An expose of how states manipulate other countries' citizens

This is an edited excerpt of a speech delivered by retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan at a conference on Chinese public diplomacy on Wednesday

The Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy in a military display in the South China Sea in April. The writer says that one of the narratives deployed against Singapore in the last few years involves the South China Sea.
The Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy in a military display in the South China Sea in April. The writer says that one of the narratives deployed against Singapore in the last few years involves the South China Sea. PHOTO: REUTERS

I've been asked to speak about Chinese public diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific, and by public diplomacy, you really mean influence operations.

There are two broad categories of such operations.

First of all, legitimate diplomacy, whether it's public or secret diplomacy; and covert operations, the deployment of agents of influence in the classic sense or different types of operations to suborn decision-makers or public opinion.

Within these two broad categories, there are three general techniques, whether the modality is legitimate or covert: persuasion, inducement and coercion.

All major countries deploy both legitimate and covert operations and employ all three techniques in pursuit of influence.

What is unique to China comes from three interrelated factors.

First, the nature of the Chinese state; second, this holistic approach which melds together the legal and the covert, and persuasion, inducement and coercion; and third, the aim of such operations which is not just to direct behaviour but to condition behaviour.

In other words, China does not just want you to comply with its wishes. Far more fundamentally, it wants you to think in such a way that you will of your own volition do what it wants without being told.

It's a form of psychological manipulation.


As a state, China has three identities. First, it is a state like any other state, a Westphalian state.

Second, it is a Leninist state.

Communist ideology in its classic sense is no longer very relevant but the structures that derive from that ideology, in particular, the idea of an elite leading party that dominates and directs all other institutions and to which the state and society are subordinate is still very relevant, and it has become more so under President Xi Jinping.

Third, China is a civilisational state - the embodiment and exemplar of millennia of Chinese culture and history now under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi.

Each identity has its own characteristic modus operandi which, while conceptually and operationally separate and distinct, are nonetheless interrelated and mutually reinforcing.

Now, as a Westphalian state, China, like all states, conducts relationships at a state-to-state level through the usual instruments of diplomacy that deploy the techniques of persuasion, inducement and coercion.

The characteristic modus operandi of a Leninist state is what Mao Zedong called "the magic weapon of the united front".

There is a United Front Work Department under the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee.

Now, united front work in China is largely domestic but has an international dimension.

In fact, the very point of united front work is to blur the distinction between the domestic and international and promote the party's interests wherever it may be, domestic or international.

In this sense, it represents a rejection or a negation of the Westphalian norm of non-interference in internal affairs, which is enshrined in Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Now for every country, this norm of non-interference is often breached in practice but at least respected in principle.

But united front work is an explicit rejection of this principle, the party's interests being paramount.

The United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party has been considerably strengthened under President Xi.

And third, China is a civilisational state too and the characteristic modus operandi in this identity of China operates through the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office.

The aim has been neatly encapsulated by the title of a speech President Xi gave in 2014 to the 7th Conference of Overseas Chinese Associations, titled "The rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is a dream shared by all Chinese".

All Chinese. In plain language, "overseas Chinese" should identify with the interests of the Chinese nation. That's not the only speech.

If you just look online, you can find many other examples.

In January this year at the National Overseas Chinese Conference, the former state councillor and now Politburo member Yang Jiechi called upon the government to expand and strengthen what he called "overseas Chinese patriotic friendly forces" in the service of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

And, again, the message was clear - ensure they identify their interests with China's interest.

Now, in March this year, the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office was incorporated into the United Front Work Department.

You can't get any clearer, more open and transparent than that.


Now these characteristic modes of operation prescribe three tracks on which China conducts its international relations.

This creates a very powerful instrument for advancing Chinese influence which can be difficult to deal with because it is so flexible.

The overall objective of the deployment of persuasion, inducement or coercion is to create a psychological environment that accentuates the efficacy of China's most insistent tactic, and this tactic is simply to pose false choices and to force choices between false choices.

It sounds simple but it can be a very powerful and extremely effective technique - of forcing false choices on you and making you choose between false choices deployed within the framework of either overarching narratives or specific narratives as to a country or specific to a particular issue.

The purpose of these narratives is to narrow the scope of choices and they are usually presented in binary terms and the intention is to, as it were, stampede your mind so that the critical faculty is not fully engaged, and to instil a sense of fatalistic inevitability about the choices forced upon you.

Let me give you some examples of the overarching grand narratives that are commonly used.

One is, for example, "America is the past, China is the future, so get on the right track". And the Belt and Road is, among other things, part of this kind of narrative.

Another one is, "America is inconsistent but China is a geographic fact in this region and, therefore, will always be here, so, again, get on the right side of history. Choose wisely".

Another is, "Being close to America makes it difficult to have a close economic relationship with China".

Let me give you some examples of specific narratives that were deployed against Singapore in the last couple of years.

First, one specific narrative is on the South China Sea. "Singapore has no claims in the South China Sea, so why is the Singapore Government taking sides against China?"

Another one, "Relations were much better under Lee Kuan Yew because he understood China in a way that the present Singapore leadership does not understand China".

And a third one is, you know, "Singapore is a small country and it should not take sides against China".

Now these narratives, whether of the overarching type or the more specific type, are quite powerful because they are not entirely fabrications, they do contain a kernel of truth, they are not made up.

They are only either extremely simplistic as to be gross distortions of much more complex realities or leave out vital factors.

I'll give you one example - this idea that Singapore had a much better relationship under Lee Kuan Yew because he understood China much better than the present leadership.

Well, it leaves out one vital fact: Lee Kuan Yew is the only non-communist leader that ever went against the Chinese-supported United Front and won, and that drew a red line on which the relationship developed. That is never part of the narrative.


These kind of operations that I've described suffer from three critical flaws.

First, what I call cultural autism.

Second, a tendency towards self-deception and a tendency sometimes to overreach.

A good example: Chinese operations among overseas Chinese in South-east Asia. Anybody with even a passing acquaintance of the history and politics of this region knows this will bring China into some extremely sensitive territory.

If you travel throughout South-east Asia, you will hear many anecdotes of pushback. Since I retired, I've been travelling quite a lot in Central Asia and I find that there is similar pushback (against China's influence) in almost every country.

You can find that kind of pushback in almost any region of the world.

I'm not saying that it means that China or these relationships are going to fall apart, but it means that there is this undercurrent which makes them somewhat brittle.

And it's not just confined to this area, the Belt and Road project and things like that. You see what's happening in Malaysia. There is some revaluation. I don't think they are going to reject the relationship with China, they will certain revalue.

With all these trade troubles between the US and China, I think one factor is the Chinese badly underestimated the depth of resentment that has been building up in American businesses over many years and over the theft of technology, intellectual property rights and so on.

And they are a bit shocked.

Now, my point is not that Chinese operations will inevitably fail.

My point is that there is nothing inevitable one way or the other, whether they will succeed or whether they will fail.

That leads me to the third vulnerability of such operations and perhaps the most critical. Such operations depend on the targets being unconscious that such operations are being conducted.

Once a target is aware he is being psychologically manipulated, the efficacy of such manipulation is greatly compromised because it depends in large part on the sense of fatalistic and overarching narrative or of resistance being built up.

But once you are aware, then you have to be particularly obtuse to fall for it.

Of course even when exposed, some targets may play along, maybe because they are genuinely sympathetic to some Chinese interest, maybe because of cultural affinity or maybe for hope of reward or from fear of sanction.

But if that is so, and the influence is based on these very transactional issues, that is a qualitatively different situation from being subject to unconscious psychological manipulation - because influence in this case is apt to be brittle, as the US ought to know. You ought to know that when people agree with you about democracy and human rights, sometimes it is purely for transactional reasons.

You have many examples in this region. I'll not belabour the point.

What is the point?

The point is - exposure is therefore the best countermeasure.

And exposure not just of particular operations such as Australia or New Zealand, but more generally of the modus operandi of psychological manipulation that I've been trying to describe and of its vulnerabilities which I've quickly listed in order to destroy, in order to undermine, the aura of inevitability of such operations.

And so gatherings of this kind play a very important role in exposure.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 01, 2018, with the headline An expose of how states manipulate other countries' citizens. Subscribe