Know Your Weaponized Narratives

Understanding China’s weapons used to silence its critics in democracies is essential to keeping our democracy

China has many strategies for gaining influence. One of the most effective and cheap is the deployment of well developed narratives to attack its critics and silence discussion of its behavior.

A recent exchange between Chris Zappone writing in the Sydney Morning Herald and David Brophy of the University of Sydney at the progressive website Overland typifies the debate over what Zappone referred to as the “weaponized narrative” employed by China to stifle discussion of its influence activities and its supporters in liberal democracies. Zappone observes:

“ The Weaponised Narrative Initiative (WNI) at Arizona State University defines a weaponised narrative as a type of information attack that “undermines an opponent’s civilisation, identity, and will … by generating confusion, complexity, and political and social schisms [which] confounds response on the part of the defender”.

In the debates over China and its pernicious effects on the liberal democracies, there is a clear pattern of responses to criticism of China’s behavior.

The first move used to be to describe critics as ignorant of China. This exploits the feeling often found in western societies that China is an Exotic Other which is difficult to understand. Tell people who have never been to China that they don’t understand China and they are apt to agree with you. Beijing’s friends often describe China as knowable only to a few experienced, selected insiders who act as brokers between “East and West”. This group interprets and explains China for the public and policymakers, and has developed an extensive apologetics for China’s authoritarianism and expansionism. However, Xi’s ascension to apparently permanent dictatorship has proved too much for even this narrative to be swallowed.

Instead, one common response in the current narrative is to accuse critics of being hysterical. China’s foreign-language state media repeatedly makes this attack. For example, the People’s Daily opined:

The real enemy is the anti-China hysteria and the reckless predictions that war with China is not only imminent but just around the corner.
Xi Jinping and Kevin Rudd in Canberra, 2010 (news.cn)

This charge is repeated not only by the Chinese themselves, but by China’s friends and supporters. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, for example, was reported to have warned against

“…“anti-China hysteria”, after a week where Australian-Chinese relations were put to the test.”

Citizens in democracies often keenly feel the weight of their own histories of racism, colonialism, and imperialism, which are widely if imperfectly discussed (no such public discussion takes place in China, by contrast). Accusations of “anti-Chinese hysteria” naturally call forth historical musing on the long history of racism toward Chinese in western societies, such as the new film on the Chinese Exclusion Act. These have deservedly been described as episodes of “anti-Chinese hysteria”. Beijing and its friends strive to have criticism of China’s influence operations included in that long history.

Another way that Beijing attacks its critics is “whataboutism”? China invaded Tibet? Well, what about the US attack on Iraq, and Libya, and support of Israel, and so on. What about US racism, and America’s decimation of its aboriginal population? A variant on this is to sniff at critics and dismiss Taiwan as just a pawn of US imperialism, a form of whataboutism common on the Left.

This has two important functions. It appears to prevent the critic from asserting criticisms, since his own society is just as bad (Isn’t China behaving like any Great Power in history? goes a more cynical version of this, with a knowing wink). It also diverts the conversation to a discussion of western imperialism. Scholars of Beijing’s influence operations know that distractions are more effective in stopping discussions of what Beijing is doing than straight-up denials.

The final and most potent weapon in the narrative arsenal is the accusation of racism. The Zappone piece observes that this emanates directly from Beijing, and cites a scholar who has followed its appearance in the Chinese language press in Australia. Anyone who writes on Taiwan is familiar with the many variations on this theme, including accusations of “hating China”, “hating Chinese people” and so on.

To some extent, Brophy is right to point to the danger of triggering a resurgence of racism against Chinese in Australia, but he misses the point when he replies that “No serious voice critical of the discourse surrounding Chinese influence has argued that those pushing it have racist motivations.” Neither Beijing itself nor the individuals accusing critics of racism believe that its critics are racist. Rather, the purpose of the charge is simply to shut critics up, or make them waste time and energy defending themselves from the attack.

Recently I have noted an attack specific to academics. When critics of China’s influence point out that certain academics are working with, or for, Beijing, they are immediately met with accusations of incivility. Academic civility is an important value, supported by the unspoken assumption that scholars must never be treated as if their work is driven by money, access, or travel junkets, or by their political beliefs. Stating that is considered “uncivil” and responses from scholars in that community will be strong. Readers should note the tone of Brophy’s disdainful attack on Clive Hamilton’s dismissal of Hugh White: it appeals to that feeling that attacks on (fellow) scholars are uncivil.

The debate over Chinese influence in Australia is crucial to the United States. Australia is a major US ally with deep, longtime economic, social, and cultural links to the United States. China is aware of this, and is leveraging many weapons to drive wedge between Canberra and Washington. That is one aspect of this debate Americans should pay attention to.

More importantly, when the struggle begins in the US, it will follow the pattern established in Australia, with documentation and description of Chinese influence met by accusations of ignorance, hysteria, hypocrisy, and racism. Americans need to prepare themselves: Australia is but the dress rehearsal for opening night in the US. Americans will be shocked to discover that China’s penetration of America’s media, universities, government, and businesses will be even broader and deeper than China’s influence on Australia. At the same time, China will have had the experience of its influence operations in Australia, and adjust its narrative strategies accordingly.

I hope America is ready.


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