Researchers Jessica Ludwig and Christopher Walker coined the term “sharp power” to refer to the ways in which global autocracies—particularly China and Russia—use institutions, media and a range of networks, now largely open thanks to globalization, to influence global public opinion in a way that is favorable to these governments. China, especially, has expanded its political and economic agenda beyond its borders over the past decade. Its strategy focuses on promoting certain personalities—inserted in the media, academia and the foreign diplomatic communities—to try to influence, from inside, public opinion in democratic societies.
Mexico has become the latest partner in this Chinese sharp power net.
The general phenomena, which Juan Pablo Cardenal has also analyzed, is tailored at connecting influential individuals from Latin America—politicians and government officials, journalists, academics, businesspeople, and former diplomats, among others—with the objective of exposing them to the official Chinese discourse and national interests. Confucius Institutes, seminars and paid visits to Western politicians serve an important role in China’s people-to-people diplomacy strategy, hinting at the ways in which Beijing is promoting its objectives globally and, in particular, toward Latin America.
The participation of 21 Mexican government officials in a paid training program in China during June and July 2019, is a clear example of people-to-people diplomacy, with the objective of portraying China as a positive governance model. (A look at the agenda of the program can be accessed through this link, provided by an attendee who asked to keep his/her identity anonymous). With different ideological and partisan affiliations, the Mexican attendees participated—together with officials from Latin American and Asian countries—in a range of conferences led by local Chinese professors and officials that explained the political, economic and diplomatic vision of the Chinese government. Also during the visit they had access to historical and recreational centers, in an all expense-paid trip by the Chinese government. According to an anonymous attendees’s testimony, the Mexicans were impressed by the generous reception that their Asian counterpart prepared for them.
The visit cannot be viewed in isolation, especially as Mexico and China have demonstrated increased interest in strengthening their relations, driven partially by tensions between Mexico and the United States. It is clear—and somewhat logical—that Mexico, like other countries in Latin America, is seeking to compensate its dependencies and vulnerabilities in its ties to the United States by securing new markets and allies. But it is also desirable that, added to new experiences and international exchanges, officials discern the implications for Western individuals and societies of China’s model, where the state defines the boundaries and freedoms, of any project, of any sort. They should also be able to discern the pros and cons of this model, vis-à-vis Mexico’s own challenges with its precarious democracy.
Unfortunately we don’t know. All we can hope for is that the Mexican officials that participated on the trip went with and retained a skeptical mind.