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Event Report: C3S Round Table Discussion on “Chinese Influence Operations: A Machiavellian Moment”

Updated: Oct 27, 2022

C3S Event Report: 002/2022

The Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) conducted a round table discussion with Dr. Jeangène Vilmer, Director of the Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM) at the French Ministry for the Armed Forces, on the theme “Chinese Influence Operations: A Machiavellian Moment”.   Also in attendance was Mrs. Lise TALBOT, Consul General of France in Pondicherry, and Chennai. The participants included Distinguished members, research officers and young minds of C3S.

The event started with Mr. Balasubramanian, Senior research officer at C3S, who introduced the speakers and set the theme of discussion to the participants. This was followed by remarks from Mrs. Lise TALBOT, who briefly spoke on strategic ties between India and France and potential areas for further cooperation. Commodore R S Vasan, Director General, C3S presented a brief summary of the research activities of the think tank.

The discussion was kicked off by Dr. Jeangène Vilmer who presented an executive summary of the report he had co-authored with Dr. Paul Charon, titled “Chinese Influence Operations:  A Machiavellian Moment”. Dr. Jeangène Vilmer spoke of how China initially wanted to be loved rather than feared, thus it was taking steps to tell its story well and inspire awe and admiration among other countries. However, in recent years China’s actions seem to coerce and infiltrate societies more in addition to projecting a positive image of itself. Dr. Jeangène Vilmer said that there has been Russification of Chinese influence operations, especially since 2017-18, only that they were much tougher and consisted of a whole spectrum of influence from benign to malign methods. China, in the words of Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince seems to believe that “it is much safer to be feared than to be loved”. The report seeks to explore this evolution and the whole spectre of influence.

The report is primarily divided into four main parts – main concepts; actors involved; China’s actions towards its diaspora, diplomacy, media, economy, politics, education, think tanks and involvement in disinformation; and case studies of Chinese influence operations in Taiwan, Singapore, Sweden, Canada, and Hong Kong.

Under the main concepts, Dr. Jeangène Vilmer spoke about the United Front Policy of the Chinese Communist Party and the three-warfare strategy (public opinion, psychological and lawfare) that constitute the core of China’s political warfare. The main actors were categorised into four categories – I) Within the party: The Propaganda department, the United Front Work Department, the International Liaison Department and the Chinese Communist Youth League II) within the state: The Ministry of State Security,  and the Taiwan Affairs Office which directs propaganda at Taiwan III) Within the PLA: The Strategic Support Force and Base 311 in particular which is known to be dedicated for the implementation of the ‘Three Warfare’ strategy IV) public and private companies too have an important role in identifying targets and in data collection. Examples include WeChat, Weibo, TikTok, Huawei, Beidou etc.

It was brought out that the actions carried out by China had two main objectives, to seduce and captivate foreign audiences, especially in the Global South; and infiltration and coercion which aim at hampering actions contradictory to the CCP’s interests and coerce any individual, group or organisation that are threatening the CCP’s interests. In this process, the main targets include I) Diaspora: can serve as a threat to the CCP’s regime security by speaking out against its authoritarianism or can be mobilised to serve China’s interests, such as voting a pro-China candidate in elections. Thus, the diaspora is monitored carefully, especially the third-generation Chinese immigrants who are majorly from the mainland compared to previous generations who were from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Dr. Jeangène Vilmer mentioned that even those who are remotely connected to China are targeted II) Media: China uses its economic strength to control Chinese media outlets, which have a global presence, catering to different audiences. This is used to keep a check on how China’s global image is portrayed III) Diplomacy: China seeks to gain influence over international organisations and norms through economic and political pressure, co-optation, coercion, and corruption. The rise of Chinese wolf warrior diplomats adds to the aggressive turn of Chinese diplomacy. Dr. Jeangène Vilmer stated that however, the wolf warrior diplomats take the aggressive route in order for personal reasons, such as rising in ranks among the CCP; this is not necessarily a structural change. However, it has damaged China’s global image IV) Economy: China often uses the threat of ban from the Chinese market, embargos, sanctions, restriction of Chinese tourists to coerce the target V) Politics: China seeks to maintain direct relationships with political parties and influential political elites in the target countries to achieve its goals. Election interference too is increasingly being indulged in by China VI) Education: Private universities dependent financially on the large number of Chinese students that enrol each year, often engage in self-censorship, and remove any classroom content that might be objectionable to the CCP. Confucius institutes in the name of teaching Chinese language and culture have in certain cases curtailed academic freedom VII) Think tanks: China seeks to take control of think tanks that are pro-CCP and share common interests and establish overseas branches of Chinese think tanks. While researchers working on China and who align with the CCP’s interests are often invited to China with all expenses taken care of by the CCP, others who are critical of the CCP are denied visas and thus entry into the state. This is then used to discredit their research saying they have no real time knowledge of today’s China VIII) China using Hollywood to project a favourable image of itself was discussed vi) Information manipulation: China uses fake social media accounts to spread CCP propaganda using memes, trolls, videos etc. Third parties such as popular influencers are often used to spread CCP propaganda in exchange for money to simulate authenticity IX) China also lends support to separtist movements such as New Caledonia, Okinawa etc. Dr. Jeangène Vilmer then mentioned the countries that had been undertaken as case studies including lesser studied ones such as Sweden and Singapore. Dr. Jeangène Vilmer said that while this new shift in China’s influence operations has led to tactical successes, overall, it has been a strategic failure.

The presentation provoked thoughtful discussion from the participants who raised several points related to China’s influence operations in India, using Chinese investments as a tool of penetration into societies such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka, lessons to be learnt from societies facing severe onslaught of Chinese influence operations such as Taiwan, Australia and so on. Discussions also arose on the Indo-Pacific, future space cooperation between China and Russia and on the aspects of a military invasion of Taiwan by China. The valuable points contributed by the participants made the discussion extremely insightful and informative.

Dr. Jeangène Vilmer also expressed interest in understanding how Chinese influence operations are employed in India. The discussion lasted almost for two hours bringing several useful discussions to the table. Commodore R.S Vasan delivered the vote of thanks following which Dr. Jeangène Vilmer and Ms. Barré were felicitated by the Director General, C3S.

(This event report was prepared by Ms. Anupama, research intern, C3S. The views expressed do not reflect the views of C3S.)

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