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Analysis, Diplomacy

Is China undermining democracies around the world?

China sees undermining democracies as standard practice: experts say.

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Updated: July 30, 2018

China experts on Tuesday called attention to Beijing’s efforts to undermine liberal democracies and highlighted Taiwan’s role in finding strategies to mitigate the campaign aimed at serving the interests of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The united front actions and interference engaged in by China are simply part of the routine day-to-day operations of the CCP, said Peter Mattis, a research fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in the United States.

“They are not special activities. They are not covert actions. They are not something done outside of the normal policy channels,” Mattis said on Tuesday at the Ketagalan Forum: 2018 Asia Pacific Security Dialogue.

“These are in fact things that are operated within the CCP’s policy guidances and normal activities of the party.”

What the Communist Party has been doing to undermine democracy and intervene in foreign states “is simply the party’s way of interacting with the world,” Mattis said, citing former CCP leader Mao Zedong’s description of united front work as mobilizing the CCP’s “friends to strike at (the party’s) enemies.”

Anne-Marie Brady, a political science professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, said at the forum that China’s activities have accelerated under Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), who called united front work one of the CCP’s “magic
weapons” in 2014.

Brady said these “magic weapons” fall into four categories: using the Chinese diaspora as CCP agents, co-opting foreigners to promote the CCP’s foreign policy goals, intensifying propaganda to influence global perceptions of China, and creating a China-centered economic bloc through the “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

Clive Hamilton, a professor of political ethics at Charles Sturt University in Australia, said China has directed “all of the weapons of its political warfare” at his country since 2004 to absorb it into its influence and shift it away from the U.S. China’s reach has extended into Australia’s political, social, business, media, and education sectors through various methods, Hamilton said.

They include giving donations to political parties and politicians, suppressing dissidents in the overseas Chinese-Australian community, forging agreements involving universities on both sides, and having civil associations taken over by people with pro-Beijing
sympathies, he said.

That has given the CCP powerful weapons at its disposal to subvert Australia not by applying outside pressure on it but by eroding resistance from within, he said.

“Many influential academics and commentators are now reliable friends of China” who help create narratives promoting favorable perceptions of the CCP, focusing on the economic benefits of bilateral relations and downplaying its interference in Australia, he said.

In the panel discussion at the forum on “China’s sharp power and its challenges to the democratic world,” the experts also addressed the role Taiwan can play in addressing the challenges facing democracies.

“This is an opportunity for Taiwan to take a leadership role because Taiwan knows (China’s) united front work better than anyone in the world,” Brady said. She said she would like to see Taiwan share its knowledge and expertise on this tactic to help the world better understand it.

Brady also called for small countries to support each other, particularly in economic cooperation through trade, aid or assistance in infrastructure development “in this very challenging global environment where the U.S. is not a very reliable partner and China is
a very troubling partner.”

Mattis agreed that Taiwan has a lot to offer because “there is no country that has been exposed to (China’s) united front tactic for as long as Taiwan has.” But he disagreed on the uncertainties created by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, saying that they might hold true for Australia or South Korea, but that Taiwan is in a different position.

That’s because “on two of the core areas where President Trump made campaign promises — the first was trade and the second was allies paying their fair share — Taiwan is not a trade problem for the United States and Taiwan is not benefiting from a lot of donations…Taiwan has had to pay its way in the alliance,” Mattis said.

Mattis also dismissed a view that Taiwan is a chip that can be traded away by the U.S., saying that some of Taiwan’s best friends in the Trump administration have rejected the CCP’s narratives and understanding of Taiwan’s place in the world or Taiwan’s relationship
with China.

“They haven’t been the ones who have assimilated a view of  stability in U.S.-China relations that subsumes Taiwan and places Taiwan as a dependent agent that doesn’t have its own right to choose where its future lies,” he said.

In terms of who the president is, the U.S.’s policy, and people who are executing it, this is a relatively good time for U.S.-Taiwan relations, he said. “The problem is that Taiwan bears punishment (from China) for that good relationship in a way that other U.S. allies do not.”

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