia, but the world. We've got a great show for you.

Lay down your weapons. Today, we're going the soft-power route.

You're listening to the sound of Asia, streaming in your ear.

From Nikkei Asia, this is Asia Stream.

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KHAN: Here's why Beijing's influence campaign matters so much. Quite simply, it's because China is the second-most-powerful country in the world. It already dominates the region, and it wants to be the world's preeminent superpower. That means that what happens in China doesn't stay in China. And Beijing's efforts to influence media, politics and public opinion abroad are an attempt to get the world to fall in line with its agenda -- in some cases, without the world even realizing it.

So what exactly are these influence efforts? Here, I'm going to preemptively take a page from the new book -- Beijing's Global Media Offensive -- by Josh Kurlantzick, our guest this episode. Kurlantzick, who is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, and last appeared on the pod for discussing Russia's ties to Southeast Asia, uses three categories to describe the types of power that China exerts. First of all, there's "hard" power -- again, we won't go into that today, but that's military and/or economic coercion that takes place out in the open: Think sending battleships to the Taiwan Strait, or demanding the a country repay its Belt and Road loans back, despite risks of default. Then there's "soft" power, which also, generally, takes place out in the open, and attempts to project a positive image of China: Think hosting an international summit, or opening up Confucius institutes or China studies centers in universities abroad. Now, most powerful countries engage in robust soft-power efforts, and they were Beijing's preferred tools of influence until recent years. You might remember this exercise in soft power from not too long ago ...

ANNOUNCER 1: The opening of the Olympics in Beijing ...

ANNOUNCER 2: Welcome to Beijing! (Applause)

ANNOUNCER 3: These drummers mark the beginning of the atmosphere and the spectacle.

KHAN: Content spread through soft power is fundamentally factual, even if presented through a biased angle. For example, China's global media outlets often publish content that is both truthful and makes Beijing look good. China has massively expanded its state media networks around the globe -- these include China Daily, Xinhua and CGTN, the China Global Television Network -- in the hope that they will offer impressive, compelling coverage that makes Beijing look good by association.

XINHUA REPORTER: Xinhua News Agency.

CGTN REPORTER: China Global Television Network [...] a unique global perspective.

KHAN: And finally, there's something in between: "sharp" power, which is actively manipulative and often covert. One example is censorship and disinformation. Another is financially incentivizing or otherwise coercing think tanks, lobbyists and business leaders abroad to promote Chinese interests.

Some of those soft-power instruments we mentioned also, sometimes, use sharp power. Those Confucius Institutes? Reports have indicated that they have sometimes engaged in censorship, too, and curtailed academic freedoms, which they're supposed to espouse. Also Beijing's international state media is known to censor content about China that doesn't paint it in a positive light -- and given China's importance on the world stage today, a lot of stories have to do with China, which means a lot of opportunities for censorship. In fact, President Xi has said publicly, quote, "Wherever the readers are, wherever the viewers are, that is where propaganda reports must extend their tentacles," end quote.

Now, the tentacles are long, and getting longer. China Daily, Xinhua and other global state media outlets reach over 150 countries in more than a dozen languages. In fact, there's a China Daily newspaper box in midtown Manhattan right outside our office building. Today, it's easy to find their pro-Beijing content targeting English-language speakers. This includes bright-eyed celebrations of the Chinese Communist Party's achievements ...

XINHUA JOURNALIST: (Nationalistic music plays) What more will the CPC [Communist Party of China] create for the Chinese people and for the world in the decades and centuries to come? We're excited to find out.

KHAN: ... to content that promotes the party line on controversial issues, like a 2020 resolution in Hong Kong that allowed the government to kick those dissenting voices out of the legislature who were deemed to threaten national security.

CHINA DAILY JOURNALIST: Hong Kong's electoral systems have some loopholes at present, which give undue space to anti-China elements who would undermine the city's progress. This is no conspiracy.

KHAN: Sharp power can also involve infiltrating other countries' politics. We've seen Chinese businessmen linked to the CCP donate to Beijing's preferred candidates in elections in places like Australia. We've seen Beijing allegedly conduct smear campaigns against its disfavored candidates, like Yan Xiong, a New Yorker who ran for the U.S. House of Representatives just this year [2022]. We've seen it send out floods of messaging on social media either promoting or bashing candidates, in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Under President Xi, China has greatly stepped up its covert sharp-power efforts. That's partially because its soft-power tactics haven't actually been going so well in recent years. Global opinion about Beijing was relatively positive in the 1990s and 2000s, but has sharply decreased since, particularly because of China's increasing aggression, manifested by its so-called wolf warrior diplomacy, as well as because of its problematic human rights record, the many problems encountered in its Belt and Road Initiative projects, and recently, its support for Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

But its newer methods aren't always successful, either. I'll give one example, which Kurlantzick also mentions in his book: Malaysia and a pivotal round of elections that took place there in 2018. At the time, Beijing wanted the pro-China candidate, incumbent Najib Razak, to win. It deployed soft-power tactics, like media messaging and billboards, but also some very dark, covert strategies. It tried to quash investigations into the notorious 1MDB scandal, which we covered heavily here in the Nikkei Asia New York offices because aspects of the scandal were litigated here in Manhattan last winter.

FT REPORTER: The 1MDB scandal is one of the greatest financial frauds in history.

WSJ REPORTER: The people who are alleged to have done this theft allegedly stole $4.5 billion. That's a lot more than even some of the worst dictators in history have stolen.

KHAN: The 1MDB is a sovereign wealth fund for Malaysia, and the scandal was about billions allegedly being stolen from the Malaysian state coffers. In the recent trial, Beijing-backed former president Najib Razak, was found guilty of embezzling about $10 million. He's now in prison. But in 2018, when he was up for reelection, Beijing made Najib some sinister offers: it offered to pressure foreign countries to halt investigations. It offered to bug the homes of Wall Street Journal reporters who were looking into the scandal. But ultimately, all of Beijing's efforts failed. Razak lost. Malaysians noticed China was interfering in their elections and wanted no part of it. In the end, it was quite a PR disaster.

So not all of China's efforts are working, but make no mistake: Beijing is only ramping them up. In September, the U.S. nonprofit democracy watchdog Freedom House surveyed a geographically diverse group of 30 countries and regions with media environments that are considered free or partly free. And it found that Beijing is exerting "high" or "very high" levels of media influence effort in over half of those countries.

That's why it's important to talk about the scale, scope and stakes of China's influence operations. And to do so, we're bringing in Josh Kurlantzick himself. Asia Stream correspondent Monica Hunter-Hart will be interviewing him. Here's their conversation.


MONICA HUNTER-HART, CORRESPONDENT: We are now welcoming back to the pod Josh Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He's the author of the new book Beijing's Global Media Offensive: China's Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World. It's an excellent book, and it will form the basis of much of our conversation today. Josh, welcome back to Asia Stream.

JOSH KURLANTZICK, GUEST: Thanks for having me back.

HUNTER-HART: So I want to start by talking about recent events to get some up-to-date examples of how Beijing is working to exert its influence. In late November and early December, we saw protests break out across China, which is extremely rare. Thousands of people demonstrated against zero-COVID policies. The events were significant enough that Xi actually did heavily roll back zero-COVID restrictions on Dec. 7. How did the Chinese Communist Party attempt to influence public perception of these events, both domestically and internationally?

KURLANTZICK: Well, first of all, I just want to correct that it is not really, actually, extremely rare. This is one of the things that's sort of misunderstood about China. There's like tens, and even sometimes the Ministry of Security Services counts over 100,000 protests in China every year. But they are almost, they're not like these, they tend to be relatively small and local affairs where groups of people get angry about a certain thing, like people at a factory don't get paid and they riot, or, you know, they tend to be larger. People are angry at corrupt local officials, in a city or a town. And the party allows, to some extent, some of these protests, these, because, you know, it's a release valve. And it has allowed for the idea in the past that the local officials are the ones who are at fault, so they can just fire them, but Beijing is not. It's a traditional tactic in, like, authoritarian regimes, really. What's different about this is that the protests are more concentrated in major urban areas where, the government is more worried there because it's major urban areas and includes groups who weren't involved in these previous protests, but who were involved in in like this pre-Tiananmen protests, and historically have been centers of protests, like intellectuals, students, etc. That's why there was an immediate crackdown at the universities, for example.

HUNTER-HART: Right. So tell me about the information control aspect of that crackdown. I know they tried to control the narrative in a few ways. What were those?

KURLANTZICK: Yeah, sure. I mean, one is just a straight-up crackdown on the groups they considered the most influential, like intellectuals, students, protest leaders in big cities. Two, heavily censoring or spamming the major social media networks within China to try to, which they usually are very successful at doing, immediately censoring any protest or anger. But there was so much on social media networks, that it became harder. But they are doing their best and they have a massive censorship apparatus to prevent videos and stuff from circulating and to prevent what their -- you know, their greatest fear is that there's some sort of tie between these protests, which is what happened in the late '80s, where there was regional protests over issues, like in Tibet, and then was purchased over other issues in different parts of the country, and then ultimately, things all sort of came to a head in, in Beijing. They are using their state media outlets outside of the country to, and inside the country to portray this as some sort of, you know, conspiracy of foreign forces in foreign hands, which is a traditional tactic. But I think most Chinese people would, or who were involved in the protests are, know that most of the media in the country is just, you know, completely impossible to believe at this point. And I don't think that their state me -- this has hurt their state media efforts abroad very significantly, because they wanted to be taken, their state media to be taken seriously. But it's just not, now.

HUNTER-HART: There was a criticism coming from some circles that Western publications -- specifically publications based in media environments that are rated more free than Beijing, by leaps and bounds -- that they didn't do enough to cover the protests. What did you think about that?

KURLANTZICK: The reason for that is because China has thrown most Western correspondents out of the country, I shouldn't say Western -- most of the correspondents from liberal democracies out of the country. And has circumscribed their movement and made it really difficult for them. So, like, The New York Times only has two reporters in China, but they would love to have 15 reporters in China. It's not their fault.

HUNTER-HART: I want to now talk more broadly about Beijing's global media offensive. So, Beijing is, of course, operating with a wide range of motivations. Perhaps the simplest to understand is that China wants to encourage politicians and thought leaders around the world to promote policies that will support Chinese interests, including pro-China trade deals, and actions that support Beijing's understanding of its territorial sovereignty, like, for example, declining to support Taiwan's defense. But I want to focus on ideological motivations for a minute. You write that China wants to export its model of technologically enabled authoritarianism across the world. Now, as someone who grew up in the U.S., I'm of course familiar with the phenomenon of patriotism grounded in a feeling of superiority about one's system of governance. That's very common in the U.S., and the U.S. government actively promotes democracy all around the world. But can you explain to us how ideology is motivating Beijing? Is it more that Chinese Communist Party leaders dream of a world of authoritarian states with socially controlled populaces that are all, ultimately, answering to Beijing? Or is it more that they believe so deeply in the moral righteousness of their system, including China's centralized but market-based economy that's branded as communism, that they believe the entire world should adopt that system?

KURLANTZICK: Well, there's a lot in there. First of all, I don't think that Chinese necessarily, most Chinese people, it's hard to tell whether they believe that this is a superior system. I think many did, but now they have doubts about that. This is a policy promoted by Xi Jinping for the first time, it was not, it was discussed about by Chinese intellectuals and leaders before Xi, but none of them went right out and said that China had a model of development to promote. They were very cautious about saying that China did not have a model of development to promote, and then every state should, you know, develop in their own way. That was China's line for decades. And Xi kind of changed that and said, "China has a model of development of promote, China has been very successful." Which, they have been very successful economically, you know, until recently. I think there's multiple reasons. From the leadership point of view, they probably believe it's a superior system. And liberal democracy hasn't had a great 10 years. More authoritarian states tend to align with China, in organizations that they want, like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the U.N. and others. In terms of the technology aspect, the more that other countries adopt China's kind of model of a closed and censored internet, the more that becomes popular around the world. That supports China's ability to control its own citizens. And China and Russia before the Ukraine war had been trying to get major global, major global internet organizations to adopt its, their idea of a closed internet. But I don't think that they, like, the ideological component, especially among Chinese people, I don't think that, like, they want a world of authoritarianisms, because those countries are all going to follow China. Because you could have authoritarian states that don't follow China at all. I think it's just more just that Xi was the first to enunciate what seemed that, like, that China indeed was, had developed a set of unique authoritarian capitalism that was working well. And if you found that even in the Western press somewhat. But I don't think it's that, you know, especially now, if you ask, you know, average Chinese people or intellectuals, that they think this is the greatest model. And I think there was a lot of nationalism, and some people think that. But the city-on-the-hill stuff is really a very unique U.S. phenomenon that very few countries share. Maybe France, very few, but China doesn't necessarily have that aspect of it.

HUNTER-HART: Got it. Yeah. And maybe sticking with this kind of theme of comparing China to other states for a minute. So clearly, many countries exert soft power, sharp power and hard power on the world stage. What are the unique innovations that China is bringing to these efforts?

KURLANTZICK: With soft power, they were trying to copy, actually, a lot of other countries' efforts, and some of their own more successful efforts from the '90s. I wrote an earlier book -- it came out in like 2007, but the research was done in the mid-2000s, called Charm Offensive, where China had been successful. But they weren't necessarily doing innovative things. They were just doing things well that had been tried and true by other countries, but other countries, like the U.S., had sort of abandoned, like, cultural diplomacy, upgrading their state media. They were trying to make their state media I think like Al Jazeera, like, respected, but still controlled by an authoritarian state. Dramatically expanding number of foreign students coming to China. Expanding, enormously expanding, the number of visitor programs for intellectuals and civil society leaders and journalists in China. So that's, like, visit diplomacy. Like, we do a lot of that in the U.S. through State Department and other private organizations. And at that time, in the '90s and early 2000s, they also were increasing their, their aid, which ultimately were, they continued to do and resulted eventually in BRI [the Belt and Road Initiative], which has now developed significant problems, but ... They created a sort of more modern diplomatic corps. Got rid of a lot of people who had been left over from the late Maoist era. Had a lot of younger diplomats who were more able to engage with the population in places and were, so at that time they weren't promoting, really promoting their model. The diplomats were, you know, circulating among the population and promoting China. And they weren't engaging in what China is doing now, which is kind of bullying, aggressive diplomacy. They were presenting themselves as, actually as a different type of power. One that, unlike the U.S., would be like listening to other countries, particularly smaller countries, regional states, and sort of working with them. They also became a leader in trade diplomacy as the U.S. kind of abdicated that over time. Trade diplomacy in Asia. But it wasn't, none of that is, like, novel. It's just that China was doing these things, really, for the first time, at least since Mao's time. And had been doing them pretty well. A lot of that soft power has really ebbed in the last 10 years. China was able to do it in the '90s and the 2000s because it wasn't so threatening to its neighbors and other countries. So it could legitimately present itself as kind of a different, more understanding type of power. Now, it's a lot harder to do, just like it's hard for the U.S. to do, in some ways, in its neighborhood. Like U.S. soft power might have, you know, a powerful effect in Europe, or parts of East Asia, where views of the U.S. are pretty warm, but like, you know, in, in Mexico, in Central America, in South America, U.S. soft power, it's just hard. Because the legacy of the U.S. relationships with most of the countries in that region, in the Western Hemisphere is so bad. And so in terms of sharp power, that really started like in the last 10 to 12 years, where China's trying to start to build up a disinformation apparatus on social media. Learning from Russia -- I think clearly, probably, directly learning, but also just indirectly learning from Russia's successes in the last few years. Espionage has always existed, but stepping up the political influence campaigns in other countries has grown in the last five to 10 years as China realized that there was basically no defenses. And the real sort of intense outreach to like Chinese students' associations, and other diaspora Chinese groups in other countries, and can -- trying to convince them to adopt pro-Beijing lines and self-censor. Even if those organizations are not actually made up of Chinese nationals, it has been a central part of their strategy as well. Sharp-power strategy.

HUNTER-HART: Beijing's influence campaign is currently expanding, is being refined, but is often unsuccessful. Can you explain to us: What are the biggest mistakes that Beijing is making that are holding back its influence efforts?

KURLANTZICK: Sure. Well, for one, it just becomes harder to influence regional states who have a long history with China, similar like to the U.S. and Mexico or U.S. and Central America, who have a high knowledge of China, and high levels of suspicion in places like Vietnam and Singapore. As you become more powerful and become more, much more assertive and bullying in your own, in your form of diplomacy, and at the same time, you're also becoming more militarily powerful and assertive, like in the South China Sea and Taiwan, it undercuts your ability to wield soft power. And that happens for the U.S. as well. Second, the authoritarianism of Xi Jinping and the really intense authoritarianism has recently killed a lot of China's cultural diplomacy. Because soft power rests, in some part, on cultural diplomacy. And a lot of that rests on the private sector appealing to other states. So, like South Korea has become this cultural diplomacy, this soft-power giant, because it's producing all this really interesting content for streaming and for movies, and, etc. But that's because South Korea is a real democracy. China can't do that, because it has, like, crushed a decade of artists, intellectuals, and writers and stuff, who were still thriving to some extent in the '90s and early 2000s. So it's hurt itself in that way, too. I mean, they exist, but they've fled the country. So it's private-sector cultural exports and it's private sector business exports that are also a form of soft power. Like, China has a lot of globally competitive companies --TikTok, Alibaba, Tencent and others -- but Xi Jinping is increasingly crushing those, too, and trying to control them. And that's also hurting its soft power. Then this sort of aggressive wolf warrior diplomacy, just like slamming other countries, isn't helping. The ramped-up use of economic coercion against places like Australia, some Southeast Asian countries, even as far away as Lithuania, that's not helping. And then, the state media outlets have -- other than Xinhua, which has been more successful because it's, it can just be blended into the local news outlets in countries, because it's just a news wire. So it can just appear like in the Thai press. People don't really pay attention, they just see stories, they don't really pay attention to whether it comes from Xinhua or not. But the other ones, China's TV and radio state outlets, are just so turgid and boring. They never became like Al Jazeera, because the Qatari government, for all its major flaws, did allow Al Jazeera -- outside of covering Qatar, which Al Jazeera would not do -- covering some aspects of the Middle East allowed Al Jazeera a fair amount of freedom. The Chinese government just wasn't going to let its outlets do that. And so the content is just boring. And has become more boring as China has had more to cover up in the last year, two years, of zero-COVID or so.

HUNTER-HART: You also write that Beijing won't be held back forever -- that it will learn and grow from its mistakes. If it is ultimately successful in refining its tactics and exerting massive, effective influence on the world -- in both authoritarian states and democracies -- what would that world look like? Paint us a picture of that extreme scenario.

KURLANTZICK: Sure. Well, I mean, I think a world in which they were successful in promoting a technologically enabled authoritarianism, and getting a lot of states to -- and some states have copied their internet model: Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, to some extent. State -- some states in Africa. Egypt. I think Saudi Arabia would like to copy it. There's certainly no lack of countries that are interested in -- Rwanda -- that are interested. That would lead to a world in which you'd have two internets. One, a sort of more open internet, in which information was shared among those countries that allow their citizens to participate in the global internet. And then a series of other internets in which the internet's, where it's basically a walled garden, as it is mostly in China. And the internet basically was an "intranet" in those countries. So that would divide the world badly, and also lead to a sort of vacuum of information in a huge number of countries. And Russia has also adopted this now, to the best of their abilities, while under war conditions. That would be problematic. The more that Xinhua, which I think, again, is the most successful of the Chinese state media, the more that Xinhua is seen as a legitimate news outlet, similar to Reuters, or the AP or Bloomberg, you have a problem in which -- and news wires might seem boring, I worked for a news wire 20 years ago, but they often, like, set the first draft of sort of how stories evolve. There's a terrible plane crash in Indonesia, the news wire reporters get to, and they get the story out first. If the first draft is that; plane crashes, pilot, because of pilot error, you're going to see that and that's going to be spread all over the world. And then it's left then sort of to the other, bigger news outlets to try to tease things out. It's sometimes hard to roll back, you know, even if they're wrong, that first draft. And the more that Xinhua does that -- it doesn't necessarily mean they'd cover a plane crash wrong, but anything related to China, it becomes more problematic, because the first draft of stories will have a pro-Beijing tilt. So that's highly problematic. And then you have the third aspect that, if China was really successful influence with sharp power in paying off politicians and influencing elections, and using disinformation to denigrate liberal democracy, and anger people and promote their own candidates, and promote self-censorship -- which, we didn't even talk about this. But could they have been successful with some of the American business community, for example -- like Hollywood with that, and to some extent, the NBA -- then you would have a world in which there would be sort of a veil of silence dropped on in many liberal democracies on talking about the huge problems in China and the increasingly authoritarian state. Which is far, far, far more authoritarian than it was even 10 years ago. And that would be terrible for global democracy, global human rights, and wouldn't be good for Chinese people, either.

HUNTER-HART: I'm wondering if you have any advice about what the casual media consumer should keep in mind, to kind of guard against passively consuming content that is either misleading or is perhaps overt disinformation that is coming from Beijing.

KURLANTZICK: Well, there's a difference between Xinhua and, like, CGTN or China Radio International, where you have to actually seek out CGTN and China Radio International and turn them on, which is why they've not done so well. Where Xinhua just sort of filters into the consciousness because it appears in news outlets increasingly around the world. And so, I mean, I think people should be cognizant of that. In places where people are consuming Chinese-language media, they should try to make themselves more aware of who owns the media, and, that media, and its content, and seek out if they, if there are, in those places, independent Chinese-language media outlets. There are still some in many countries. There are some countries that have developed effective digital literacy programs and, and a lot more countries who'd do well to adopt them to teach their citizens about digital literacy, Taiwan has adopted one, Finland, Italy and others. I think that should be increasingly -- I mean, some schools in the U.S. are already doing that, but I think that should increasingly be a part of the curriculum in a lot of places.

HUNTER-HART: Moving away from regular citizens -- what steps do you recommend that world governments, media outlets and thought leaders take to respond to Beijing's soft and sharp power? And particularly because not all aspects of Chinese soft or sharp power are threatening. In fact, if we treat every aspect as equally alarming, we risk not only losing credibility and focus, but also encouraging xenophobia and the anti-Asian bias that's been rising in the U.S., particularly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Actually, I guess if you'll allow me, I'm going to fold a few questions into this. No. 1: what are some examples of China's proliferating influence that may not actually pose a threat anytime soon, or perhaps at all? Two: what should we all keep in mind to make sure that if we're criticizing the Chinese government, we're not encouraging stereotypes and hate? And three: how should the rest of the world respond to the influence efforts that are more threatening?

KURLANTZICK: There's plenty of aspects of soft power that are not threatening. I mean, I think if China became less authoritarian, and Chinese artists and writers and actors and moviemakers and, etc., were given more freedom, and they're, I mean, they've still managed to get some movies out in the world that are interesting. But if there was more freedom for them to distribute their work in the world without having to live in exile like some famous Chinese artists and movie makers, etc. That would probably bolster China's soft power. And there would be no, I mean, there's nothing bad about that at all. I mean, you could have an authoritarian country with some soft power with some very impressive artistry, etc. Second, I think that if China had effective diplomacy that was a little bit less bullying, and more, sort of give-and-take diplomacy, that would be good for their soft power and not necessarily a bad thing. There are problems with BRI. But on the other hand, China's aid has made an important mark in a lot of places that really desperately needed infrastructure, and which weren't getting infrastructure. So if China can fix them -- the opaque nature of lending with BRI, etc. -- then that would be a boon. I mean, some would say that might be a threat to the U.S. if, if the BRI lending facilities control of areas that are extremely important, but if it's just lending, it's not. And how I think it should be talked about, I mean, I think foreign leaders should criticize the Chinese government and Xi Jinping and avoid more broadly, you know, criticizing Chinese people. Put up guards against foreign interference in politics and in the media and information sphere without specifically looking at local Chinese, ethnic Chinese citizens of the country and targeting them. The FBI actually had this huge initiative to ferret out espionage, mostly economic espionage, in the Trump administration called the China Initiative. But it, like, failed really badly. They couldn't approve most of their cases. There was probably a fair amount of racism. And Biden closed it down. They seem to be targeting Chinese nationals or Chinese Americans without really going through the pieces of building solid cases. And I think third, major democracies need to bolster their own soft-power efforts. To the extent that they can I mean, a lot of the U.S.'s soft power comes, for example, comes from things that Biden can't control like the, you know, the NBA, or Hollywood or famous artists and rappers and stuff. He has no control over that, you know. But to the extent that they can, like continuing to support independent media in other countries, continuing to fund, very fully, places like Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, which deliver some of the only independent reporting on a lot of, in a lot of authoritarian states, including China. Continuing to fight for an open global internet against China and also Russia's model of a closed, sovereign internet model. The U.S. and other countries are sort of behind on that, liberal democracies, but they started to push back against it at global internet organizations, which are mostly under the U.N.'s umbrella. I mean, I think, ultimately, democracy needs to also show itself to be -- part of Xi Jinping's criticism that rang more strongly before zero-COVID was that democracy was, even before the problems within the U.S. with containing COVID, in 2000, democracy seemed to be imploding in a lot of places. If democracy is disliked as a form by many of the citizens in democratic nations, and they themselves are seeking authoritarian leaders and semiauthoritarian leaders are coming to power in democratic nations like the Philippines or Hungary or Brazil or whatever. That in itself sort of helps make Xi Jinping's case. So, I don't have one answer of how to, you know, bolster democracy in so many countries. But the more that democracy regresses globally, that just feeds into the idea that democracy is a system that is not necessarily capable of dealing with modern challenges.

HUNTER-HART: Josh Kurlantzick, thank you so much for coming back on Asia Stream.

KURLANTZICK: All right, thanks so much.


KHAN: That's it for Asia Stream this week.

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KHAN: As always, we are very grateful that you listen to our coverage, but we highly encourage you to read it as well. There's so much more out there that we don't have time to cover on the pod. So head to Nikkei Asia at, both for more in-depth coverage of China's influence efforts and also all things related to Asia. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share, subscribe and leave us a review. And a last reminder that Nikkei Asia is currently offering an exclusive discount for our podcast listeners: to get the discount, click the link in the episode description. This episode was produced by Monica Hunter-Hart. I'm your host, Waj Khan.

We'll stream again in two weeks. Get ready for a slate of great pods coming up in this new year! Keep tuning in -- after all, sweet streams are made of this.

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