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On ‘Sharp Power’ & the China Threat 3.0: “The West Is Mentally Stuck in Cold War Era”

Chinese authorities respond to allegations of China meddling in foreign affairs through its ‘sharp power.’

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Over the past few months, ‘sharp power’ has become a buzzword to describe new ways in which the Chinese government allegedly meddles in foreign affairs. China’s top political advisory body has struck back in a press conference on Friday which caused somewhat of a stir both in- and outside China. Western views on China are biased and unrealistic, Chinese netizens respond.

“It is not the first time that new expressions have been concocted [by the West] to vilify China, and I believe it won’t be the last time. Some Westerners may have physically entered the 21st century, but are mentally stuck in the Cold War era,” said Wang Guoqing, the spokesperson for China’s top advisory body, during a press conference on March 2nd.

The press conference, which has been making headlines both in- and outside China, precedes the annual parliamentary and consultative sessions which open on Monday (March 5). An important part of the press conference focused on the idea of China’s ‘sharp power’ (锐实力), an American concept that refers to the new ways in which China and Russia allegedly meddle in the internal affairs of foreign countries.

Wang Guoqing responded to the claims that China “infiltrates” in the political and information environments of other nations, saying that the accusations are “filled with prejudice, discrimination, and hostility.”

 
Sharp Power
 

The term ‘sharp power’ has become somewhat of a buzzword since it was first coined by Christopher Walker (@Walker_CT) and Jessica Ludwig (@JesLudwig) in a Foreign Affairs article in November 2017.

The concept was also explained in the December 2017 New Forum Report Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence published by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a Washington-based think tank funded largely by the US Congress. Walker and Ludwig both work for NED. The term was also featured on the frontpage of The Economist in December ’17.

In their report and article, Walker and Ludwig argue that China and Russia influence in foreign countries’ spheres of media, culture, and academia in “malign and aggressive” ways, using “modern and sophisticated tools” (Walker & Ludwig 2017b, 9-13).

In the NED report, Walker and Ludwig write: “In the case of China, (..), educational and cultural initiatives are accompanied by an authoritarian determination to monopolize ideas, suppress alternative narratives, and exploit partner institutions” (2017b, 13). In this way, the Chinese government allegedly is able to suppress the overseas voices that are critical of the Party.

The authors call this international influence “sharp power” to distinguish it from the term “soft power,” introduced by Joseph Nye, which describes the kinds of influence which are not “hard” military forces, but more economic or cultural influence. Also, the authors argue, authoritarian influence efforts are ‘sharp’ in the sense that they “pierce, penetrate, or perforate the political and information environments in the targeted countries” (2017a).

Nye recently published an article titled “China’s Soft and Sharp Power” (2018), in which he notes that “sharp power” is actually a “type of hard power” that can come from “soft power”.

He writes:

The United States has long had programs enabling visits by young foreign leaders, and now China is successfully following suit. That is a smart exercise of soft power. But when visas are manipulated or access is limited to restrain criticism and encourage self-censorship, even such exchange programs can shade into sharp power.”

 
“New Edition of the China Threat Theory”
 

While media outlets such as The Economist treat the “sharp power” term as a new type of behavior in international relations, Chinese state media regard it as a novel way to frame old biases, writing: “One may find that the term is no more than a language trap, coined and manipulated by some Western countries with ‘zero-sum’ mentality and cultural hegemony” (Liu 2018).

On March 2nd, the spokesperson for China’s parliament’s advisory body also said that “sharp power” was just a new version of the old “China threat” rhetoric.

Wang Guoqing, spokesperson of the CPPCC, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, during the press conference in Beijing on Friday, March 2.

Wang Guoqing quoted Martin Luther King Jr in making clear that, in Beijing’s official view, the accusations against China come from fear and misunderstanding, saying:

“Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated” (O’Connor 2018).

Although news sites such as Reuters interpreted the press conference as an aggressive move against Western countries (see: “China kicks off parliament season with attack on the West” by Ben Blanchard), Chinese media described it as a response to efforts to smear China (see: China News).

 
China Threat 3.0
 

On Weibo, the issue of “sharp power” and the “new edition of the China threat” has become a topic of some discussions over the past few days. Lu Ge, an international relations scholar at Tsinghua University with a following of 1.7 million on Weibo (@北京鲁戈), writes that countries such as the US and Australia fear that China is aiming to spread communist ideologies, and is connivingly finding ways to dominate the world.

The majority of commenters responding to the news opposed the idea that China posed a threat to the ‘Western world.’ “Good friends come with good wine [spirits], bad people come with shot guns,” one popular comment to the press conference segment said.

“There will always be some Western countries meddling with others, although they don’t even understand what’s going on in their own country,” another netizen writes: “It’s better to make sure things are okay in your own country before smearing China, it won’t help.”

Another comment says: “Some people in the West say things that are completely false and do not line up with reality at all. They are deliberately creating a hype.”

“Some foreigners who have nothing better to do have made us a target of criticism. Firstly, China is not exporting a revolution. Second, we’re not exporting hunger nor poverty. Third, we are not tormenting them. I don’t know what else is left to say,” one person wrote.

The ‘sharp power’ concept could perhaps be called the ‘China Threat theory 3.0’, since there is not just one “China Threat theory”; there have been many different perceptions of ways in which China could possibly pose a threat to the rest of the world since the early 1990s.

In The China Threat: Perceptions, Myths and Reality (2005), Storey and Yee call the ‘China Threat’ “one of the most significant debates since the end of the Cold War.” The authors describe various ways in which China is represented as a threat to the world. The background to the issue, they write, is China’s rapid economic growth in the 1990s, but contributing factors to the theory include the PRC’s socialist political system which rejects Western political values.

Fear of political and economic collapse in China, rising Chinese nationalism, increasing military capability, and impact on regional security, are all named as factors contributing to the ways in which China is constructed as a potential ideological, economic, military and ecological threat to the rest of the world. The ‘sharp power’ concept can now be added to this list of theories.

But while the international community is watching China’s every step, China also closely observes how it is viewed from outside.

“Western countries and Western people look at China with colored glasses, it has nothing to do with us, the normal persons in the street,” one Weibo commenter writes.

“Since when is protecting the normal interests of our country and participating in normal international exchange a sign of exercising power?”, another netizen writes.

Although some critical voices raise the topic of Chinese social media censorship, most voices on Weibo seem to agree with Wang Guoqing’s statements. One netizen by the name of Lu Xixin (@陆锡鑫) writes: “Regardless whether this [concept] could be prejudice or discrimination, the issue is that it is hostile in nature. It is not surprising that Western media are vilifying China, but they don’t only do it to denounce China – they also do it to create chaos in China, and to disturb the momentum of China’s development.”

By Manya Koetse

References

Blanchard, Ben. 2018. “China kicks off parliament season with attack on the West.” Reuters, March 2, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-parliament/china-kicks-off-parliament-season-with-attack-on-the-west-idUSKCN1GE1IP [4.3.18].

China News 中国新闻网. 2018. “王国庆回应“锐实力”说:炮制新词“黑”中国.” China News, March 2, 2018. http://www.chinanews.com/gn/2018/03-02/8458485.shtml [4.3.18].

Liu Si. 2018. “Spotlight: Who’s behind the term “Sharp power”?” Xinhua News, February 13, 2018. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-02/13/c_136972986.htm [4.3.18].

Nye, Joseph S. 2018. “China’s Soft and Sharp Power.” Project Syndicate, Jan 4, 2018. https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/china-soft-and-sharp-power-by-joseph-s–nye-2018-01 [4.3.18].

O’Connor, Tom. 2018. “China quotes Martin Luther King Jr. to attack U.S. Cold War “discrimination”.” Newsweek, March 2, 2018. http://www.newsweek.com/china-attacks-us-cold-war-discrimination-using-martin-luther-king-jr-829073 [4.3.18].

Storey, Ian, and Herbert Yee (eds.). 2005 (2002). The China Threat : Perceptions, Myths and Reality. London, New York: RoutledgeCurzon.

The Economist. 2017. “What To Do About China’s “Sharp Power”.” The Economist, December 14, 2017. https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21732524-china-manipulating-decision-makers-western-democracies-best-defence [4.3.18].

Walker, Christoper, and Jessica Ludwig. 2017a. “The Meaning of Sharp Power –
How Authoritarian States Project Influence.” Foreign Affairs, November 16, 2017. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2017-11-16/meaning-sharp-power?cid=int-fls&pgtype=hpg [4.3.18].

Walker, Christopher, and Jessica Ludwig. 2017b. “From ‘Soft Power’ to ‘Sharp Power’: Rising Authoritarian Influence in the Democratic World.” In Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence, National Endowment for Democracy New Forum Report, December 5, 2017. https://www.ned.org/sharp-power-rising-authoritarian-influence-forum-report/ [4.3.18].

Xinhua. 2018. “”Sharp power” a new version of “China threat” rhetoric: spokesperson.” Xinhua News, March 2, 2018. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-03/02/c_137011743.htm [4.3.18].

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. AC

    March 5, 2018 at 4:56 am

    The hawkish elements in charge of Washington that currently dominate the US policy are mentally sick in the cold war mentality and their worldview is that the whole world is up to them to exploit. As such, they will project their own views on other countries, including China.

  2. Bastandard

    March 5, 2018 at 9:37 am

    And China is still stuck in the century of humiliation. Bunch of lowlifes.

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China Insight

China’s ‘Three Child Era’ Announcement Is Met with Banter and Backlash on Weibo

“The three-child policy is here, and it’s terrifying!”

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Four decades after the introduction of the one-child policy and five years after the start of a two-child policy, the Communist Party of China has now issued a statement on May 31 that all Chinese couples are allowed to have three children.

On May 31, after a meeting by the Politburo, Chinese authorities announced that all married couples would be allowed to have three children. The announcement comes over five years after an earlier law came into effect allowing Chinese couples to have a second child.

On Weibo, the topic immediately became top trending, with the Xinhua News hashtag page on the issue (#三孩生育政策来了#) going from 800 million views to 2.2 billion views within just an hour on Monday afternoon local time.

The announcement image by Xinhua.

An illustrated image showing three small children was shared on social media by Xinhua, saying: “The three-child policy is here! Actively responding to the aging population, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China convened a meeting on May 31 on the implementation of a policy allowing couples to have a third child and interrelated support measures.”

“They will have a brother or sister,” by China Youth Daily.

State media outlet China Youth Daily also published an image depicting two children playing on the floor, the text saying: “The three-child policy has come. They will have a brother or sister.”

Loosening policies and plummeting birth rates

Facing a rapidly aging population, China has been loosening its previous ‘one-child policy’ for years.

China initiated the one-child policy in 1979 with an aim to control the nation’s rapid population growth. It was successful in doing so: the government estimates that it prevented over 400 million extra births. The policy has also been blamed for innumerable cases of forced abortions and mandatory sterilizations.

Ethnic minorities or couples in rural areas were already allowed to have more than one child if their firstborn was a girl. Since 2013, couples were entitled to have a second child if they themselves were an only child. Richer families could also choose to have a second child and simply pay the high fine they would get for having another baby.

In October of 2015, the Communist Party of China (CPC) issued an official statement that all couples would be allowed to have two children. That law went into effect on 1 January 2016. Although the new policy led to a brief ‘baby boom’ – birth rates in China rose to their highest level since 2000 – the number still fell short of government estimation’s and the birth rates soon dropped again. In 2019, the birth rate of 10.48 per thousand marked the lowest number since 1949.

More kids, more stress?

When the shift from the one-child policy to a ‘two-child policy’ was announced in 2015, the expected change created a major buzz on social media. Although many people applauded the change in policy, there were also those who thought the end of the one-child policy came too late to counter the slow growth in population.

‘Many Chinese families cannot afford to have a second child,’ was one of the most recurring online comments at the time. For many Chinese couples, as only children, the everyday pressure of taking care of their elderly parents and carrying the financial burden for their own household was already very high. “We need more financial support from the government so that we can actually consider having a second child,” Chinese Weibo users said in 2015.

The introduction of a possible ‘three-child policy’ first became a trending topic on Chinese social media in 2018. In that year, Chinese bloggers and netizens denounced the potential measure in saying that an extension from a ‘two-child policy’ to a ‘three-child policy’ would add to the burden of Chinese women. Such a policy, they argued, would lead to Chinese women facing social expectations to birth a third child. And with supposed longer maternity leaves, they would also face unequal opportunities in the employment market.

But it is not just about the financial burden and economic pressure. In a 2018 column for What’s on Weibo, writer Frankie Huang emphasized that China’s declining birth rates are often explained through an economic lens, while the social and historical background that has shaped the ways Chinese young parents think about family life today is perhaps more crucial in understanding people’s decision to postpone a second child or eschew one entirely. “We must take into account how the One Child Policy made the single child family normative by erasing the experience of having siblings from the lives of millions,” Huang wrote.

The ‘terrifying’ three child era

Looking back at the online sentiments that dominated Chinese social media before, it is perhaps unsurprising that many commenters on social media platforms in China today are somewhat skeptical about the introduction of a ‘three child policy’ (三孩生育政策).

A Weibo poll by Chinese state media outlet Xinhua asking “Are You Ready for the Three Child Policy?” was ridiculed by some when nearly 30,000 people replied “I am not considering it [three kids] at all”, with only a few hundred people indicating a more positive stance on the policy. The poll was apparently soon deleted.

Many people raise issues and concerns that come with having multiple children, including those related to the position of women in the employment market, the high cost of daycare, and children’s education.

One popular comment even suggested that China’s post-80s and post-90s generations deserve to get a medal if they actually had three children, which would mean that – as only children themselves – they would need to look after four elderly parents, three young children, and then continue working while facing a gradually delayed legal retirement age.

“The three-child policy is here, and it’s terrifying!” one popular female Weibo blogger (@Alex绝对是个妞儿) writes: “Many girls around me are already afraid to have one child, and I personally think having one is the limit – I didn’t expect the policy to be so ahead of its time! No kidding, if other supporting policies and guarantees are not in place, it will be very difficult to change women’s willingness to have children. It’s not that we don’t want to have children, it’s not that the policy doesn’t allow us to have children, it’s that once we have children, women’s lives will collapse and fall apart, and that’s what makes women not want to have children.”

“This just gives my parents more reasons to pressure me to find a partner,” others complained.

“This cracks me up. My monthly income is already barely enough to cover for me alone.”

Besides those expressing concerns, there are also many jokes circulating online, such as a supposed Durex ad saying: “I’ll go, you guys have fun.”

In light of the new announcement, an older interview with Chinese businessman Shih Wing-ching (施永青), chairman of the Centaline Group, caused some controversy online when he suggested that Chinese couples should only be allowed to use contraception after having two children. According to the real estate mogul, it would be an effective way to solve China’s declining fertility rates.

“It would be better for him to wear a condom around his brain to protect him from these bewildering thoughts,” one Weibo commenter suggested.

Another topic of public ridicule was the image announcing the ‘three child policy’ by Chinese state media outlet Xinhua for containing a typo, with the wrong character being used in the word 生育, “give birth to” (using 肓 instead of 育).

“Shouldn’t we eliminate illiteracy first before letting people have three kids?” one Weibo user jokingly commented.

The original announcement by Xinhua contained a typo.

Despite all the criticism and online jokes, there are also those who are genuinely happy that having three children is now allowed for all couples. Recurring comments praise the freedom that comes with the loosening of family planning policies: “If you want to have more children, you can. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to.”

One woman on Weibo wrote: “When the two-child policy was introduced, I soon became pregnant with my second child. Yesterday I was thinking if we could try to have a baby girl, and just like that, the ‘three-child policy’ is here!”

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Miranda Barnes

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Insight

The Gansu Marathon Tragedy: Chinese Netizens Are Looking for Answers

The Gansu ultramarathon tragedy has sent shock waves on social media: “The organization needs to be held accountable.”

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What was supposed to be an exciting ultramarathon race turned into a terrible tragedy. In Gansu’s Baiyin, 21 runners died this weekend in the mountainous high-altitude track under extreme weather conditions. On Chinese social media, people are shocked and are left with many unanswered questions.

Twenty-one people participating in a mountain marathon race have died in Gansu, China, after extreme weather hit the high-altitude track. The 100-kilometer race, which started on May 22, took place at the Yellow River Stone Forest tourist site in Baiyin city.

In the morning of Sunday, May 23, a total of 151 participants were rescued in a major rescue operation. Eight people had minor injuries and were sent to the hospital. Twenty-one people were already lifeless when they were found. Among those killed were top cross-country runner Liang Jing (梁晶) and the Paralympic champion Huang Guanjun (黄关军).

On Weibo, the hashtag “21 People Killed in Gansu Mountain Marathon Accident” (#甘肃山地马拉松事故21人遇难#) received over 930 million views by Sunday afternoon. Another hashtag “Is the Gansu Marathon Accident is a Natural Disaster or Man-made Disaster?” (#甘肃马拉松事故是天灾还是人祸#) became top trending on Sunday afternoon, with netizens wondering if the organization of the race was up to standard and if the necessary safety guarantees were taken.

The daughter of a participant who was killed during the ultramarathon wanted to know why her family was only informed of his death on the morning of May 23 and why the organizing committee did not make sure the participants were better prepared following the local weather forecasts.

The Gansu provincial government has set up an incident investigation team to further investigate the cause of the incident. On the morning of May 23, the mayor of Baiyin Zhang Xuchen (张旭晨) spoke at a local press conference, where he called the incident a “public safety incident” due to sudden changes in local weather conditions.

The Huanghe Shilin Mountain Marathon (黄河石林山地马拉松) was first held in 2018, and this was its fourth edition. The event, hosted by Jingtai County, was sponsored by the Baiyin Municipal Party Committee and the municipal government. The ultramarathon was organized by a local company, Gansu Shengjing Sports, which had also organized the previous marathons.

According to The Paper, participants must be between the ages of 18-60 and must submit proof that they have completed a similar level race within the last year. The long-distance ultramarathon race is known as a difficult one, with its steep tracks, high altitudes, and a great part of the route being in no man’s land.

The race started at 9.00 in the morning on Saturday the 22nd, with many of the 172 participating runners wearing shorts and short-sleeve running shirts. The extreme weather – including local hail, freezing rain, and strong wind – hit the mountain race in the afternoon. One participant shared their story of what happened during the marathon in a blog article.

The participant describes the weather conditions at the start of the race as “breezy and sunny,” but that soon changed as the wind picked up and the temperatures dropped.

When it started to rain and hail, various runners who had been going up the mountains already withdrew from the race and returned as the conditions became harsher. The runner describes how the gloves and insulation blanket that they carried were insufficient to protect them from the cold, and that he finally decided to withdraw from the race when his hands were frozen and his body temperature dropped.

The runners ran into extreme weather and many became hypothermic.

By that time, according to the account, there were already approximately fifty runners who had withdrawn from the race and had gathered in a hut to warm up and wait for rescue. As more participants came down from the mountain to the hut, there were already some who had seen people lying motionless on the ground. The rescue team could not reach the area by car. The first group of people, including the person writing the account, came down and were able to get on a bus and get back to the race finish line around 16:00 on Saturday afternoon.

In a video shared by Fengmian News, several runners can be seen sharing their experiences as they go on the bus returning from the scene, with some saying they had already seen various people lying on the ground shivering. Others called the drop of body temperature “terrible,” saying that even experiencing the cold for a few minutes was already unbearable.

Photo of participating runners shared on social media.

The race was stopped immediately and local forces organized to search and rescue the runners who were left behind. People’s Daily shared photos of rescue operations continuing in the mountainous area at night. More than 700 people were involved in the rescue.

On Sunday, the news that multiple runners had been rescued by local villagers and shepherds who offered them shelter and warmth also went trending on social media.

Runners rescued by local shepherds warm up by the fire on the 22nd.

Another runner who participated in the ultramarathon shared his story on Weibo, writing that he was among the six top runners when the extreme weather conditions started, and the only one of the top runners who survived because he was rescued by local villagers after falling and passing out.

The rescue operation was concluded at 12:00 in the afternoon on Sunday. Xinhua News reported that the remains of all 21 victims were recovered from the marathon site.

“Is this a natural disaster or a human-made one?” many netizens on Weibo ask, with a majority saying that although the weather conditions were particularly bad, the tragedy was mostly caused by human errors.

Why were the runners not required to carry better equipment and warmer clothes with them? Why was there no security along the track of this off-the-beaten-path race? Why were there no logistics and rescue teams set up along the tracks? Why was there no detailed security and rescue plan in place for emergency situations? These questions and many more are circulating on social media.

“The organization needs to be held accountable,” many people say, while official investigations into the incident are still ongoing. “I can’t believe the organization would make these kinds of errors in 2021,” one person wrote.

“This is unbelievable, 21 people died,” another commenter wrote: “So many families have been broken.”

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Miranda Barnes

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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