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NPR is taking a look at China's influence throughout the world. It's well-known that China's government attacks free speech at home, but it's also trying to censor people in Western democracies, those who don't toe the Communist Party line on sensitive topics. As NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London, it's all part of a grand strategy to change the way the world talks about China.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: In June, a team of Tibetans played in an obscure soccer tournament here modeled on the World Cup. The teams were drawn from a hodgepodge of minority peoples, isolated territories and would-be nations, including Tibet. But some Western corporate sponsors didn't want the Tibetans to play. Paul Watson is the commercial director for CONIFA, which ran the tournament.
PAUL WATSON: We had four significant sponsorship deals that reached late stages of negotiations, and there was inquiries made as to whether we would consider removing Tibet from the competition.
LANGFITT: The reason was China. Tibet is a part of China, but many Tibetans hate Chinese rule, and the Chinese government tries to stamp out anything that suggests a separate Tibetan identity. Potential sponsors were so worried about offending Beijing, they pressed China's agenda themselves.
WATSON: I did have off the record with someone who said, look; I took this to my boss. It's Tibet. Can you get them out of there (laughter)? And he apologized. You know, he said, I'm really sorry. It's a terrible thing to ask. We love what you do, but would you remove Tibet? And I said to him, well, you clearly don't love what we do because what we do is Tibet.
LANGFITT: The sponsors had seen how China had punished firms that strayed from its official line. In January, authorities suspended Marriott's Chinese website after the hotel group mistakenly referred to Tibet, Hong Kong and Macau as countries. The next month, Mercedes was forced to apologize for quoting the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, on Instagram. Watson understands why sponsors were scared of backing his soccer tournament.
WATSON: I imagine it's that photograph they're terrified of. You know, six months down the line, they're at a business meeting in China and that photo emerges and it's their company's logo, and there's Tibetan footballers in the Tibet shirt with the flags and, yeah, that could be a deal-breaker.
LANGFITT: Watson refused to dump the Tibetans, which cost him more than $100,000 in sponsorship money. Tibetan fans were grateful and surprised. Pema Yoko used to work with students for Free Tibet.
PEMA YOKO: It's very rare these days that you see people sticking to such principles and being on the right side of history. But the more you allow yourself to bend down to China, the more China is going to bully.
LANGFITT: When groups don't toe Beijing's line, sometimes the Chinese government applies direct pressure.
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TOM HARWOOD: Speaking for the proposition, we have two illustrious speakers.
LANGFITT: Last year, the Durham University Students' Union organized a debate on whether China was a threat to the West.
HARWOOD: After we published the debates, we started getting a lot of emails from the Chinese Students and Scholars Association.
LANGFITT: Tom Harwood was president of the union then. He said Chinese students complained about the topic and pressed him to drop one of the speakers, Anastasia Lin, a former Miss World Canada. Lin's also a human rights activist and a member of a spiritual meditation group banned by the Chinese government. Again, Tom Harwood.
HARWOOD: Actually, it got to the point where the embassy phoned up our office and started questioning us a lot about the debate, asking if we could not invite Anastasia Lin. And it even got to the point where one of the officials at the embassy suggested that if this debate went ahead, the U.K. might get less favorable trade terms after Brexit.
LANGFITT: Harwood was stunned.
HARWOOD: It's just quite shocking that within an institution that was 175 years old that's prided itself on hosting free speech, free exchange, free debate, that an outside influence was trying to change that or try and stop us hosting a speaker.
LANGFITT: In a statement, the Chinese Embassy denied pressuring the union. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former British foreign secretary, was one of the speakers at the Durham debate. He didn't think much of China's alleged tactics.
MALCOLM RIFKIND: I thought it was pathetic. It's something that the Chinese very foolishly do again and again.
LANGFITT: Beijing has spent years trying to influence how the world talks about China, and Rifkind says when the country was much weaker, it was easy to ignore.
RIFKIND: When I was foreign secretary, I was involved in the final stages of the negotiations over the transfer of Hong Kong back to China. And at one stage, the Dalai Lama was going to be in the United Kingdom, and I told my office that I would be very happy to see him. They spluttered. They complained. They said it was inappropriate. But nothing more than that happened because, at that time, they didn't have the diplomatic weight that they have today.
LANGFITT: Rana Mitter says there are important reasons why China wants to frame its global image. Mitter's a China scholar at Oxford University.
RANA MITTER: One of the contexts for the obsessive way in which Chinese officials can sometimes think about the way that China is portrayed overseas is the fact that for the best part of 150 years, China was, of course, not in control of its own destiny.
LANGFITT: It was a period when foreign powers carved up China, which the government calls the century of humiliation. The government's recent economic boom changed all that.
MITTER: These days, China is in a much better position to actually spread that narrative, talk about itself in those terms with, we might say, a much louder megaphone. And that is creating some cognitive dissonance, I think, for some parts of the American establishment, which maybe for a long time thought that democracy was not the only way that China could go but the only way that any country could possibly go.
LANGFITT: Now, Chinese President Xi Jinping has gone further than past leaders, arguing that China's authoritarian system is a model for others, an alternative to liberal democracy. Jan Weidenfeld is with the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a Berlin-based think tank.
JAN WEIDENFELD: What they would do is just point fingers and say, well, look at where democracy has gotten you - lots of irrational decisions. You've got Donald Trump in the White House. You've got Brexit. And we just got the better model here.
LANGFITT: Weidenfeld says the goal is to undermine support for the Western system.
WEIDENFELD: When young people, for instance, get asked about the attractiveness of the Chinese model, they won't say, well, actually it's quite attractive. So it's really ultimately about systemic competition.
LANGFITT: And who wins. Clumsy attempts to censor people, as in the case of the Durham University debate, have backfired. But China's had success intimidating businesses, as apologies by Marriott and Mercedes-Benz show. Benedict Rogers says knuckling under only encourages the Chinese government. Rogers works here with the Conservative Party's Human Rights Commission.
BENEDICT ROGERS: Actually, if we'd taken a stronger stand a few years ago, they perhaps wouldn't have been doing this kind of thing now.
LANGFITT: Is this partly the fault of the West, people in the West who just roll over?
ROGERS: Yes. It is absolutely the fault of people in the West for not taking a stronger stand for our values earlier on and for essentially kowtowing to China.
LANGFITT: China is on track to become the world's largest economy, which will only give it more financial firepower to try to shape its global image and argue that its system is better. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.
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