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Fears over Chinese 'sharp power'

Taiwan conference discusses forming an international alliance to blunt Beijing propaganda

ucanews.com reporter, Taipei

ucanews.com reporter, Taipei

Updated: May 27, 2019 09:19 AM GMT
Fears over Chinese 'sharp power'

Group photo at a May 18-20 conference in Taiwan attended by scholars and democracy advocates to mark the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of student protesters in China's capital, Beijing. The conference venue was moved from Hong Kong out of concerns that participants would have been blocked from attending. (ucanews.com photo)

A conference in Taiwan has been told that China's communist government is increasingly using so-called 'sharp power' to stymie international scrutiny of its poor human rights record, including the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

At the same time, the Beijing regime has been tightening controls on its own people, warned academics, student leaders and rights' campaigners.

The term sharp power was coined in December 2017 in a report of the United States non-profit National Endowment for Democracy to describe censorship and other tactics used to weaken independent institutions.

Wikipedia defines sharp power as the use of manipulative diplomatic policies by one country to influence and undermine the political system of a target nation.

The May 18-20 conference in Taiwan marking the 30th anniversary of the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre was organized by the Hong Kong-based New School for Democracy and the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China.

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More than 50 scholars, student leaders and witnesses of the Tiananmen Square protest, as well as representatives of overseas support groups and Hong Kong democratic parties, were present as speakers and discussants.

Many of them agreed on the need for an alliance among international human rights' advocates to raise concern about the world-wide penetration of China's sharp power.

Larry Diamond, a political sociologist and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University in the U.S, warned that China poses a threat to democratic societies.

The projection of sharp power also used economic leverage to purchase media outlets and lobby foreign politicians in order to exert Chinese influence and suppress opposing views worldwide, Diamond pointed out.

A Canadian Chinese support group that previously built a monument marking the Tiananmen massacre at the University of Toronto, erected a new bronze statue this year.

Cheuk Kwan, former president of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China, said the group will unveil the 'Liu Xiaobo Empty Chair' memorial on July 13, the two-year death anniversary of the Chinese dissident scholar and activist.

Liu, who was born in 1955, was first imprisoned because of his participation in the Tiananmen Square protests seeking democratic reform and an end to official corruption. An empty chair was formerly placed in Norway's Oslo City Hall at a ceremony to honor the Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2010, who was then in a Chinese prison for the fourth and last time in his life.

Kwan said that organizing public forums and a rally to mark the Tiananmen anniversary in Toronto aimed to remind people of the tragedy that occurred.

Estimates of the number of people killed when communist regime troops opened fire on protesters ranged from several hundred to thousands.

As well as talking about the massacre at the conference in Taiwan, Kwan raised ongoing attempts by Beijing to exert greater influence in Canada by pressuring Canadian Chinese media to exercise self-censorship, establishing Confucian institutes and funding political candidates.

Fernando Romeo, co-founder of a movement opposed to the creation of such Confucian institutes in Spain, said he was inspired by Kwan five years ago successfully demanding that the Toronto District School Board cease a partnership with such a body.

A central complaint is that Confucian institutes act as a propaganda arm for the Chinese Government to blunt criticism of its rights' violations, including those of an historic nature such as what happened in Tiananmen Square three decades ago.

Romeo noted that the Chinese embassy in Madrid at times pressured Spanish universities to halt activities such as 'Taiwan Cultural Week', including by threatening to reduce a quota of Chinese students. 

Sister Beatrice Leung Kit-fun, a research professor at Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages in southern Taiwan, told ucanews.com that China's sharp power contrasts with Christian "soft power" values such as love, compassion, justice and peace.

And as a participant in this month's Taiwan conference, she expressed strong views about China's current president.

"I feel that Xi Jinping is reverting to the time of Mao Zedong by suppressing non-conformists," she said.

She wondered if the Vatican was wise to have come to a provisional agreement in September last year with Beijing on the appointment of bishops amid ongoing religious suppression in China.

Tseng Chien-yuan, chair of the board of the Hong Kong's New School for Democracy, anticipated that Tiananmen Square commemorative activities in Taiwan would arouse the courage of Taiwanese people to defend the island nation as a bastion of democracy.

A 'Tank Man' sculpture of an unknown protester who stood in front of a convoy of tanks leaving Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989, has been unveiled in Taiwan's capital, Taipei.

A former associate professor at Taiwan's Chung Hua University told ucanews.com that not many people are well aware of how China's sharp power threatens Taiwan.

Although Taiwanese people can these days travel to and do business in mainland China easily, they tend to live in favorable conditions and rarely have a chance to understand the plight of the grassroots, he said.

"Therefore, we may not sense the disparity across the Strait," he added.

The former professor hoped that the ongoing China-U.S. conflict over trade would convince more Taiwanese people to focus on prospects for them being caught in the vortex of a "new Cold War".

Albert Ho Chun-yan, chairperson of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, explained that it was decided to hold the conference in Taiwan because of concern that Hong Kong's administration would have denied entry to many speakers, including former student leaders forced into exile for many years.

Nevertheless, he expected that more people would join a candlelight vigil planned for Hong Kong's Victoria Park on the evening of June 4 than the 100,000 who turned up to the event last year.

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