A new book released on July 30 takes a close look at the agencies and mechanisms of  China's ‘sharp power’ in eight democracies around the world. For many of the authors, the study of Chinese influence operations has come at a price, both professionally and personally, writes J. Michael Cole. 

By J. Michael Cole, July 29, 2020

On July 30, a new book titled Insidious Power: How China Undermines Global Democracy will join the growing body of research on the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) “sharp power” operations worldwide. The volume provides eight case studies on Chinese political warfare in various democracies along the democratic spectrum — the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Spain, the Czech Republic, Taiwan, the Philippines and Cambodia — with a deep-dive introduction, a chapter on the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the key coordinating “agency” of political warfare, and a “blueprint” for tracking authoritarian influence .

Insidious wasn’t originally meant to be a book. Instead, this four-year journey began in response to a personal crisis. In late April 2016, a large envelope was mailed to the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, my employer at the time. Even before I opened it and extracted its contents, the sender’s name at the top left corner of the envelope told me that it wasn’t good news. There was only one reason why one of Taiwan’s largest law firms would send me a letter.

I was being threatened with a lawsuit.

The plaintiff was someone whose organization, based in Hong Kong with a parent company in Shanghai, I had written about the previous year in the pages of the National Interest. Two weeks earlier, a friend and mentor in the U.S., who would eventually author a chapter in our book, sent me an e-mail informing me that a Chinese firm was threatening legal action against him. His letter came from a law firm in Prague, Czech Republic, where another academic was also being harassed by the same Chinese company. This author would also end up writing a chapter in our volume.

I will never know whether it was by coincidence or design that the legal threat against my person would be dated on my birthday. Perhaps this was intended to augment the psychological impact. What followed were nearly two years of back and forth between their law firm and my legal counsel. Handling matters on their side was a Taiwanese man, now resident of Shanghai, who would frequently bypass the regular channels and contact me directly, in an altogether passive-aggressive manner. One day the Chinese side wanted to be “friends,” the next they would threaten me with fire and brimstone. They wanted to meet at their office in Taipei; to have me ask the National Interest to delete my article; to publish an apology in Taiwan’s largest newspapers; to write an article based on the information they gave me.

My response to this “lawfare” was to dig in. I didn’t meet them; and I never agreed to ask my editor in Washington, D.C., to delete the article, which would have constituted an admission of guilt. In other words, I stood by my arguments and the facts that I had used to support my article (tellingly, around that time information on the Chinese entity’s web site began to change.) Over time, the five points over which the company threatened to sue me became four, then three, then two. Their case was unraveling, and from what I can gather their law firm eventually decided to pull out. But there was a cost nonetheless, both financial and psychological: my defense cost me fair amount of money, and to this day, my heart skips a beat whenever I see a pink slip on my mailbox, which my brain immediately interprets as a new court summons.

Anyway, to make a long story short, the case went to court, first at the Taipei District Court, then the Taiwan High Court, and back to the district court. After months and appeals, the judge threw the complaint out as frivolous. Soon afterwards, the plaintiff was arrested in New York City and would be thrown in federal prison for activities that (vindication for me) were very similar to what I had detailed in my article. And the businessman who headed the main company in Shanghai, one of China’s wealthiest individuals, was disappeared, reportedly at the request of Xi Jinping. The firm was nationalized. The affiliated entity in Hong Kong, meanwhile, disappeared. I had won.

One year into all this, I had also decided that the best way to push back on this threatening behavior was to push for more light to be cast onto this phenomenon. Today, “sharp power” and Chinese influence are household names. But back in 2016 or 2017, a surprisingly small number of people were aware of what was going on or interested in looking into the subject. So I approached Dr. Hsu Szu-chien, who at the time was president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, and proposed the creation of a web site which could serve as a kind of “clearing house” for articles written worldwide about Chinese political warfare. That web site never happened. But soon afterwards, Dr. Hsu proposed that we organize a workshop to bring together experts on the subject. And that we did. Drawing from my own contacts and experts suggested by other people, we came up with a list of about 20 individuals. A number of academics turned down our invitation, ostensibly fearing that their access to China could be compromised if they were caught participating in our project. (One asked whether our workshop would be “political.” After I told him that yes, it was, he never wrote back.)

We held our first closed-door workshop in Arlington, Virginia, in the fall of 2017. The gathering may very well have been the first time that this disparate group of experts got together in the same room. One of the participants, from New Zealand, would soon come under threat in her country; another, from Australia, was about to be taken to court; another, from Canada, would face similar pressures and also end up in a multi-year back-and-forth of legal unpleasantness. And I was still a year and a half before prevailing in court.

Little by little, we built a network of China watchers who not only exchanged notes but also provided moral support when the CCP pushed back. Besides the presenters, we also invited other experts to act as discussants or observers.

After the highly successful workshop, we decided the papers should be turned into chapters for an edited volume. Thew chapters were refined, updated, and presented at a second workshop, held the following year in Taipei. Like its predecessor, this workshop was closed-door and involved a number of observers whose input helped improve our book. It was also accompanied by a public conference, where some of the contributors discussed some of their findings. We then began looking for a publisher. Little did we know how difficult that would be. We approached a number of them. Some, major academic ones, expressed early interest, but eventually pulled out. It soon became clear that they were reluctant to work with us, lest this compromise their business operations. During that time, other authors of books on the subject were encountering similar difficulties. We eventually signed a contract with Camphor Press, a promising Taiwan/U.K.-based independent publisher that has found a unique niche.

Our work is inspired by a desire to provide intellectually rigorous analysis of Chinese political warfare and a warning of its effects on democracy. It is also driven by recognition that, to avoid excesses in our responses, the mechanisms, ideology, and actors that are involved in the CCP’s “sharp power” campaign need to be identified and fully understood. All the chapters in this book are written by top-notch analysts who are equipped with not only the necessary knowledge but, just as importantly, the courage to defend democracy against the predations of a ruthless authoritarian regime. For many, participation involves personal and professional risks. It has been an honor to work with them, and I thank each and every one of them for their patience as we brought, at long last, this project to print.

J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa.

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