What you need to know
No longer reactive, China is now on a proactive track: it seeks to set the agenda by organizing and co-sponsoring international events, or by establishing partnerships with organizations abroad.
China’s participation in and sponsorship of international conferences, closed-door trilateral meetings and other forms of academic exchanges has exploded in recent years. From the near absence of Chinese participants a decade ago, the conference circuit is now swarming with panelists, observers and journalists from China who increasingly set the tone during the panel sessions and Q&A periods.
While such participation is arguably commensurate with China’s size and importance, a pattern has emerged that suggests an orchestrated effort to "shape" the international narrative on issues of "core interest" to Beijing, such as its territorial claims in the South China Sea or the "re-unification" of Taiwan.
Prior to its emergence as a major player on the academic conference scene, Beijing often relied on a denial-co-optation strategy to shape the discourse on issues of high interest; denial of access, funding or research opportunities to academics, researchers and opinion-makers who refused to regurgitate Beijing’s line, and sweeteners to those who did. That strategy extended to the "recruitment" of recently retired former government officials (many of them with some connection to national security apparatuses) through financial incentives and/or appointments to various advisory or consultancy positions. Beijing relied on those individuals to act as unofficial cheerleaders for its 'core interest' policies or as advocates of ceasing U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
While such co-optation undoubtedly continues, China has also deepened its involvement in international conferences, Track-Two initiatives and trilateral dialogues. No longer reactive, China is now on a proactive track: it seeks to set the agenda by organizing, or co-sponsoring, international events, or by establishing partnerships with organizations such as UNESCO or reputable think tanks in the West (e.g., Rand Corp). In order to do so, China has made substantial financial and human investments, opening its own think tanks, centres and "private" non-profits overseas (including in the U.S.), in some cases with the backing of powerful — and increasingly global — Chinese companies. By becoming co-organizers, Chinese outfits are now in a position to influence the composition of speakers at various conferences, both by inviting Chinese academics who toe Beijing’s line on "core interests" and those whom it has co-opted, and by screening out panelists who they know are bound to present contradictory views. (Another component of that strategy is to shape the agenda so that "problem" issues, such as Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong or human rights, are ignored altogether.)
The success of this strategy was made amply clear at a "Beyond the Current Distrust" colloquium held in Washington, DC, on Oct. 5, 2015. Two of the four panels — "Building a Stable U.S.-China Balance of Power in the Western Pacific: How to Proceed" and "Time to Decide: Contain China or Accommodate It?" — were stacked with and chaired by academics who advocate accommodation and appeasement. More recent conferences, again co-organized by a Chinese organization, also gave prominent space for Chinese academics to voice their opinions — or Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda, that is — on "core issues" like Taiwan.
Although there is nothing illegal in a state’s effort to shape the discourse in its favor, and in fact many states do so, China’s strategy warrants closer scrutiny.
The first problem is that since it is a relatively new player on the international conference circuit, many of the Chinese think tanks and research centers that are now involved in those endeavors are unknown to their partners overseas. Moreover, the overlapping nature of many of those organisations can be confusing, even to those who make a living of tracking them. To make things worse, some of the key players tend to wear a number of different hats and are involved with several organisations. Lastly, several of the Chinese individuals who are involved in those efforts have an undefined, and oftentimes undeclared, relationship with the state or CCP apparatus; in some instances this conceivably includes CCP propaganda organs, intelligence agencies, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
To be fair, many academics from the U.S. and elsewhere who are active in the conference circuit also have past connections to their governments. However, the main difference is that where such relationships usually are transparent and documented in open sources, the same cannot be said of many of the Chinese academics (I use this term in the largest sense of the word) who participate in those events. As with the PLA, China’s lack of transparency in the think tank field remains problematic; it undermines the legitimacy of its speakers — at least among those who look up their backgrounds and connections.
Another area where Chinese academics and their counterparts differ is over plurality of opinion. Whereas Western participants at international conferences often openly disagree with each other on foreign policy — and there certainly is no consensus on how the U.S. should respond to the challenges posed by China — the Chinese panelists tend to be extraordinarily united when it comes to China’s "core interests." The consistent and persistent messaging by the handpicked academics certainly lacks subtlety and bears the hallmarks of United Front operations; rather than encourage discussion it reinforces positions dictated by Beijing. Red flags are raised when every Chinese panelist at a conference homogeneously discredits Taiwan’s democracy (using terms like "pseudo-democracy" or "so-called democracy"), accuses the Taiwanese president of paying too much attention to public opinion, attacks the Sunflower Movement, emphasises the absolute need for Taiwan to embrace the "1992 consensus," and laments the lack of gratitude by Taiwanese for the "many concessions" (ask them what those are and they tend to fall silent) that China is said to have made to Taiwan over the years.
Observing such behavior, it is very difficult not to conclude that such efforts are little more than a continuation of the old Marxist-Leninist strategy of repeating the same message over and over so as to create a new reality while crowding out dissenting voices. Therefore, instead of using those as platforms for dialogue, the Chinese side appears to be exploiting the conference circuit to disseminate propaganda in order to "shape" the environment in its favor.
Ultimately, the propagandistic — and to a certain extent arguably centrally orchestrated — nature of China’s participation in international conferences that touch on Beijing "core interests" risks undermining the legitimacy of Chinese speakers. Furthermore, as the international community becomes better informed about the modus operandi of Chinese "think tanks" and their overlapping (often undisclosed) interests with organs of the CCP, China’s return on its otherwise impressive investment can only diminish.
Propaganda and information warfare works best when, as with the devil, others are convinced that it does not exist.
This article was originally published in the Lowy Interpreter.