SHANGHAI—To those it seeks to influence, the Chinese Communist Party can be an intimidating presence.
The China scholar Perry Link once called the party “the anaconda in the chandelier.”
Just by hovering, it induces self-censorship and subtle behavioral changes. This has long been the case within China. Increasingly, as China projects outward, prominent figures in the West—politicians, executives, academics—are making nervous adjustments, too.
The former British prime minister faced the party’s reproach after meeting the Dalai Lama in 2012, then spent the rest of his term straining to get back into its good graces, including declaring a “Golden Era” in U.K. relations with Beijing.
Put this down as another win for the party’s psychological pressure tactics.
The mere fear of retaliation suggested by Chinese displeasure was enough to trigger a shift in government attitudes. No British leader is likely to receive the Tibetan spiritual leader again. London has adopted a more deferential—critics would say sycophantic—diplomatic tone toward Beijing. Officials soft-pedal human rights.
And now Mr. Cameron has re-emerged from the aftermath of the Brexit vote as an ambassador for China’s flagship Belt-and-Road geopolitical project.
Dealing with the party’s coercive influence techniques is likely to become the greatest single challenge to Western-style democracies.
These include both passive bullying as well as active efforts to wage information warfare and infiltrate domestic politics—what the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy has dubbed “sharp power” as opposed to Western “soft power.” The goal is to shape favorable perceptions of the Communist regime and its policies abroad.
China has timed its resurgence on the global stage to take full advantage of weaknesses in democracies in U.S. and Europe, beset by populist revolts.
China sees itself in competition with these societies not just in the economic and security spheres but also on values. Its long-term strategy is to promote its authoritarian model of development. The immediate diplomatic objective is to garner overseas support for Beijing’s positions on everything from Tibet and Taiwan to the South China Sea.
As part of that effort, Beijing seeks to co-opt credible Western voices to speak on its behalf.
For years, democracies have been naively complacent about these activities, confident of the inevitable triumph of the liberal order in the post-Cold War era. In Australia, party-affiliated Chinese tycoons have helped bankroll the two major political parties. Chinese state media now largely dictate coverage at virtually all of the country’s Chinese-language news outlets. Beijing’s diplomats keep tabs on Chinese students.
Combined, these efforts challenge Australian sovereignty, an acute irony given how China warns against foreign interference in its own domestic affairs.
Yet, only now is Canberra waking up to the party’s infiltration.
What is most surprising about Prime Minister
pushback—a new bill will limit the flow of Chinese money into politics—is the acknowledgment that for so long the system was so wide open to manipulation.
A growing backlash in Australia, echoed now in Europe and the U.S., has prompted Chinese state newspapers to allege an anti-China witch hunt. But it’s likely not lost on these papers’ editors that China is just following the classic playbook Lenin outlined. In his tract “‘Left-Wing’ Communism: an Infantile Disorder,” he proposes the idea of a “united front”—strategic alliances—with groups inside the enemy camp to bring it down.
has stepped up united-front activity, which he calls the party’s “magic weapons.”
For democracies, recognizing the nature of the threat is the first step to countering it. The anaconda won’t be dislodged from its commanding perch. It coils around the Chinese media, academia, civil-society groups and businesses, both private and state-owned.
And it shadows the cooperative deals that these institutions forge with Western news organizations, colleges and corporations.
The real issue is the extent to which the democratic West is prepared to compromise its values to reap the economic rewards of staying on the right side of the party.
Beijing’s intimidation tactics are paying off. Western governments hesitate to speak out on issues sensitive to Beijing, such as Tibet. Hollywood movies that portray China in a negative light don’t get made. Academics may choose not to research topics that could threaten their visa status. Media organizations are tempted to pull their punches.
With the Chinese economy on track to become the world’s largest, the cost of standing up to China in defense of freedoms increases. It took Norway six years to end an economic and diplomatic freeze after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010.
“Normally the great snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t have to,” Mr. Link wrote in a 2002 essay in the New York Review of Books.
“Its constant silent message is ‘You yourself decide.’”
Write to Andrew Browne at email@example.com