Answering China’s Sharp Power

The Federal Communications Commission will soon consider a proposal to prevent U.S. companies from using Universal Service Fund dollars to purchase equipment or services from companies deemed to present a national security threat, including Huawei and ZTE Corporation. 

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai made the case for his proposal:

“Thanks to recent incidents involving the National Basketball Association, Apple and others, Americans have become more aware of how the Chinese government uses its influence over global commerce to export antidemocratic values. Imagine what could happen if we let Chinese equipment into tomorrow’s 5G wireless networks. It would open the door to censorship, surveillance, espionage and other harms.”

He warned that Chinese companies must cooperate with the nation’s intelligence services. Pai added that Huawei’s products are known to have backdoors and other security vulnerabilities that can be exploited. 

The FCC Chairman’s proposal is a continuation of longstanding bipartisan efforts to curb potential security threats posed by Huawei and ZTE. 

In 2012, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence issued a bipartisan report warning about these companies. Last year, President Donald Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which included a provision to prohibit the federal government from purchasing equipment from Huawei or ZTE. 

The FCC’s plan shows that the government is getting serious about addressing the challenge of China’s use of sharp power in the United States. The National Endowment for Democracy’s Christopher Walker coined the term sharp power in 2017 to describe “authoritarian influence efforts that seek to pierce, penetrate, and perforate the political and information environments of targeted countries.” 

Unlike traditional “soft power” or public diplomacy tactics to “win hearts and minds” by attracting support, sharp power involves using instruments of national power to coerce or manipulate targets to advance political, economic, and cultural objectives. 

It’s increasingly apparent that China is pursuing a grand strategy using sharp power to advance its global interests. Consider the following examples of recent government warnings about China’s sharp power activities:

  • The National Counterintelligence and Security Center’s 2018 report on Foreign Economic Espionage in Cyberspace assessed that China continues to use “cyber espionage to support its strategic development goals—science and technology advancement, military modernization, and economic policy objectives,” and warned that failing to address the threat could “erode America’s long-term competitive economic advantage.”
  • The Department of Defense’s 2019 report on Chinese Military Power described how “China’s leaders are leveraging China’s growing economic, diplomatic, and military clout to establish regional preeminence and expand the country’s international influence,” including “financing hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of major infrastructure projects throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and parts of Europe,” through its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. 
  • The Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) studied Confucius Institutes in 2019 and found that the Chinese government has spent more than $158 million to establish 500 education centers at American schools and colleges. Further, PSI found that “the Chinese government controls nearly every aspect of Confucius Institutes at U.S. schools, including its funding, staff, and all programming,” while denying the United States reciprocal access to the Chinese education system. 
  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation has testified that China’s “Thousand Talents” program involves “offering competitive salaries, state-of-the-art research facilities, and honorific titles, luring both Chinese overseas talent and foreign experts alike to bring their knowledge and experience to China, even if that means stealing proprietary information or violating export controls to do so.” The FBI also offered guidance to academia to recognize the threat. PSI will hold a hearing on Tuesday on Chinese talent recruitment in the United States. 

Beyond the Chinese government’s direct activity, the effects of China’s sharp power are also evident in American companies’ recent actions bending to Beijing’s wishes. 

Apple drew criticism last month for withdrawing an app that was used by Hong Kong protestors to track and avoid police. Activision Blizzard recently banned a prominent gamer who demonstrated support for the protestors. Hollywood also continues to bend to Chinese pressure. The recently-released animated film Abominable includes an image of a map which supports China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, which is a new example of Hollywood “positively pushing the Chinese government’s view of the world,” according to Foreign Policy.  

The Growing Challenge for U.S. Policymakers and the Private Sector

The 7-year effort to address the threats posed by Huawei and ZTE shows that the U.S. government can address a Chinese national security challenge, albeit slowly, with bipartisan support. Now, policymakers and private sector leaders must consider the other ways to answer China’s use of sharp power. 

For starters, federal and state policymakers should immediately examine other potential supply chain security risks associated with the use of Chinese technology within the United States. Beyond these necessary actions to defend national security, policymakers should rethink our approach to international engagement and public diplomacy to answer China’s sharp power strategy to promote American interests and values.

For the private sector and civil society, the recent controversies over China’s actions in Hong Kong are just the beginning. All companies and institutions with global interests must decide how to balance potential economic opportunities in China with their values and Americans’ commitment to human rights. It’s now a question of when, not if, they’ll need to answer China’s sharp power. 

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Dan Lips
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William Upton
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Garrett Johnson
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