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China Deploys Coercive Tactics to Deal with Disinformation Accusation

June 27, 2020
Jianli Yang
6 min read
China's coercive diplomacy extends to much-vaunted infrastructure projects in poorer countries
China's coercive diplomacy extends to much-vaunted infrastructure projects in poorer countries

Jianli Yang, a mathematician and human rights activist, survived China's Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, after which he left China for the United States. He returned in 2002 and was jailed between 2002 and 2007 for supporting the country's labor movement. He was intermittently held in solitary confinement for a total of 15 months – as detailed in a previous IranWire interview – and returned to the US after his release.

In a weekly series for IranWire, Jianli Yang analyses Chinese disinformation around the origin of coronavirus and its handling to date, and other recent affairs.


Last week the Chinese government was embroiled in yet another war of words sparked by the term “disinformation”: this time levelled at it by Australia. The Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, gave a speech on June 16 in which she accused the regime of spreading false information that, she said, “contributes to a climate of fear and division”. Payne told audiences in Canberra that she was concerned by the apparent rise in disinformation during the coronavirus pandemic, and also rejected as disinformation a recent claim by the Chinese government that would-be students and tourists would face racism if they visited Australia.

Payne also called for global institutions such as the World Health Organization to “serve as bulwarks against disinformation”. She added that it was “troubling that some countries are using the pandemic to undermine liberal democracy and promote their own, more authoritarian models”.

Her intended subject responded in kind. The next day, the Chinese embassy in Canberra issued a statement calling Payne’s claims “completely rubbish”, adding that “some Australian media have been fraught with rumors, lies and malicious slanders against China” and certain Australian politicians had themselves also been keen to play up “false information”.

Tension between the two countries has ratcheted up in recent months, with Chinese coercive diplomacy exacerbating issues that could have been resolved through honest discourse. After Australia asked for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus, which was later backed by the World Health Assembly, China imposed an 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley and a ban on Australian beef imports. It then also warned Chinese travelers not to visit Australia. Quite understandably, Australia’s trade minister has called for “sensible” and “grown-up” talks to resolve these matters.


Coercive Diplomacy: A Disturbing Pattern of Behavior by China

Last week the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slammed China for its acts of coercive diplomacy, saying it does not only behave as a “rogue actor” in its own neighbourhood but also in the larger world order. This particular childish retaliation had precedent: China also infamously slashed imports of Norwegian salmon after the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was given to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

Coercive diplomacy envisages the use of threat or limited force to force a target foreign state to change its behaviour. Under the thin guise of the national interest, China can be seen to be actively engaging in coercion on issues such as international reputation, territorial disputes, arm sales to Taiwan, and reception of the Dalai Lama from 1990 onwards. Over the years its militarized coercion has dwindled, with Beijing now using different tools and resources for its economic and diplomatic coercion. 

The recent Chinese military structures built on Indian territory, in the Galwan Valley of Ladakh, could easily be passed off as a small incident brought about by some misunderstanding over the loose border separating two countries. which is actually a loose demarcation line. But this incursion is actually part of the much larger imperialistic designs of Beijing. Chinese expansionism eschews direct military action but resorts to coercive diplomacy by penetrating and undermining the sovereignty and economies of many other countries.  

China has been engaged in coercive diplomacy in the South China Sea for a long time: it claims the entire water territory is under its control, despite the Permanent Arbitrage Court (PCA) having pronounced this incorrect and a violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Last year the Chinese Navy deployed 95 warships to intimidate the Philippines into stopping construction activities on Thitu Island in the South China Sea, stopping just over seven nautical miles away from the Philippine navy’s frigate. In 2012 it also stopped banana imports from the Philippines amid a dispute over the resource-rich Scarborough Shoal. And in recent months, China has built two research stations on artificial reefs in stretches of water claimed by the Philippines, leading to the intervention of the US State Department and the deployment of American warships in the South China Sea.

In 2016 an international tribunal in The Hague rebuked China for its behavior in the South China Sea, asserting that its expansive claim to sovereignty over the waters had no legal basis. But last December three Chinese coastguard and approximately 63 fishing boats were caught encroaching on Indonesian waters, which China attempted to justify by appealing to the “nine-dash line”: a defunct claim by Beijing to about 90 per cent of the contested waters. Indonesia held its ground and rejected the claim.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a hugely ambitious global infrastructure project sometimes referred to as the New Silk Road, is arguably another example of potential coercive diplomacy. It seeks to invest in underdeveloped countries to build infrastructure, but any non-repayment of debts will lead these countries to lose their assets, threatening their sovereignty. China is pouring huge money into these countries under the BRI but later comes to demand something as collateral that was not part of the original negotiation.

Countries such as Pakistan, Djibouti, and Sri Lanka have almost compromised their sovereignty have already become trapped in huge debt bondage. Sri Lanka has lost about 85 percent of its Hambantota port ownership to China in lieu of debt repayment. The debt-trap tactic has benefited China in gaining not only ownership of the port, but direct access to Sri Lankan politics as well.  

Chinese predatory economics has so far put Pakistan in US$10 billion of debt for the construction of the Gwadar port. The Maldives owes China around $1.5 billion: about 30 percent of its GDP.  Shockingly, Djibouti owes China an amount that is over 80 percent of its GDP. Ironically, these countries took loans from China in order to build infrastructure and thus, to grow.

Both of these programs are tactics designed to meet China’s internal demand for resources, which Beijing cannot fulfil at the domestic level. The world should wake up to the reality that there is no such a thing as the soft power for communist China. Money is China’s corrupting power, through which it makes inroads in coercive diplomacy. It ought to be stopped now.


Also in this series: 

Missing Data, Mud-Slinging and “Miracle Cures”: Why Disinformation Is Bad For Your Health

Iranian Online Network Still Peddling Coronavirus Disinformation

Putin’s Domestic Problems Eclipse Russian Disinformation Campaigns

China's Campaign to Protect President Xi against Coronavirus Criticism

Chinese Embassies Work Overtime to Diffuse International Fury Over Coronavirus

Russia Bans Coronavirus "Fake News" and Slams US Over Press Freedom

China Blocks Investigations Amid Refusal to Shut Down Wet Markets

From Coronavirus to the Second World War: On the Frontlines of the Russian Disinformation Battle

Russia Blames West for Propaganda While Reporting Unlikely Number of Covid-19 Deaths

As Criticism of China Falters, Time for a NATO for Human Rights?

Guest Post From Russia: How do You Put the Brakes on a Fake News Machine?

Has China Really Given Assent to a Global Coronavirus Review?

Russian Disinformation Back to Targeting Ukraine as Putin Declares Covid-19 Peak has Passed

Will the Post-Coronavirus World Stand Up to China's Bullying Business Tactics?

Coronavirus: An Opportunity to Advance Russian Interests in Latin America

The Shi Zhengli Identification Criteria: How Do We Know Where Coronavirus First Emerged?

Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter Unrest Targeted by Russian Disinformation

Occupy First, Talk Later: China Turns Border Conflict Into PR Opportunity



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