The Economist highlights the concern for China’s “Sharp Power” in its Dec 16th 2017 Issue (p.9, 17-19) alongside “Soft Power” (culture and values) and “Hard Power” (military force and economic muscle).
It argues that the “Chinese government is using stealth to shape public opinion and mute criticism in other countries …. China’s sharp power has three striking characteristics — it is pervasive, it breeds self-censorship and it is hard to nail down proof that it is the work of the Chinese state.”
This Economist article is of the view that a large number of state-backed organisations attempt to “restrain debate about China”, to mount “‘insidious’ attacks on academic independence and free expression, to co-opt “American firms or universities dazzled by the size of the Chinese markets”, and to present “a rosy, party-sanctioned view of China” by operating Chinese state media in different languages in various countries.
In other words, China is no longer passive or defensive. Rather, it is going to launch some counterstrikes against criticisms as well as selling its own ideas in certain ways that are disliked by the liberal West.
“…Gone is Deng Xiaoping’s edict that China should keep a low profile in global affairs by ‘hiding brightness [and] nourishing obscurity’. Mr Xi has called on China to ‘turn up’ its voice on the world stage.” Therefore, the essay warns that “the public and politicians in the West may underestimate the threat from China’s rise.”
It so happened that Timothy R. Heath, a Senior Research Analyst with the prestigious RAND Corporation also noticed something similar about China’s offensive moves to promote itself, as shown in his thesis “China’s Endgame: The Path Towards Global Leadership” published on Jan 5, 2018 by the Lawfare Institute in cooperation with Brookings Institution, the American number one think tank.
Heath clearly agrees with The Economist that Xi Jinping has made a change to China’s foreign policy orientation at the 19th CCP party congress: “… Beijing articulated for the first time an ambition to contend for global leadership … strongly suggests that, over the long term, China is mulling competition with the United States for the status of global leader.”
Heath also notices that, for playing this “endgame” towards global leadership, the 2017 party congress report “introduces … the need to  achieve technological leadership,  build a network of strategic partnerships, and  expand China’s international influence and involvement in global governance”.
What the “sharp power” the Economist refers to is more or less the same as the “need” of  mentioned by Heath.
It is common sense that when you want to participate into public affairs and compete for leadership, you need to tell others what your ideologies, principles, bottom lines and alike so as to yield acceptance and recognition. China’s relevant policies deployed for this objective, according to Heath’s analysis, include “manipulation of diplomatic incentives”, “deepen regional dependence through integration”, “increase reform of international institutions and agenda setting”, “expand United Front tactics” and “mobilize overseas Chinese”.
These policies, especially the latter two — “United Front tactics” and “mobilize overseas Chinese”, are under attack by the Economist and described as threatening “sharp power”. Heath does not disagree that these actions are threatening but he understands the nature of them.
“… China’s approach to extending its global influence differs considerably from that taken by the United States or imperial European powers of past centuries. Lacking an imperialistic military or the U.S. advantage of globally distributed armed forces, China has little choice but to rely on a more diffuse and loose-knit approach involving diplomacy, limited deployment of military, paramilitary and contractor security forces, covert intelligence operations, propaganda, and the use of economic and political benefits and sanctions.”
The West of course does not welcome the Chinese propaganda and intelligence operations in their territories. Heath is therefore not surprised that “… Sensational reports of just these sorts of tactics in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Great Britain have recently made headlines”.
Whatever name you call these powers, sharp or soft or hard, the competition for global leadership is unlikely to ignite direct warfare between the two countries (even though the U.S. may trigger a civil war between Beijing and Taipei). However, wars of words between them in media, cultural exchanges, international trades, intellectual and academic interactions, migration and tourism, films and literature, and so on, will show up more. While we would keep on analyzing whether the Third World countries and the general public in the West would accept the Chinese ideas or reject them, another variable we need to pay attention to is how the West renovates itself to resist China’s rise.
The opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of China Daily Mail.