Changing political dynamics require both sides adapt
When I arrived at an American university in the early 2000s for my master’s degree, like many other new students from China, getting in touch with the university’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association was among the first things to do. The loosely organized student body is responsible for liaison among Chinese students on campus and at Spring Festival every year, organizes a show or throws a party.
This hardly noticed student organization has now become the target of scrutiny amid rising suspicion toward expanding Chinese influence in countries including Australia and the US. The association has been deemed an arm of the Communist Party of China to exert influence or even train spies abroad. This sweeping sentiment has also shrouded Confucius Institutes in suspicion at overseas universities.
Hostility against China’s influence is apparently on the rise in Western countries. The sentiment probably stems more from Western anxiety toward its own declining influence in the world, compounded by political infighting that severely restricts their ability to fix the problems. Without an effective solution within the Western political system, blaming China has become a convenient excuse to shift responsibility and whip up unity.
As the gap of national strength between China and the West continues to shrink, the West increasingly views China through an ideological lens. The concept of “sharp power,” coined specifically for China and Russia, has an obvious value judgment. Many Chinese students and scholars apply for financial assistance with a Western foundation, regarded as a carrier of Western soft power, to fund their studies and research. When it comes to funding from China, it becomes sharp power with the purpose of penetrating the Western political system.
Such double standards are widely applied. Western media outlets, regardless of their partisan attachment, can freely express support for Tibetan independence, or opposition against China’s political system, as they are entitled to freedom of speech. When Chinese media operate in Western countries, they are often stigmatized as carrying out propaganda on behalf of the Communist Party of China and posing a danger to the Western value system.
Political donations, an ingrained part of the Western political system, can be even trickier. A lobbying group representing, say, Jewish interests, will not raise any fuss in any Western country. But if a Western politician is connected to China, the ties will often be interpreted as China buying influence, or worse, bribing the Western system.
A China connection can also be scapegoated in a partisan struggle in Western countries. Look at the prolonged Russiagate investigation in Washington. Anyone that isn’t insane can tell if it’s really about Russian influence on US politics.
China-Australia ties have hit rocks in recent years. There are Australian scholars who view their country as a testing ground for China’s expanding influence. They argue if China can succeed in letting down the guard of Australia, China’s influence can be accepted by other Western countries.
From a Chinese perspective, Australia has become an active player on almost all fronts of major conflicts between China and Western powers, from the South China Sea – to which Australia isn’t even a claimant – to socalled China infiltration. State media of Australia fomented a China spy scare in the public. Whatever the logic of Australia’s China policy, its behavior is detestable to Chinese.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull caused a stir among Chinese when in December he claimed in Chinese that “the Australian people stand up” in a radical posture toward China, yet after two months, he adopted a mild tone when commenting on China before his visit to Washington in February. The flip-flop left many scratching their heads over Australia’s real attitude toward China and whether the country can have a coherent China policy.
Admittedly, China’s rise has aroused deep uneasiness among Western countries and both sides need to adapt to the changing political dynamics in the process. To some extent, Australia may test how well China is accepted in the West, yet on the other, Australia can test how well the West can cope with a rising China.