News·9 min read

China's Global Influence

July 29, 2019

China has one of the world’s largest economies and is one of the most politically influential countries. Here's how it got that way, and its plans for the future.

china influence artificial island
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The Story

China wants to pull a Jack Dawson and be king of the world. We’re here to break down the country’s strategy.

The Background

Thanks to a package of reforms intro’d in the late ‘70s, China has experienced off-the-charts economic growth in recent decades. It has made its military a literal force to be reckoned with, invested hundreds of billions of dollars abroad, and brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty (although many people are still struggling). The strong economy has also helped maintain support at home for the country’s authoritarian regime, which has been exercising increasing control over its citizens. Oh, and BTW it’s the most populous country in the world. All of this means that China is well positioned to exert more influence globally than most countries.

Wait, what kind of control?

Think: using surveillance to monitor text messages, censoring the internet, using facial recognition tech to identify and fine jaywalkers. We kid you not. Skimm Notes gets into the whole story of China’s surveillance tactics.

Tiananmen Square

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The Big Issue

China’s playbook. The goals are threefold:

  1. Grow its military and economic power

  2. Project a positive image of itself abroad

  3. Try to convince more countries to sit with China at the lunch table. Aka build relationships and gain allies.

At least China knows what it wants.

That makes one of us. China’s has a sophisticated strategy for accomplishing all of this, and includes both overt and covert operations. On the overt side, we’ve got: 

  • Xi Jinping. China’s president since 2013. He’s considered the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong aka the founder of modern China. Xi is the one responsible for taking the country’s ambitions to the next level. It helps that China’s legislature voted to do Xi a solid and get rid of presidential term limits, plus enshrined his ideology in China’s constitution. Meaning he pretty much has a green light to do essentially whatever he wants and will be around indefinitely to see these plans through.  

Xi Jinping

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  • Speaking of plans, here’s what Xi has in mind: the Belt and Road initiative – China’s plan to develop massive trade infrastructure connecting Asia, Africa, and Europe. Part of this involves investing billions of dollars in projects, making other countries literally indebted to China. Pop your headphones in because Skimm Notes goes deep on this initiative, and why it’s raising alarm bells for the future of diplomacy and China’s military strength.

China's Belt and Road Initiative

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  • Made in China 2025. China’s plan to become a lean, mean, self-sufficient tech machine by, you guessed it, 2025. The gist: give local companies a boost with gov assistance (read: billions of dollars in loans) in order to build an independent tech sector that doesn’t have to rely on importing parts from companies (think: Boeing, Intel). This has put Western businesses on edge. They’re worried they’ll get pushed out of the Chinese market, and say that Chinese businesses now have an unfair advantage thanks to government help. Plus the US gov has accused China of stealing trade secrets as it works to build up these industries.

  • Cracking down on free speech. Xi’s time in office has been marked by a significant increase in crackdowns on critics and the media, including jailing journalists in China. The country has also expanded Chinese gov-backed media abroad in order to push stories favorable to the Communist Party.

  • Artificial islands. Yes, really. China has been building islands from scratch in the South China Sea, a disputed area that’s full of important shipping routes. These islands are decked out with military facilities and landing strips. And the situation has made some worried that the whole region would get into a military conflict. Power grab much?

And on the covert side, we’ve got:

  • United Front. United Front is an organizational arm of the Chinese Communist Party that Xi’s government has called a “magic weapon.” A big part of United Front work involves influencing Chinese people in other countries, encouraging party loyalty, and tamping down opposition. It can be difficult to nail down exactly what this entails. But, for example, United Front officials will reportedly meet with local chapters of Chinese groups around the world. Or work with student groups to promote the Communist Party agenda.

  • Organizing protest movements, like the one leading up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. At the time, China was under fire for a crackdown on anti-China protesters in Tibet. This led to more anti-China protests around the world, along with large counter-protests in support of China. It later came out that these counter-protests weren’t a spontaneous democratic showing – China had organized them in order to suppress dissent and keep its image squeaky clean while hosting the Olympics.

  • Government-sponsored Confucius Institutes, language and cultural learning centers on university campuses in the US and elsewhere. They’ve been accused of censoring materials and trying to advance the Chinese gov’s agenda. No, this hasn’t gone over well in the democratic countries where these institutes operate. In the past year, some of them have closed due to political pressure from US lawmakers.

The Debate

Some say, others say

For decades, US policy toward China was based on the thinking that helping China build global economic ties – like by incorporating it into the World Trade Organization – would eventually push the country to be a more free and democratic nation.

Spoiler: that didn’t happen. And there are a lot of thoughts about what the US should do now.

The situation is complicated, especially since the US and Chinese economies are very entangled. As this piece points out, the US faces the question of whether to maintain ties with China that may put US security and the economy at risk. Or disengage and potentially take both countries’ economies down a notch.

The Impact

It’s pretty straightforward: China’s growing influence over both its own citizens and other nations (in part thanks to economic ties) threatens the establishment of free societies. And its efforts to censor info and media reports threaten democracy and free speech worldwide.


China is waging an ideological fight. Some point out that it hasn’t necessarily always been successful. But it has the potential to undermine global security and reshape the values and norms underpinning the global economy.

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