To address China’s growing soft power influence on student groups at colleges around the country, universities must understand the context of the situation fully before taking action, said Robert Sutter, the director of the B.A. in International Affairs at The George Washington University, at an event Tuesday hosted by the Alexander Hamilton Society.
In addition to Sutter, the event featured Toshi Yashihara, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and former teacher of strategy at the Naval War College, and Dan Blumenthal, the director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and former senior director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia at the Department of Defense.
The event took place less than a year after reports surfaced in February that the Georgetown University Chinese Students and Scholars Association received funds from the Chinese government. Nearly half of the Georgetown CSSA budget came from the Chinese government.
The increasing influence of Chinese soft power on student groups is emerging now, and there is still insufficient evidence to determine the best response to China’s influence on students, Sutter said. He recommended Americans wait for the problem to become more understandable before deciding on a course of action.
“In this kind of an issue, we don’t have enough evidence, we don’t have enough data to make a guess it seems to me … And so it’s a relevant issue — it’s just a new issue this year in Washington, and I think we have to get more data,” Sutter said. “And maybe after that we can come up with some reasonable judgment. If we rush to judgment and say it’s this and that … I think is excessive.”
The ambiguity of Chinese influence operations makes it difficult to discern which pose a legitimate threat, according to Yoshihara.
“One of the subtleties of influence operations is that it operates in that twilight zone where it’s very difficult to figure out,” Yoshihara said.
Many of the Chinese influence operations subtly encourage limitations on free speech, Yoshihara added.
“Influence operations operate in that blurry twilight zone and I think one of the things I worry about most is its ability to very subtly shape the bait,” Yoshihara said. “Whether it’s the Confucius Institutes or the student associations on campuses, it’s that it creates an atmosphere that for example very subtly enforces self-censorship.”
Yoshihara — referencing the Chinese United Front, a coalition of political parties in China led by the Communist Party — said the coalition’s ideological roots cultivate a worldview based on fear of and animosity toward the West.
“This is deeply ideological. I would describe the worldview as one categorized by fear, loathing and paranoia … It’s not just what the West does, it’s actually who the West is, what the West is, what it represents,” Yoshihara said. “And so the United Front sees the West as seeking to export ideas, cultures … and this is seen as an existential threat to the regime.”
The Chinese United Front works to spread propaganda that prevents the Chinese population from defecting to support Western culture, according to Yoshihara.
“They tend to sort of overestimate in some ways the power or the influence of the West. Since China engaged in reform and opening in the late 1970s, obviously, a flood of Western values and influence flooded in,” Yoshihara said. “And so the writings are taken … to inoculate the population from these ideological pollutants or contaminants.”
Blumenthal highlighted that the definition of soft power in China has evolved through the years.
“Soft power, which when it was first written … it said something very specific … it was a cultural and intellectual input, traction, in a country,” Blumenthal said. “Now I guess it’s taken on a meaning in China.”
Sutter, a former professor in the School of Foreign Service, President Donald Trump’s policies on China mark a significant shift away from traditional strategies.
“The United States is in the middle of the most important re-evaluation of China policy in my fifty years here in Washington. I haven’t seen anything like this, what we’re doing here … on a whole range of issues: security,” Sutter said.