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May 22, 2020, satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows China's PLA base in the Galwan Valley in LAC (Photo: AP)
May 22, 2020, satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows China's PLA base in the Galwan Valley in LAC (Photo: AP)

Opinion | China’s covert strategy that the world ought to guard against

Beijing’s secret moves to subvert nations from within may be as dangerous as its overt aggressions

The events in Ladakh have woken most Indians up to the real visage behind China’s inscrutable mask. But the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has for decades been covertly pushing its agenda in countries across the world through these nations’ own politicians, businessmen, academics and media. Some of them seem to have fallen for Chinese sweet talk; some appear to have had mercenary motives; others might have been repaying favours. I will limit myself to signs of Chinese influence in the West. I can’t say how far this strategy has succeeded in India.

The CCP does this work principally through three arms—the Propaganda Department; the International Liaison Department, formerly known as the Department of Enemy Work, which liaises with foreign politicians; and the United Front Work Department, which controls “front" entities—trade associations, interest groups and cultural bodies and so on. Elite individuals and organizations in foreign lands are classified as friend, enemy, or those in the middle who can be won over, after an examination of their past actions and affiliations, even psychological assessments. Strategies are then decided.

Former US President George H.W. Bush wrote in his memoir: “When (former China supremo) Deng (Xiaoping) called me a lao pengyou, an old friend of China, I felt the phrase was not just the usual flattery, but a recognition that I understood the importance of the US-China relationship and the need to keep it on track." Former Australian prime minister Paul Keating, now an adviser to the China Development Bank, has described human rights as “Western values" that do not apply in China, and has even called for the sacking of Australia’s intelligence chiefs for being “anti-China".

Western leaders hired as “advisers" or “consultants" by China include former US secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig and Madeleine Albright, former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Sandy Berger, former secretary of defence William Cohen, and former US trade representative Carla Hills. David Cameron, former UK prime minister, heads the UK-China Fund, which seeks to invest $1 billion in Belt and Road Initiative projects.

When Hillary Clinton, secretary of state in president Barack Obama’s first term, took a tough stance on China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea, vice-president (and now presidential candidate) Joe Biden is recorded to have urged restraint. During Obama’s second term, with Clinton gone, the US watched silently while China grabbed and even built islands and constructed military bases on them.

Several senior members of the Donald Trump administration have China connections, the most obvious being secretary of transportation Elaine Chao, daughter of Chinese-American businessman James Chao and wife of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. James, classmate of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, is the founder of shipping and trading company Foremost Group. Most of its ships have been built by China State Shipbuilding Corporation and financed by Export-Import Bank of China.

China’s relationship with US high finance is fascinating. Consider just one Wall Street firm among the many with deep China connections—Goldman Sachs (GS). The investment bank was one of the early movers when China began opening up. To do business in China, guanxi is essential—strong relationships, which can involve moral obligations and exchanging favours. John Thornton was GS’ key China man.

By the time Thornton quit as co-president in 2003, GS had built deep guanxi with the CCP, and was doing roaring business. From GS, he moved to Tsinghua University in Beijing as the first full-time foreign professor since Mao Zedong seized power in 1949, and director of Tsinghua’s global leadership programme. He was also an adviser to China’s sovereign wealth fund. In 2008, he received the CCP’s highest award for foreigners, the Friendship Award. He was one of the architects of the US-China trade deal signed in January.

In 2006, Thornton’s former boss Henry Paulson became treasury secretary under George W. Bush, and guided the US’s China economic policy. It can be argued that Paulson should have been much tougher on Beijing’s currency manipulation, technology theft and mistreatment of US firms. But instead of retaliatory measures, he opted for “strategic dialogue", which suited China just fine. After leaving government, he set up the Paulson Institute, to foster “a US-China relationship that serves to maintain global order". He has lobbied hard against Trump’s trade war with China. Gary Cohn, another GS alumnus and former chief economic adviser in the Trump administration, has also been vocal.

These are just a few cases. China’s brazen attempts to bully neighbours, from India to Japan, are the easily visible part of its strategy to transform the world order. But a much more insidious part involves bending democracies to its will by eroding resistance, winning supporters and, to paraphrase Lenin, getting nations to sell the rope with which they will be hanged.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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