The West thinks its values are universal, so it's fine to push those abroad, but when China does something similar it is viewed with suspicion, writes Sholto Byrnes
Surely the world has moved on from believing 'West is best'?
Over the last few days a storm of disapproval has blown up over China’s growing influence around the world. The Economist led the charge in the media, emblazoning its front cover with a globe pierced by spikes to illustrate the country’s supposed “sharp power”, and warning within that “even if China does not seek to conquer foreign lands, many people fear that it seeks to conquer foreign minds.”
CNBC followed on Monday with an article headlined "China’s trying to gain political influence abroad, and the West isn’t happy”, mentioning the US, Australia, New Zealand and Germany as countries alleging political interference, while the Financial Times cautioned that “there is growing disquiet over Beijing’s efforts to shape the way western countries think about its authoritarian model.”
Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull even deliberately echoed Chairman Mao last week by declaring that “The Australian people have stood up” when defending new laws protecting against foreign political influence.
All this outrage would be perfectly justified, if it were true that the West had a long record of abiding by the principle of non-interference, never seeking to influence other countries or mould the attitudes of their peoples. But of course the very opposite is true. Many Western countries were imperial powers, and what greater attempt to gain influence abroad could there be than to force great swathes of the globe to bow to alien peoples and accept what little liberty their new rulers left them?
During the Cold War, western countries tried to counter Soviet influence and perceptions in various ways. The effort was not always malign. In 1956, for instance, the US state department made musicians including Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong “jazz ambassadors” to show America in a better light overseas. (Although this was greeted with some wariness in the USSR, where Soviet propaganda held that “Today he plays jazz. Tomorrow he betrays his country.”)
But plenty of attempts to influence were far from benign, from the US’s condoning the coup against President Salvador Allende of Chile in 1973 and the overthrow of Cambodia’s ruler Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970, to the disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan this century – and far too many other instances to list here.
Sometimes they were surreptitious and underhand, such as when the British magazine Encounter was launched in 1952. Nominally supported by the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Berlin, it was in fact covertly paid for by the CIA to oppose the "spirit of conciliation and moral lassitude vis-a-vis Communism" of the left-wing New Statesman weekly – then in its heyday – and described by one agent as “propaganda” for US foreign policy. The secret was maintained until 1967. When it was revealed its co-editor, the distinguished poet Stephen Spender, resigned, and Encounter’s reputation never recovered.
So the hypocrisy is clear. What needs to be highlighted, however, is the nature of the double standard. When Russia passed a law in 2012 requiring NGOs that received funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents”, and to indicate that on publications and in presentations, there was a predictable uproar from human rights groups. This now may be extended to some media organisations, such as Voice of America and CNN. Cue more outrage that these organisations could possibly be seen as propagating an American worldview and be forced to declare so.
The US, on the other hand, sees no problem in forcing RT (formerly Russia Today) America to sign up as a foreign agent, because that is “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine”.
What this is really about is an argument about values. The West thinks its values are universal, so it's fine to push those abroad. They – by which I mean governments or individuals such as George Soros – are indignant when their proxies, or those they support financially, in other countries are labelled agents of influence.
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But when China or any non-Western country does something similar it's suspicious.
This double standard is perpetuated by the international media – which is, of course, dominated by Western companies, which are run by people with Western mindsets who take Western values for granted, and will not accept that there may be other worldviews than their own. It is therefore not one that the rest of the world should accept.
Organisations such as the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, for instance, are not neutral players. Linked to the two main US political parties, they may, in the case of the IRI, claim to be “advancing democracy worldwide” and working to “strengthen citizen voices and help make their leaders more accountable and responsive”; but it is their idea of democracy and human rights that is being put forward. They are not possessors of some objective truth. They have an agenda.
Has China sometimes been a little sharp-elbowed in the ways it has sought to exert influence in certain countries? Perhaps. CNBC quotes experts who believe that “Beijing is using education, spying, political donations and people-to-people diplomacy to gain a greater say in local decision-making”. But why is that so bad – when every country in the world with sufficient resources does exactly the same? Wanting to advance your own interests and values abroad is natural, and the fastidious will always be shocked by the means all parties occasionally use to achieve those ends.
Frankly, I see no difference between Confucius Institutes promoting China's culture and viewpoints and pro-Western NGOs backed by Western donors pushing Western universalism. Both have the right to do so. But to say the first is insidious and the second is perfectly acceptable is to say “West is best”. Surely we're past that by now?
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia