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by Xinhua writer Liu Si

BEIJING -- Recently, a term "sharp power" has become "popular" following a US think tank report and a cover story of the British magazine Economist in December 2017, both of which raised so-called "concerns" over the growing influence of Russia and China.

In January, Joseph Nye, the father of "soft power" from Harvard University, published two articles respectively on US magazine Foreign Affairs and international media organization Project Syndicate, attributing "soft power" to the West and labeling China and Russia with "sharp power".

Nye defined "soft power" as the ability to affect others by attraction and persuasion, but linked "sharp power" to information of warfare, particularly waged by China and Russia.

However, if one looks into the term "sharp power" and learns its ins and outs, one may find that the term is no more than a language trap, coined and manipulated by some Western countries with "zero-sum" mentality and cultural hegemony.

WHO"S BEHIND

A new report "Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence", released on Dec. 5, 2017 and powered by the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED), claimed that China and Russia have spent a lot to shape public opinion and perceptions around the world.

"Over the past decade, China and Russia have spent billions of dollars to shape public opinion and perceptions around the world, employing a diverse toolkit that includes thousands of people-to-people exchanges, wide-ranging cultural activities, educational programs, and the development of media enterprises and information initiatives with global reach," the report said.

What made such a months-old term evolve and spread that fast? There are political factors behind it.

The term "sharp power" first appeared in a Foreign Affairs article in November 2017, co-written by Christopher Walker, NED vice president for Studies and Analysis, and research and conferences officer Jessica Ludwig, discussing Russia and China"s "overseas influence activities prompt a revisiting of "soft power"".

They coined the term as "a new vocabulary for the phenomenon", which was quickly leveraged by some Western politicians as a good tool to shape the public opinion towards Russia and China. The NED has played a key role in fueling the flame.

The NED, a Washington-based private, nonprofit foundation and think tank, was founded in 1983, a year after former US President Ronald Reagan proposed an initiative while delivering a speech to the British Parliament "to foster the infrastructure of democracy".

Its creation not only received support from the Reagan administration, but also was funded largely by the US Congress.

Thanks to strong Congressional support, it"s no wonder that the NED each year makes more than 1,700 grants to support the projects of non-governmental groups abroad who are working for "democratic goals" in more than 90 countries.

Calling the NED a "Trojan horse", William Blum, an historian and US foreign policy critic, said that the organization was actually not a NGO (Non-governmental organization) but "a GO".

The foundation "meddles in the internal affairs of numerous foreign countries" in multiple ways, including "supply funds, technical know-how, training, educational materials, computers and so on, to selected political groups, civic organizations, labor unions, dissident movements, student groups, book publishers, newspapers, other media, etc", said Blum.

US Libertarian congressman Ron Paul argued several times against funding the NED by the US government, saying the NED "has very little to do with democracy."

"It is an organization that uses US tax money to actually subvert democracy, by showering funding on favored political parties or movements overseas," said Paul.

INVISIBLE POWER

American media critic and sociologist Herbert Schiller, who was widely known for the term "cultural imperialism", examined in several of his writings the role of media-cultural power in American global domination.

Schiller also argued that American media was controlled by a few corporations that "create, process, refine and preside over the circulation of images and information which determines our beliefs, attitudes and ultimately our behavior".

Except for "sharp power", there are several other terms ended with "power" invented by American scholars, including "smart power" (a combination of hard power and soft power) both by Nye and executive director of PEN American Cente Suzanne Nossel in the early 21st century, as well as "discriminate power" in 2013 by Michael Mazarr from the US National War College.

No matter how many terms are created, they are used to promote Americanized democracy and safeguarding its global interest.

The invention of the term "sharp power" should remind us another academic phrase -- "Thucydides" trap" -- popularized by Graham Allison at the Harvard Kennedy School and often used regarding China-US relations to explain the likelihood of conflict between a rising power and a dominant one.

Amitav Acharya, a notable Indian-born Canadian scholar on international relations, told Xinhua that Thucydides" trap "can become a self-fulfilling prophecy", adding that "it"s dangerous because you start thinking that somehow this part of the concept has some analytical value."

Chen Fengying, a research fellow at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told Xinhua that attracted by the growth of emerging economies including China, more and more countries have begun to look eastward.

"In fear of losing their dominant place in the world, some of the Western countries find it difficult to adapt themselves to changes of the world order," Chen said.

Consequently, showing great concerns and anxiety over China"s rapid growth in recent years, some Western countries once and again labeled China with terms like "China threat", "China Collapse", and at this time "sharp power", but ignoring China"s normal foreign relations, economic, people-to-people activities and others.

In this regard, Qian Chengdan, a notable professor of history at Peking University, once wrote in an article that after the end of World War II, the United States had considered the former Soviet Union, Japan, and the European Union (EU) as adversaries or potential competitors.

"Now it"s China"s turn," added Qian.

WALKING OUT OF TRAP

In fact, the "China threat" hypothesis is nothing new. It started in the 1990s and varied in different forms from time to time, but was doomed to fade in the end. What history teaches us is that a peaceful China can only withstand the test of time.

As the term "sharp power" is meant to preach a new round of "China threat", Michael Szonyi, professor of Chinese history and director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, told Xinhua that "one of the reasons that the term doesn"t really work is that it suggests that the "sharp power" is centralized".

In his two new books about China, Szonyi, together with the world"s other leading China experts, examined China"s growth and how the world should look at diverse cultures and societies. That was also reflected in his view on the term "sharp power".

He said that there were elements in China that the West doesn"t like, adding "we need to draw attention to those but we need to be clear that"s not China".

"We have to become customized towards a more active China," Robert Ross, professor of political science at Boston College and executive committee of Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, told Xinhua.

Wang Dong, deputy executive director of the Institute for China-US People-to-People Exchange, told Xinhua that there were a lot of phrases that just come and go every year. But he cautioned about the misunderstanding and mis-perception behind these terms, warning "that sort of mutual reciprocal misunderstanding or mis-perception might probably increase mutual distrust or lead to a deepening security dilemma".

Wang called on scholars to work very hard to strengthen communications and exchanges and try to better understand each other"s real intentions rather than demonize each other.

"Of course it"s not an easy task but we have to work hard on that," said Wang.