For three and a half decades following the end of the Maoist era, China adhered to Deng Xiaoping’s policies of “reform and opening to the outside world” and “peaceful development.” After Deng retired as paramount leader, these principles continued to guide China’s international behavior in the leadership eras of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Admonishing Chinese to “keep your heads down and bide your time,” these Party leaders sought to emphasize that China’s rapid economic development and its accession to “great power” status need not be threatening to either the existing global order or the interests of its Asian neighbors. However, since Party general secretary Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, the situation has changed. Under his leadership, China has significantly expanded the more assertive set of policies initiated by his predecessor Hu Jintao. These policies not only seek to redefine China’s place in the world as a global player, but they also have put forward the notion of a “China option” that is claimed to be a more efficient developmental model than liberal democracy.
While Americans are well acquainted with China’s quest for influence through the projection of diplomatic, economic, and military power, we are less aware of the myriad ways Beijing has more recently been seeking cultural and informational influence, some of which could undermine our democratic processes. These include efforts to penetrate and sway—through various methods that former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull summarized as “covert, coercive or corrupting”—a range of groups and institutions, including the Chinese American community, Chinese students in the United States, and American civil society organizations, academic institutions, think tanks, and media.
Some of these efforts fall into the category of normal public diplomacy as pursued by many other countries. But others involve the use of coercive or corrupting methods to pressure individuals and groups and thereby interfere in the functioning of American civil and political life.