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Who’s Afraid of China’s Influence?

What is most notable about China’s efforts to spread its influence abroad is not their success, but the ease with which they are exposed. Portraying these efforts as a genuine threat to the world's democracies not only betrays the West’s insecurity, but also gives China more credit than it deserves.

HONG KONG – Since the Cold War ended, the West has invested huge amounts of resources in efforts to induce political liberalization in China, including through programs to promote the rule of law, civil society, transparency, and government accountability. The results have been disappointing. Far from becoming more democratic, China has lately been backsliding toward hard-line authoritarianism. And now it is investing resources in efforts to do some inducing of its own in the world’s democracies.

China’s influence-peddling in the West has been the subject of media reports and think tank studies, and has elicited the concern of high-profile politicians, from US Vice President Mike Pence to former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. China’s “influence operations,” they argue, include cultivating ties with Western politicians, establishing Confucius Institutes around the world to promote Chinese language and culture, expanding the global reach of China’s official propaganda networks, and donations to and exchange programs with academic institutions.

How should Western liberal democracies confront a China that is taking a page from their own playbook, as it exploits their openness to advance its ideological and geopolitical objectives?

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