The communist regime in China is using “wokeism” as a geopolitical tool to undermine U.S. democracy, said Vivek Ramaswamy, author of “Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam.”
The 20th century may have been the world’s bloodiest, but in the end, democracy was triumphant. A political system that was an aberration among monarchies in 1900 cut a swath through empires, fascism, and communism to emerge as the dominant political system by the end of the century.
But while the world celebrated the fall of authoritarianism in Russia and Eastern Europe in 1989, China was carefully studying how to avoid the same fate. The Chinese Communist Party concluded that its Soviet counterpart had collapsed not only because it failed to adapt to the changing world but also, more importantly, because it had turned its back on its own historical and ideological experiences. Even as China firmly went down the path of economic reform and the spectacular growth that came with it, it doubled down on its core ideology: socialism with Chinese characteristics under the absolute leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.
Meaning of the term ‘Woke’ , Wokeism
Woke is a term, originating in the United States, that originally referred to awareness about racial prejudice and discrimination. It subsequently came to encompass an awareness of other issues of social inequality, for instance, regarding gender and sexual orientation. Since the late 2010s, it has also been used as a general term for left-wing political movements and perspectives emphasising the identity politics of people of colour, LGBT people, and women.
The phrase stay woke had emerged in the United States by the 1930s. Developing within African-American Vernacular English, woke referred to an awareness of the social and political issues affecting African Americans, especially racial prejudice and discrimination. In this form, it appeared in various contexts, for instance, in songs by Lead Belly and Erykah Badu. Following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, the phrase was popularised by Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists seeking to raise awareness about police shootings of African Americans.
Widely used on Black Twitter, it gained traction as an Internet meme and was increasingly utilised by individuals who were not African American, often to signal their support for BLM; some commentators criticised this as cultural appropriation. Mainly associated with the young millennial generation, the term spread internationally and was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017.
As the use of the term has spread beyond its African-American origins, woke has increasingly been used as a catch-all term to describe left-wing movements and ideologies informed by academic movements such as critical race theory, which aim to promote social justice.
The terms woke capitalism and woke-washing were coined to describe companies who signalled their support for such causes. By 2020, parts of the political centre and right-wing in several Western countries were using the term woke, often in an ironic way, as an insult for various leftist movements and ideologies perceived as over-zealous or insincere. In turn, some left-wing activists came to consider it an offensive term used to denigrate those campaigning against discrimination.
“They [China] are using that to divide us, to use that as a kink in our armour to divide us from within, by getting corporations to criticize injustice here, without saying a peep about injustice over there and deflecting accountability for their human rights abuses,” Ramaswamy said.
Trump’s allegations of election interference call to mind Russia’s brazen meddling in the 2016 presidential election. But while his claims should not be dismissed out of hand, the reality is more complex than his comments suggest. China is indeed pursuing influence efforts in the United States and elsewhere, but these differ from Russia’s in important respects.
The lack of specifics in the president’s comments will make it easy for some to dismiss these allegations of China’s interference as politically contrived while leading others to overheat the charges into a “China panic.” Washington needs to better understand China’s activities to avoid overreacting in ways that could harm the legitimacy of the democratic process, erode liberal values and complicate a serious discussion of Beijing’s activities.
Congress and the administration will instead need to craft solutions that respond appropriately to the challenges at hand. They will also need to adhere to strict standards for disclosure to avoid tainting the democratic process and squandering the government’s credibility on increasingly important questions of foreign influence.
What did Trump Mean by election interference?
The president provided neither evidence nor elaboration for his claims, making it unclear precisely what he meant by “election interference.” Most likely, Trump had in mindless Russia-style “active measures” than more mundane efforts, like politically-targeted trade retaliation and newspaper advertisements. His remarks Wednesday followed a week-old tweet in which he called China’s trade retaliation against “farmers, ranchers, and industrial workers” a form of election interference. Notably, in a tweet following his remarks at the United Nations, Trump pointed to the China Daily’s purchase of advertising in the Des Moines Register as further evidence.
Accordingly—and despite Trump’s narrower focus on trade retaliation and newspaper inserts—China has long pursued a wide-ranging and very real campaign to influence the political and informational environment of other countries, including the United States. This has long been a routine feature of great power competition—though one that the United States and its allies and partners appear to have largely ignored from the end of the Cold War until recently.
China’s Influence Strategy
China’s top leaders have long emphasized the importance of influencing foreign public opinion. In 2006, President Hu Jintao declared that China must “strengthen the construction of foreign-related media and networks” that “promote China.” He called for China to “innovate in foreign propaganda methods,” and “strengthen external propaganda in language that is easily understood and accepted by foreign publics,” underlining the need for China to “do a good job with work in the Western mainstream media” to “increase trust and dispel doubts” about China’s rise.
China’s efforts often go beyond mere media influence, most notably in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand. These efforts often involve China’s United Front Work Department, an organ of the party-state that seeks to co-opt or neutralize foreign and domestic opposition to the party and its policies, and have included sizable Communist Party-linked donations to political parties, financial support for friendly research institutions or the launch of China’s own, harassment of the overseas diaspora, monopoly of Chinese-language media, consulting contracts for former politicians, and other avenues. All this has been documented in open sources.
He said U.S. companies like NBA and Disney—who criticize social issues in the United States but remain silent on China’s human rights abuses such as those in Xinjiang—are empowering communist China.
In 2020, Disney drew heavy criticism when it was revealed that it filmed a live-action remake of “Mulan” in China’s far-western region of Xinjiang, where Beijing has locked up over 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in internment camps. Several governments including the United States have characterized China’s oppression in Xinjiang as “genocide.”
The NBA was in hot water in 2019 after Houston Rockets then-general manager Daryl Morey voiced support for Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters in a Twitter post. The Chinese regime, which cast the protesters as “rioters,” suspended airing NBA games in retaliation, while Chinese companies cut ties with the league.
The way forward for Washington
Already, there are some signs that the U.S. government is taking action. Congress has held multiple hearings over the past year on the subject of Chinese influence operations, and members have put forward legislative proposals to deal with them by increasing the transparency of government-linked foreign media outlets and cultural centres such as China’s Confucius Institutes.
The Foreign Influence Transparency Act, introduced in March, would compel any organizations that “promote the political agenda” of a foreign government to register as foreign agents under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). It would also lower from $250,000 to $50,000 the threshold at which universities must disclose foreign donations from entities such as Confucius Institutes to the Department of Education.
Setting Standards for Speaking Out
When the government reports foreign interference, it must do so carefully. False, unsubstantiated or premature accusations can damage faith in the American electoral process and squander the credibility that will be sorely needed when serious interference occurs. After Trump’s erratic statements this week, the American public may tune out if Beijing escalates its interference in future.