Distinguished research fellow Glenn Tiffert, a historian of modern China, co-chairs (with Larry Diamond, the William L. Clayton Senior Fellow) Hoover’s project on China’s Global Sharp Power and directs its research portfolio.
Jonathan Movroydis: What was the genesis of the project on China’s Global Sharp Power?
Glenn Tiffert: Hoover’s project on China’s Global Sharp Power (CGSP) grew out of a 2018 report jointly edited by Larry Diamond and Orville Schell of the Asia Society called China’s Influence & American Interests. This report took a hard look at the various ways in which China had penetrated different sectors of American society and was exerting influence in ways that were underappreciated and not readily apparent to the eye. The media, local government, national government, think tanks, academia—sectors of that sort. The report was seminal to the larger discussion the United States has since been having about how China exerts influence—sometimes malign influence—in democratic societies. When we finished it, we realized that there was a lot more work to be done and CGSP was born.
Movroydis: Covert, coercive, and corrupting: are those generally the attributes of sharp power? What are some of its other characteristics?
Tiffert: Those were the words former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull used to describe it. It’s a handy, easy-to-understand rubric for what sharp power really is and why it poses a threat to free societies in particular.
All governments engage in diplomacy, project their view of the world, and try to win friends and influence people. As long as that’s open and transparent and it doesn’t involve subversion, corruption, or coercion, then it’s generally within the acceptable parameters of international relations. But there are certain governments that seem to have raised the conspiratorial covert, coercive, and corrupting dimensions of power to an art form, especially Leninist regimes. China in recent years exemplifies this.
Many of the techniques China engages in today were techniques that the former Soviet Union and the communist states of Eastern Europe honed to spread disinformation, to try to trap people into compromising situations, and to exploit our freedoms and openness in order to undermine our interests, compromise our values, and subvert our institutions and political systems.
A familiar example of sharp power outside the China domain would be the allegations of covert Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Russia also has interfered in elections throughout Western Europe. Similarly, disinformation attributed to actors in China that targets US voters is growing in sophistication and ambition.
Movroydis: What are some of the initiatives under your project’s purview?
Tiffert: CGSP focuses on data-driven analysis of China’s impact on issues central to American interests and values. We aim to inform the public and equip decision makers from all walks of life to manage relations with China on a sounder and more sustainable and vigilant footing. This means competing with China and, where we must, confronting it.
Within that mission, CGSP pursues three major streams of work. One is countering China’s malign influence, both in the United States and among our partners. For example, we ran an eighteen-month project on China’s sharp power in sub-Saharan Africa, in which we worked with civil-society partners from more than two dozen countries to document the covert, coercive, and corrupting impact China was having in their region, to understand it through their eyes, and to return data and policy recommendations from the grass roots to our diplomats in Washington. We aim to launch a similar project focused on Latin America.
The second stream of work tracks China’s progress in critical technologies. For example, CGSP has played key roles in Hoover studies on artificial intelligence, digital currencies, and a major report on the ramifications of the global competition in semiconductors. Again, our goal is to supply actionable knowledge and recommendations to enhance America’s security and competitiveness.
The third stream concerns the security of our research enterprise. By that I mean the security of the research done in our universities, national laboratories, and companies, especially our startup ecosystem. We’re working hard to identify where the risk is in working with international partners and how best to abate it without sacrificing the tremendous benefits that come with collaboration. I’m thinking about espionage or other forms of unauthorized technology and data transfer, risks to human rights and research integrity, and collaborations that may be legal but are nevertheless unwise in the long run because they jeopardize US economic and national security. We draw on experts from many domains to uncover these risks, to assess them, and to devise calibrated mitigations that empower researchers to remain open to the world, but in ways that are safer. Last year, I visited thirteen countries sharing our work on research security with stakeholders in government, industry, and academia.
Movroydis: What else is coming up for the project?
Tiffert: For starters, we’re preparing a study on how China cornered the global market in battery technology, a development that could have profound spillover effects for our auto industry, the modernization of our power grid, and, most alarmingly, for weapons like the drones that are being used to devastating effect in the war in Ukraine. Better batteries—and China has the world’s best batteries right now—mean that those weapons can operate over longer distances and carry more diverse payloads, which makes them more capable. We hope to publish this study in the fall.
In the spring, we will publish a book edited by former US deputy national security advisor Matt Pottinger on how to maintain deterrence and avert war with China over Taiwan. We publish a weekly newsletter on China’s sharp power in the world and an occasional paper series, all freely accessible on our project’s website. We host regular speaker events and conferences at Hoover, many of which are available on our YouTube channel. In May, for example, we will host a major conference on the assaults on liberty in Hong Kong. We also partner with other teams at Hoover, including the project on Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific and the Hoover History Lab, and promote the research of the growing community of Hoover fellows working on China.
Movroydis: Taiwan has just elected a new president. There were reportedly efforts by Beijing to sway the results of that election. Can you describe some examples of sharp power at play during that election?
Tiffert: China engages in a range of activities to try to affect the outcome of elections in Taiwan. Almost daily, there are incursions of Chinese air force and naval assets in Taiwan’s air defense identification zone and within Taiwanese waters. These incursions are designed to rattle the nerve of the Taiwanese people, undermine their will to resist, incentivize the election of a government more accommodating to China, and prepare for the day when those assets might be used kinetically.
Beyond that, China dangles promises of investment and economic rewards if its favored Taiwanese candidates win, and periodically targets constituencies in the electorate with trade restrictions to express its displeasure and influence voting behavior. Taiwan has a diverse media landscape in which some outlets affiliated with companies that have extensive business in China exhibit editorial lines that align with messaging from China. It is widely understood that the Chinese government capitalizes on the openness of Taiwanese society to provide covert support to groups with pro-China sentiments. Not least of all, the PRC and its surrogates have also engaged in active disinformation campaigns on social media to try to stain the reputation of the current ruling party in Taiwan and shift or divide public opinion on hot button issues.
In closing, let me add that Hoover is singular in the public policy think-tank space for its location at the heart of a world-class university. We have unparalleled public servants and scholars among our fellows in fields such as economics, national security, education, science and technology, and area studies. We can bring that critical mass together and use it in ways almost no one else can.
Moreover, if there’s something we don’t have at our fingertips here within Hoover, I can walk ten minutes in almost any direction on campus and get a world expert on it. That’s powerful. And what we’re discovering is that Stanford faculty are hungry to work with us to tap our expertise, deepen their impact, and reach new audiences.
A core part of CGSP’s identity is to build those teams and draw on the best people we can find at Stanford, in the Silicon Valley community, and beyond. It makes everything we do better. The result? Together, Stanford and Hoover have emerged as the most dynamic center in the United States for research on China.