This week, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) released a report on rising authoritarian influence in young democracies around the world. The report, which uses the cases of Poland and Slovakia in Europe and Peru and Argentina in Latin America, is worth a read. It painstakingly details how China (most prominently in Latin America) and Russia (most prominently in Europe) have undertaken ambitious, malicious soft power efforts to change public perception of the countries’ authoritarian regimes and grow influence that build on and extend beyond already-established economic ties.
The basic conclusion: democratic leaders around the world need to recognize the rise of Chinese and Russian “sharp power” for what it is—an effort to build geostrategic power. The findings are of particular import for Latin America and the Caribbean. After decades of progress toward liberal democracy, the countries of the region—once considered pro-Western, liberal democracies—are increasingly susceptible to extra-regional authoritarian powers. With eight countries in the region scheduled to elect new presidents in 2018, regional defenders of democracy in both politics and civil society must work to create a vigorous, democratic debate over the effects of growing Chinese and, to a lesser extent Russian, influence in the hemisphere.
Chinese sharp power in Latin America
China’s economic presence in Latin America grew rapidly at the beginning of the 21st century. Now, with a firmly established trade and business foothold in the region, China has set its sights on more ambitious goals. Throughout the Americas, many governments, inspired by China’s economic success and growing international influence, have embraced the Chinese model and the concept of enhanced partnerships with China.
Sensing an opportunity, especially in the context of a U.S. retreat from leadership in the region, the Chinese government has begun to aggressively expand its efforts to shape public perceptions of the country in the region. This growing sharp power is largely concentrated in three fields: media, academia and culture. One way it has sought to do this is through educational and exchange programs through its Confucius programs. China operates 39 Confucius Institutes and 19 Confucius classrooms in 20 Latin American countries. Today 100,000 Latin American are enrolled in Chinese language classes and over one million people participate in Confucius Institute programs every year, which serve as a thinly veiled way of promoting China’s world view.
Recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a plan to train 500 Latin American journalists in China in the next five years. And active collaboration within the China and the recently created Community of Latin American States (CELAC)—which pointedly does not include the U.S. and Canada—has sparked a Chinese commitment to educate 1,000 young Latin American leaders by 2024.
To a casual observer, the consequences of the growing Chinese presence in Latin American societies may seem like just another exercise in innocent public diplomacy. The authors of the report, though, point to the very different political and economic system of China relative to the democracies in the region and the coordinated effort by the Chinese state to use these programs to promote its interests:
These ambitious authoritarian regimes, which systematically suppress political pluralism and free expression at home, are increasingly seeking to apply similar principles internationally to secure their interests… ‘Sharp power’ pierces, penetrates, or perforates the political and information environments in the targeted countries.
In countries like Argentina and Peru, where public knowledge of China is minimal, it hasn’t been difficult for Beijing to steer public perception of the country (and, as an extension, the regime) to a mostly positive image. Aggressive outreach in local media, investment in the physical and human infrastructure of academic communities, people-to-people exchanges that bring thousands of Latin Americans to China on government-sponsored trips, and near-complete control over the representation of Chinese culture have led to a public perception of China that largely mirrors the image put forward by the regime in Beijing.
As one Argentine democratic civil society activist told a member of Global Americans after her return from one of these exchanges, “China is more like Latin America than we ever knew.” Really?
A critical juncture for Latin America
Though the NED report only focuses on two countries in Latin America, its findings carry weight for the region at large. With U.S. influence waning throughout the hemisphere, opportunities for China to grow its influence beyond economic exchange abound. Indeed, a quick glance at public opinion toward both China and the U.S. in the region shows that Chinese efforts to improve its image have had an impact.
While the reputation of the U.S. continues to suffer, especially in the face of President Trump’s racially charged rhetoric about Latin America—whether on immigrants, the region’s security situation or the basic pillars of U.S.-inter-American relations, such as trade, public diplomacy and educational exchange—China is finding a wide-open field to build its reputation in Latin America. In fact, China enjoys a positive image in all seven Latin American countries included in the Pew Global Attitudes survey. Its median favorability in the region outperforms its median global favorability by four points, and its median regional unfavorability outperforms its median global unfavorability by eleven points. In other words, China is doing quite well in in terms of popular perceptions in the hemisphere, while the U.S. is beginning to lag.
Most impressive (or ominous depending on your perspective), China outperforms the U.S. in favorability in every country except Colombia and beats the U.S. in the regional median in by four points in favorability and twelve points in unfavorability. Chinese sharp power is working in Latin America.
Growing admiration for China—oppressive authoritarian regime and all—in Latin America is especially troubling given the region’s current political landscape. With Venezuela increasingly unstable, faltering leadership north of the Rio Bravo, and diminished effectiveness of multilateral organizations like the Organization of American States, the region is in need of strong, stable democracies that are willing to work together to defend progressive norms in the hemisphere.
There’s little doubt that the Chinese regime is keeping an eye on the busy electoral calendar (plus the planned transfer of power in Cuba from Raul Castro to—presumably—Miguel Díaz-Canel) and working to promote its interests where possible.
A path forward
Democrats in the region have options for combatting the influence of Chinese sharp power. Yes, the NED report can make for depressing reading, but it also offers realistic methods for confronting the issue, and, at the very least, turning what is currently a topic dominated by China’s government into a multi-faceted debate.
Civil society and policymakers alike have a responsibility to try to stem the Chinese regime’s hegemonic control over its own reputation in the region. It’s here that the NED report’s recommendations offer hope. Among the most useful advice in the report:
- civil society organizations should work to educate the broader public on the authoritarian policies of autocratic regimes like China and Russia that suppress well-established norms in the hemisphere such as freedoms of expression and association, LGBTI rights, and the right to political participation;
- governments must safeguard a strong and independent civil society, especially of the press;
- where possible, civil society and government should work together to draw attention to programs and influence of these non-democratic governments;
- prominent democratic leaders like Mauricio Macri in Argentina and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in Peru need to continue to serve as leaders of democratic ideals, even when doing so conflicts with trade and economic partners such as China and Russia. Economic cooperation doesn’t have to translate to political affinity.
Prominent advocates for democracy in the hemisphere can work together to create a narrative that competes with the image put forward by China and other extra-regional autocratic influences without sacrificing the economic well-being of their countries. If they act decisively in the coming months—not solely to confront Chinese sharp power, but also to address crises in the region like Venezuela and incipient populism, rejuvenate multilateral organizations, and stand up to President Trump—2018 might start to look a little bit more promising for the future of healthy democracy in Latin America.
To read the full NED report, “Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence”, click here.