Add Thesis

China's sharp power through TikTok

A case study of how China can use sharp power through TikTok

Written by Elina Melin

Paper category

Master Thesis


Political Studies




Master Thesis: The use of sharp power For the first time in 19 years, a country ruled by a dictatorship has surpassed a democratic government (V-Dem 2020). Human rights are declining, not just in authoritarian countries. Liberal governments such as the United States have shown flaws in ensuring democratic norms and values ​​(Freedom House 2020). China controls Chinese companies, which is why TikTok is being investigated for political purposes when the app is active (Zhong 2020). TikTok is active in more than 141 countries around the world (Apptrance 2020). TikTok accounts cannot express and publish the type of information they want on the app. For example, an American user was deleted after expressing his thoughts about the suppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang in northwestern China (Zhong 2019). Authoritarian governments act on the basis of cyber sovereignty, which means that the country with the platform has the right to monitor and control the flow of information (Walker, Kalathil and Ludwig 2020 p. 130). The moral problem of democracies that use technology created by non-democratic values ​​is that these values ​​will gradually be implemented in ideas and society (Smer 2019 pp. 36-37). China uses an artificial intelligence-based surveillance system (Fukuyama 2020 p. 16) to not only control posts on TikTok (Davis 2019), but also promote and carry out influential activities on TikTok (Network Security 2020). These types of activities are examples of sharp power. Ruiquan explains how authoritarian governments use new technologies to undermine democratic structures by influencing, manipulating, and using surveillance methods (Walker & Ludwig 2017c). One measure that has been implemented is to not allow American soldiers to download TikTok on their mobile phones because the application can reveal sensitive information (Network Security 2020). Traditionally, national power is explained through concepts such as realism, liberalism, or hard power and soft power (Heywood, 2014, pp. 55-56). The emergence of sharp power is because the aforementioned theories cannot explain the way in which modern authoritarian states exercise power (Walker & Ludwig 2017b p. 6). The fundamental problem that this research wants to clarify is that we need a new concept to analyze power in order to understand the contemporary exercise of power. This study analyzes the key components of sharp power and aims to understand the modern actions of authoritarian states, such as China. To clarify this point, apply the key components of sharp power to the TikTok case to increase the understanding of China’s political power. The reason for this topic is not only based on the uncertainty of the decline of world democracy. 1.6.1 The previous research on sharp power Biersteker (2020) analyzed sharp power from a different perspective from this research. In a sense, he examined Europe's "sharp power" and believed that Europe is at the forefront of sharp power. According to his definition, sharp power refers to gaining potential through sharp tools, such as in foreign policy, such as having more voting rights than the other party when imposing sanctions (Biersteker 2020 p. 384). This research does not use sharp power from this perspective, so the following text will enter the sharp power type involved in this research. The previous analysis of sharp power mainly described the actions of authoritarian countries such as Russia (spring 2018), China (spring 2018) (Lisewski 2020), and other countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia (Diamond 2020). Walker (2018) interprets sharp power as the strategy of an authoritarian state, which aims to influence and influence ideas and the democratic political environment (Walker 2018). Walker is one of the main theorists that this research will use to formulate and analyze the theoretical framework of sharp power. Leonova (2019) believes that sharp power is a mixture of influential actions and cyber terrorism. It is a global threat posed by new technologies, not just to democracies. The typical strategy of Sharp powers is, for example, these actions are difficult to detect, and their execution cost is not high, but on the other hand, these efforts are effective (Leonova 2019). This research involves the fact that sharp power is an influential action. However, this analysis assumes that sharp power is mainly used to influence and destabilize democratic structures. Leonova (2019) emphasized that since sharp power is a global phenomenon, international cooperation is needed to counter sharp power (Leonova 2019). This research agrees that the use of sharp power is worldwide, and international cooperation is needed to deal with the exercise of this power, but this is not the focus of this research. Green (2020) emphasized that sharp power can be a new concept, but these types of interference operations have been around for a long time. Greene (2020) emphasized the close connection between sharp power and information warfare. Chinese attacks are more difficult to track than Russian attacks. The reason is that China strives to become an international player that uses propaganda rather than false information to influence news, which will attract news propaganda (Greene 2020 p. 24). China's sharp power can be divided into influence actions and intervention actions. United States and Australia. Influence actions are used to undermine the stability of state power and benefit China’s interests. These efforts hope to achieve changes in concepts and democratic political systems over time. Read Less