China, Russia Deploying 'Sharp Power' to Quietly Penetrate Democracies

Sharp power centers on distraction and manipulation

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping / Getty Images
December 7, 2017

China and Russia have spent billions of dollars over the past decade on state-run propaganda campaigns disguised as commercial ventures in an effort to shape public opinion and policy debates in democracies around the world, according to a new report by the National Endowment for Democracy.

To accomplish this, Beijing and Moscow have deployed a diverse array of tools, including people-to-people exchanges, cultural activities, educational programs, and the development of media enterprises with global reach.

These methods have become a key element of Chinese and Russian foreign policy, particularly in their efforts to project "sharp power" abroad.

Unlike the Cold War-era tactics of "soft power," based on attraction and the positive appeal of political ideals, or the projection of "hard power" by military force, sharp power entails a degree of stealth and centers on distraction and manipulation.

In the past decade, China, for example, has invested tens of billions of dollars in an expanding network of Confucius Institutes, which are embedded in universities to teach Chinese language and culture while propagating communist viewpoints.

During the same period, the Kremlin launched a multibillion-dollar overseas campaign to improve its image abroad through the expansion of Russian state media, increased support for state-affiliated policy institutes, and the building of its capacity to manipulate content online.

Sharp power, the report said, enables authoritarian regimes "to cut, razor-like, into the fabric of a society, stoking and amplifying existing divisions."

"In the new competition that is underway between autocratic and democratic states, the repressive regimes' sharp power techniques should be seen as the tip of their dagger—or indeed as their syringe," the report said.

Key to China and Russia's success has been their ability to close off their societies to external political and cultural influence while at the same time taking advantage of the openness of democracies abroad. Younger democracies, such as those in Latin American and Central Europe, are particularly vulnerable to infiltration given democratic values aren't as well entrenched.

Published under: China , Russia