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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.’

Manya Koetse

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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. Avatar

    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. Avatar

    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

“I’m One of 1.4 Billion” Goes Trending as China’s Population Now Tops the 1.4B Number

China’s total population is up, but its birth rate has fallen to the lowest level.

Manya Koetse

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According to the latest numbers, China’s birth rate has hit a new low, but state media are instead highlighting the fact that China’s population has now surpassed 1,4 billion.

This Friday, official data, released annually by the National Bureau of Statistics, shows that the total Chinese mainland’s population has surpassed 1.4 billion at the end of 2019.

In light of this news, Chinese state media outlet People’s Daily launched the hashtag “I’m One of 1.4 Billion” (#我就是14亿分之一#), propagating a sense of unity among such a massive population.

This message was also reiterated by other accounts, such as the Shenzhen Police, that said: “We’re all one big family, our name is China, we have a lot of brothers and sisters.”

China’s Birth Rate Falls to Lowest

While People’s Daily is publicizing the 1.4 billion number, the annual statistics also show that China’s birth rate has fallen to its lowest since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Although only 14,65 million were born in mainland China in 2019, the death rate of the country was also lower than before – meaning that the total population number still went up from 1,39 billion to 1,4 billion in the last year.

One thread started by People’s Daily on Weibo received nearly 530,000 likes by Friday afternoon, with thousands of Weibo users posting a response to the latest numbers.

Many netizens responded to the news in a similar fashion, saying: “There are already enough people [in China] now, I don’t need to have children anymore,” or: “Good, there’s so many people, I don’t have to worry about having kids.”

China’s marriage rates hit a new low in 2019 after dropping year by year.

Over recent years, various trends in Chinese (online) media have highlighted the existing social issues behind China’s dropping marriage and birth rates.

The rising costs of living and the fact that many among Chinese younger generations “prefer to marry late,” are often mentioned as an explanation for China’s decline in marriage rates and the interrelated lowering birth rates.

But China’s so-called ‘leftover’ single men have also been pointed out as a “crisis,” with China having millions of more men than women of marriageable age – partly a consequence of the one-child policy and general preference for baby boys.

Although Chinese couples are allowed to have two children since 2015, the new regulations have not had the desired effect, with many couples simply not wanting a second child or not being able to afford it.

For some years, ‘leftover women’ were mentioned as a reason for China’s declining marriage rates; China’s well-educated, career-oriented, urban single women were sometimes singled out for making it harder for China’s unmarried men to find a wife because of their ‘choice’ to postpone marriage and family life. This has increased the pressure on China’s single women to get married, which has become a recurring topic of debate on Chinese social media.

Today’s responses on Weibo seem to indicate that many young people are still not very eager to have children. “Let’s not add to the population, it’s enough burden for the planet,” some say.

Others say the number of 1,4 billion make them or their action seem “irrelevant” and “tiny.”

There are also those with entirely different concerns about the number: “There are 1,4 billion in China now, and yet I’m still not able to find a boyfriend!”

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

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China Insight

Top 10 Buzzwords in Chinese Online Media

From blockchain to hardcore, this is an overview of China’s media top buzzwords over the past year.

Jialing Xie

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Some of the expressions and idioms that have been buzzing in Chinese media the past year. What’s on Weibo’s Jialing Xie explains. 

Last year, we listed China’s “top ten buzzwords” for you (link), giving an overview of some noteworthy expressions on Chinese social media and in the media in 2018. Recently, the chief editor of the magazine Yǎowén Jiáozì (咬文嚼字) has again announced the “top ten buzzwords” in China of the past year.

Yǎowén Jiáozì, which literally means “to pay excessive attention to wording,” is a monthly publication focused on the Chinese language. Chinese (state) media have been widely propagating the magazine’s selection of the top words and terms of the past year in newspapers and on Chinese online media. The ten terms have also become a topic of discussion on Weibo over the past month, with the topic receiving 290 million views.

We’ve listed them for you here:

 

1. 文明互鉴 (wénmíng hùjiàn): “Mutual Learning”

  • Literal Meaning: “Mutual learning,” “Exchanges and mutual learning among different cultures and civilizations.”
  • Original context: This expression can be traced back to the era around and during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), a time of division, bloody battles, and political chaos. The demands for solutions brought forth a broad range of philosophies and schools. During this time, Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism, Mohism and many others were developed leading to the phenomenon known as the “Contention of a Hundred Schools of Thought.”
  • What does it mean now? In 2014, at the 4th summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Chinese President Xi Jinping put forward a major initiative to convene a conference on dialogue between Asian countries followed by an introduction emphasizing how “diversity spurs interaction among civilizations, which promotes mutual learning.” This sentence and expression were later repeated in speeches during various major events. In May 2019, President Xi once again emphasized the idea during the CICA, making the term pop up across Chinese state media again. 

 

2. 区块链 (qū kuài liàn): “Blockchain”

  • Literal Meaning: Blockchain Technology
  • Context: “Blockchain” is no longer a new concept since it was first introduced to the public around a decade ago. Development of the malleable blockchain technology has become an important trend in China’s tech market through the years. 
  • What does it mean now?  Blockchain was all the buzz in China over the past year. In early 2019, the Cyberspace Administration of China released the Provisions on the Administration of Blockchain Information Services. In October, President Xi singled out blockchain technology as an important breaking point in developing China’s core innovative technology and emphasized the importance of investing and stepping up research on the standardization of blockchain to increase China’s influence and power in the global arena. 

 

3. 硬核 (yìng hé): “Hardcore”

  • Literal Meaning: “Hardcore” – 硬 = hard, 核 = core. 
  • Context: “Hardcore” is known as the abbreviation for Hardcore Punk, a punk rock music genre originated in Southern California during the late 1970s. The term was later used to reference things of a certain level of complexity, such as “hardcore games” (versus casual games). The term started to mean something along the lines of “terrific” (厉害) or “strict”/”rigid” (刚硬)  and in Chinese, started being used in expressions such as “Tiger mom” (硬核妈妈) or “Hardcore game players” (硬核玩家).
  • What does it mean now?  As the Chinese science fiction blockbuster The Wandering Earth (流浪地球) was categorized as ‘hardcore science fiction’ (硬核科幻), the term ‘hardcore’ resurfaced as a popular word often popping up in (online) conversations.

 

 4. 融梗 (róng gěng): “Mixing up ideas”

  • Literal Meaning: “Integrating other people’s ideas into one’s own work” or “integrating punchlines,” “mixing up plots.”
  • Context: Over the past two decades, many literary works, including a few by prestigious Chinese writers, have been suspected of plagiarism and triggered heated discussions online — when it comes to drawing inspiration from other art and literary creations, where is the boundary between artistic freedom and plagiarism?
  • What does it mean now?  Soon after the Chinese movie Better Days (少年的你) came out in October (read more here), the writer of the original novel was accused of plagiarizing parts of Japanese mystery writer Keigo Higashino’s work. Many netizens argued that in the field of online literature, borrowing ideas from others (融梗) is ubiquitous and does not necessarily equate plagiarism because the act (融梗) itself requires original work and creativity. From October to now, the term has become a recurring topic in Chinese media. 

 

 5. “XX 千万条,XX 第一条” (XX qiān wàn tiáo, XX dì yī tiáo): “Out of millions of things,..is the first one”

  • Literal Meaning: “Out of ten million things,.. xxx comes first as the rule of thumb.” 
  • Context: List thinking is prevailing in China; from codes and regulations enacted by the government and laid down by companies, to the way teachers outline their lectures, the usage of “articles” (sometimes used as ‘rules’)  or “items” (条) to organize ideas and outline objectives is commonly seen in daily life.
  • What does it mean now? This phrase caught people’s attention after appearing in the aforementioned science fiction film The Wandering Earth, where a robot voice reminds a driver of traffic safety in a noteworthy way, saying something along the lines of: “There are thousands of road rules, but safety rules always come first. If you disregard safety, your loved ones will end up in tears.” Despite sounding like a sketch that rhymes poorly in Chinese, the lines stuck around and were later also used by Chinese traffic police across the country. The sentence structure is now also more often applied in various other contexts, for example: “There are thousands of things good for health, but sleep is the most important.”

 

6. 柠檬精 (níngméng jīng): “Lemon monster”

  • Literal Meaning: “Lemon mythical spirit” or “Sour lemon goblin”
  • Context: In ancient Chinese superstitions, it’s believed that animals and non-living objects may have the potential to grow into something with spiritual and immortal characteristics if meeting certain criteria. One of the criteria is to be around long enough, usually hundreds of years – if not thousands. For instance, in the classical work Journey to the West (西游记), the four main characters except Tang Sanzang are all spiritual beings derived from animal prototypes. 
  • What does it mean now? Lemon tastes sour (酸), which is often used to describe the feeling of envy or jealousy. When lemon becomes a spiritual being, it basically means the lemon has reached the ultimate stage of being a lemon and maximized its characteristics such as being terribly sour. The phrase is used to deride those who feel envious of others’ possession and achievement. Lately, the word is more often seen in a self deprecating humoristic context. For instance, when someone says “I’m a lemon jing now/I feel sour now( 我柠檬精了/我酸了)”, instead of expressing envy towards others, it’s more about acknowledging others more advantageous position compared to one’s own. 

 

7. The 996 work schedule 

  • Literal Meaning: 996 working hour system
  • Context: 996 is a work schedule commonly practiced by many companies in the internet and tech industry in China. With the 996 schedule, employees are required to work from 9 am to 9  pm, 6 days per week. 
  • What does it mean now? In April 2019, Jack Ma, the co-founder and former executive chairman of Alibaba Group, commented on 996 during an internal meeting with Alibaba employees. Ma’s comments seemed to justify how companies and employees can both benefit from the work schedule, however, the comments quickly triggered criticism after widely circulating online for allegedly violating of the Labour Law of the People’s Republic of China. 

 

8. “我太难(南)了” (wǒ tài nán le): “Life is so hard for me” 

  • Literal Meaning: “I’m feeling uneasy” or “life is so hard for me” 
  • Context: The phrase originated from a 10-second video self-posted by a user on video-sharing site Kuaishou earlier in 2019. As the video begins, the user – an older Chinese guy –  says to the camera: “I’m feeling uneasy…” followed by sad music. He then continues to say “Lao tie [bro/guys], (I) have been under a lot of stress lately.” The video, in which the man dramatically drops his head in his hands and seems to cry without tears, quickly went viral. The phrase “I’m feeling uneasy” was quickly adopted and applied in daily conversations.  
  • What does it mean now? The broad circulation of this phrase on the internet reflects that the uneasy feeling about life is relatable to many people. Acknowledging the stress in a self-deprecating humorous tone is in itself a way of relieving stress. To add a sense of humor to this phrase, many replace the initial character “难” (nán, adj. difficult) with “南” (nán, adj.& n. south), which is believed to be taken from the mahjong tile “南风”(south wind).  

 

9. “我不要你觉得,我要我觉得” (wǒ bùyào nǐ juédé, wǒ yào wǒ juédé): “I don’t want to know what you think, I only care about what I think”

  • Literal Meaning: “I don’t want to know what you think, I only care about what I think.”
  • Context: The line was taken from Xiaoming Huang, one of the guests in the third season of the entertainment TV show “Chinese Restaurant”, which was broadcasted in the summer of 2019. In the show, Huang, who took the role as the manager of the restaurant, is self-centered, and often disregards the opinions of others in matters such as menu ideas or pricing, showing his blind self-confidence and arrogance. In addition to this line, Huang’s frequently used language includes “There is no need to discuss this matter”, “Listen to me, I have the final say” and so on, and it spread quickly on the internet.  
  • What does it mean now? The popularity of this line reflects people’s ridicule and resentment against arrogant and dominant personalities.

 

10. 霸凌主义 (bàlíng zhǔyì): “Bully-ism”

  • Literal Meaning: “Bully-ism”
  • Context: The word 霸凌 (bàlíng) comes from the English word “bully.” Here, it refers to bullying other countries in the face of conflicts between nations. 
  • What does it mean now? As the trade conflict between the US and China was ongoing in 2019, many believed that the current government administration of the United States has been handling international affairs in almost a bullying manner. The slogan “America First” is also often perceived as a declaration in front of the entire world that the interests of the United States come first. As a buzzword, “bullyism” has come to be used by Chinese media in the context of international affairs. 

 

By Jialing Xie
Follow @whatsonweibo

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.

©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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