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Concerns over China’s sharp power

TAIPEI (UCAN): A May 18-20 conference in Taiwan heard that China’s communist government is increasingly using so-called sharp power to stymie international scrutiny of its poor human rights record, including the Tiananmen Square massacre of 4 June 1989.
 
The conference, marking the 30th anniversary of the massacre, was organised by the Hong Kong-based New School for Democracy and the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China.
 
More than 50 scholars, student leaders and witnesses of the Tiananmen Square protest, as well as representatives of overseas support groups and Hong Kong’s pro-democracy parties were present as speakers and discussants.
 
Many of them agreed on the need for an alliance among international human rights’ advocates to raise concern about the worldwide penetration of China’s sharp power.
 
The term sharp power was coined in December 2017 in a report from the United States (US)-based National Endowment for Democracy to describe censorship and other tactics used to weaken independent institutions.
 
Wikipedia defines sharp power as the use of manipulative diplomatic policies by one country to influence and undermine the political system of a target nation.
 
Larry Diamond, a political sociologist and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University in the US, warned that China poses a threat to democratic societies.
China’s projection of sharp power also used economic leverage to purchase media outlets and lobby foreign politicians in order to exert influence and suppress opposing views worldwide, Diamond pointed out.
 
A Canadian Chinese support group that previously built a monument marking the Tiananmen massacre at the University of Toronto, erected a new bronze statue this year.
 
Cheuk Kwan, former president of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China, said the group will unveil the Liu Xiaobo Empty Chair memorial on July 13, the second death anniversary of the Chinese dissident, scholar and advocate.
 
Liu, who was born in 1955, was first imprisoned because of his participation in the Tiananmen Square protests seeking democratic reform and an end to official corruption. An empty chair was placed in Norway’s Oslo City Hall at a ceremony to honour him when he was awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Liu was then in a Chinese prison for the fourth and final time of his life.
 
Kwan said that organising public forums and a rally to mark the Tiananmen anniversary in Toronto aimed to remind people of the tragedy that occurred.
 
Estimates of the number of people killed when troops opened fire on protesters ranged from several hundred to thousands.
 
As well as talking about the massacre at the conference in Taiwan, Kwan raised ongoing attempts by Beijing to exert greater influence in Canada by pressuring Canadian Chinese media to exercise self-censorship, establishing Confucius Institutes and funding political candidates.
 
Fernando Romeo, co-founder of a movement opposed to the creation of Confucius Institutes in Spain, said he was inspired when, five years ago, Kwan successfully demanded that the Toronto District School Board cease a partnership with such a body.
 
A central complaint is that the institutes act as a propaganda arm for the Chinese Government to blunt criticism of its rights’ violations, including those of an historic nature such as what happened in Tiananmen Square three decades ago.
 
Romeo noted that the Chinese embassy in Madrid at times pressured Spanish universities to halt activities such as Taiwan Cultural Week, including by threatening to reduce a quota of Chinese students. 
 
Sister Beatrice Leung Kit-fun, a research professor at  the Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages in southern Taiwan, said that China’s sharp power contrasts with Christian soft power values such as love, compassion, justice and peace.
 
She expressed strong views about China’s current president.
 
“I feel that Xi Jinping is reverting to the time of Mao Zedong by suppressing non-conformists,” she said.
 
She wondered if the Vatican was wise to have come to a provisional agreement in September last year with Beijing on the appointment of bishops amid ongoing religious suppression in China.
 
Tseng Chien-yuan, chairperson of the board of the Hong Kong’s New School for Democracy, anticipated that commemorative activities for Tiananmen Square in Taiwan would arouse the courage of Taiwanese people to defend the island nation as a bastion of democracy.
 
A Tank Man sculpture of the unknown protester who stood in front of a convoy of tanks leaving Tiananmen Square on 5 June 1989, was unveiled in Taipei.
 
A former associate professor at Taiwan’s Chung Hua University remarked that not many people are well aware of how China’s sharp power threatens Taiwan.
 
Although Taiwanese can easily travel to and do business in mainland China, they tend to live in favourable conditions and rarely have a chance to understand the plight of the grassroots, he said.
 
“Therefore, we may not sense the disparity across the Strait,” he added.
 
The former professor hoped that the ongoing China-US trade conflict would convince more Taiwanese to focus on the possibility of being caught in the vortex of a “new Cold War.”
 
Albert Ho Chun-yan, chairperson of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, explained that the conference was held in Taiwan because of concerns that Hong Kong’s administration would have denied entry to many speakers, including former student leaders forced into exile for many years.
 
Nevertheless, he expected that more people would join a candlelight vigil planned for Hong Kong’s Victoria Park on the evening of June 4 than the 100,000 who turned up to the event last year.

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