In 2018, national elections roiled Malaysia and brought what seemed like a landmark change to the Southeast Asian state. The country had been a longtime autocracy, run essentially by the same coalition since it gained independence in 1957. That coalition had used extensive gerrymandering, handouts of state funds, control of most broadcast and print media, and other tactics to ensure its hold on power. Despite a crackdown on opposition politicians and civil society before the 2018 elections and a reelection war chest reportedly amassed through flamboyantly shady deals, Prime Minister Najib tun Razak and his coalition seemed at risk.
Najib, though, was not only buoyed by his massive war chest and dirty tactics. The 64-year-old leader and his coalition also had the support of the Chinese government. Beijing had vital economic and strategic interests in Malaysia and reasons for supporting Najib. Malaysia’s dominant political coalition, led by Najib’s nationalist UNMO party, had never lost a national election, providing the kind of stability attractive to China. Najib took a low-profile, less confrontational approach to disputes with China in the South China Sea and was an early and vocal backer of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing’s enormous global infrastructure and aid project. Multiethnic Malaysia also has a sizable ethnic Chinese population, about 23 percent of the total populace. Beijing often attempts to influence the Chinese diaspora around the world by targeting it with sophisticated global media and information efforts.
Since the end of the Mao Zedong era in the mid-1970s and the rise of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who told top Chinese officials Beijing should take a low profile in foreign affairs for now, Chinese leaders have proclaimed that Beijing does not interfere in other states’ affairs. (The reality did not always reflect this assertion—China fought a war with Vietnam in 1979, for instance.) In the 2018 Malaysian elections, however, there was none of this supposed restraint—a restraint China has increasingly abandoned as it flexes its diplomatic, social, economic, and military muscles around the globe.
China was seemingly in a strong position to affect the Malaysian election. Polls in the 2010s had shown warm views of China among Malaysians. Beijing attempted to influence the election through soft power and through covert and possibly corrupt means, also known as sharp power. Beijing cultivated Chinese Malaysians. Leading up to the election, the ethnic Chinese party in Najib’s coalition, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), noted that it helped facilitate Chinese investment in Malaysia. Party literature claimed that “voting [for Najib’s coalition] equals supporting China,” and the Chinese-language media in Malaysia, then and now, regularly highlights pro-China views.
China also may have used clandestine and more coercive means to bolster Najib, in addition to soft power. According to The Wall Street Journal, which saw minutes from previously undisclosed meetings between Chinese and Malaysian officials, as Malaysia’s election loomed, Chinese officials told Najib that Beijing would pressure foreign countries to back off investigations into the graft-ridden 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund. The PRC was also prepared to bail out the hemorrhaging fund if the Najib administration gave China stakes in Malaysian pipeline and rail projects.
Beijing did not stop there. Top Chinese diplomats seemed to attend campaign events primarily to support Najib’s coalition. As the journalist Teck Chi Wong has noted, MCA billboards prominently featured MCA members with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Beijing’s efforts backfired. With public frustration directed toward 1MDB as well as other alleged corruption scandals, the opposition formed a broad coalition led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. Public anger also grew over Beijing intervening in Malaysian politics and over the seemingly unequal terms of some deals signed between the two countries, such as a proposed railway along Malaysia’s east coast. Mahathir stoked anti-China sentiment on the campaign trail, accusing Najib of essentially auctioning off Malaysian sovereignty.
On Election Day, Mahathir’s coalition was swept into power. Strikingly, China failed to sway Malaysian Chinese voters, who instead overwhelmingly backed Mahathir’s coalition. Beijing, which often assumes ethnic Chinese automatically have an affinity for the motherland, if not the Communist government, underestimated the desire of many Malaysian Chinese not to be seen as loyal to China above Malaysia. Malaysian Chinese, like many other Malaysians, were angered at Najib’s corruption, which ultimately earned him a stiff jail sentence on corruption charges. And after Election Day, Mahathir made China’s loss in Malaysia worse. In August, he visited China, and in front of top Chinese leaders, he warned Beijing against a “new kind of colonialism” and pushed China to redo many bilateral deals with Malaysia.
Malaysia is hardly a unique target for Beijing’s influence efforts. China has long tried to influence other countries, initially with only modest success. But as Beijing has become more powerful and assertive, it has vastly expanded its efforts to meddle with other states’ politics and societies – to promote China’s aims, as well as, often, to try to undermine the United States and the very idea of democracy itself.
To wield this influence, China often uses its state media and control of Chinese language media in other countries. Its toolbox also includes economic coercion, disinformation on social media platforms, its growing power on university campuses, and its wielding of influence directly over politicians. And yet, as in Malaysia, China initially has enjoyed, at best, mixed success with its influence. Often it has alienated other countries, turning them against Beijing. Now, in polling by organizations like Pew, Beijing has some of the worst approval ratings among many countries.
Yet, despite being an authoritarian state, China has shown an ability to adapt its tactics. As the BRI came under criticism for its lending practices and for burdening developing countries with debt during COVID, China began to revamp the massive program. So, too, has China begun to adapt its influence efforts—especially toward near-neighbors like Malaysia. As it adapts and learns, it could eventually become far more effective inside other states –to the detriment of democracy, independent media, and the strategic interests of the U. S. and its partners.
Beijing already has some advantages in trying to adapt and build a better influence campaign. As part of China’s expansion of its international state media in the past decade, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, and the newswire Xinhua have opened and expanded bureaus in the U.S., Africa, Europe, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. In many developing states, and even now in some wealthier countries, local news outlets often use Xinhua copy (which is cheap or free) in their publications without much attribution, feeding local readers pro-Beijing propaganda. China also now offers training programs for Malaysian journalists—and journalists from many other countries—in an attempt to bolster Beijing’s damaged soft power and help influence Malaysian coverage of China—particularly about sensitive topics like the massive abuses in Xinjiang.
Beijing also increasingly controls the Chinese language media in Malaysia, which prints almost exclusively pro-Beijing copy. As a study by Freedom House noted,
Ninety percent of the country’s Chinese-language media is owned by a Chinese-Malaysian tycoon with strong business interests in China. The editorial lines of these outlets are accordingly dominated by pro-Beijing narratives, and Chinese-language media publish less on politically sensitive topics compared to their English and Malay counterparts. Global Chinese-language disinformation campaigns [also] have penetrated Chinese diaspora media in Malaysia.
(I served as an adviser to this Freedom House report but did not research or write it.)
Malaysian news outlets that publish critical reporting of Beijing are blocked in China and have their advertising revenue threatened, presumably from firms dependent on trade with China.
Economically, China also clearly has listened and responded to some of the messages delivered by that earlier election. It renegotiated or halted several major aid and infrastructure deals with Malaysia, pleasing both the Malay government and the Malay public. It delivered significant amounts of COVID-19 assistance to the nation of 33.5 million, winning plaudits from the public. And while Beijing takes aggressive maneuvers in the South China Sea and other regional waters, it has been more careful not to antagonize Malaysia directly.
China has become more sophisticated and discerning in how it meddles in Malaysian political affairs. In contrast to its heavy-handed campaign backing Najib, China has used more effective tools to woo Malaysian politicians across the political spectrum, not just the long-ruling UMNO-led coalition. This is smart since Malaysia is now ruled by a coalition in which UMNO is a junior partner in the ruling coalition, and Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is a longtime democrat with no love for China.
So Beijing has widened its net, reaching out to ethnic Chinese politicians close to Anwar, like Tan Kok Wai, a member of parliament and former special envoy to China, who has been fairly fulsome in his praise of the Malaysia-China relationship. Meanwhile, Beijing has stepped up its already-close ties to the country’s major business leaders, emphasizing that China is critical to Malaysia. This is true: China is Malaysia’s biggest trading partner and the biggest investor in its crucial manufacturing sector.
Ultimately, China seems to be learning from its influence failures in Malaysia and gaining significant sway over the country’s affairs. As Beijing now faces initial, Malaysia-style backlashes against some of its tactics in Asia, Europe, and North America, it would be wise for policymakers to realize that China will develop an influence strategy 2.0, one likely to be more effective and possibly dangerous.