Rubio Questions D.C. Panel on China Influence

It’s a sign of growing concern over Chinese influence operations in the United States.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio at Capitol Hill on July 20, 2017 in Washington, DC.  (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Kelly Craft)
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio at Capitol Hill on July 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Kelly Craft)

With one eye on Australia, where Beijing has made deep inroads into local and national politics, the United States is struggling to come to grips with the scale and scope of Chinese influence operations inside its own borders.

On Friday, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, asked the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, to disclose the political affiliation of a member of an upcoming panel meant to discuss those very influence operations. The letter highlights the growing concerns among lawmakers and government officials about covert Chinese influence in the United States and around the world.

The May 9 panel is slated to discuss Chinese political interference activities conducted by the United Front Work Department, a Chinese Communist Party agency designed to shape the political discourse in foreign countries to more closely align with the party’s interests. The panel description states that “the ‘influence’ issue is often poorly defined, exaggerated, and abused.”

But the event notice fails to mention that one of the panelists, Wang Huiyao, holds an official position in the United Front Work Department itself. It merely describes Wang as the founder and president of the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think tank.

Rubio, who is chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, asked the Wilson Center if it was aware of Wang’s affiliation with the department and requested that the center disclose that affiliation publicly.

“Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has characterized the United Front Work Department and its political influence activities as one of the party’s ‘magic weapons,’” Rubio writes, according to a copy of the letter reviewed by Foreign Policy. “As such, the United Front Work Department has come under needed and growing scrutiny in connection with the Chinese government’s increasingly aggressive displays of ‘sharp power’ around the world.

“That this event’s focus is on Chinese influence operations creates an even greater imperative for transparency about Mr. Huiyao Wang’s roles and affiliations within the Chinese government apparatus.”

The Wilson Center tells FP that the center is aware of Wang’s affiliation and that it would be disclosed during the panel.

“A lot of people are rightly worried about Chinese Communist Party influence on American communities and institutions,” says Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute, in an interview with FP. Wang was invited to sit on the panel because “you have to know what Chinese government views are if you are going to respond to them.”

Rubio’s letter is a sign that the activities of United Front officials operating in the United States are likely to face greater scrutiny than in the past.

Debate about Russian influence operations has dominated U.S. airwaves in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. Russian interference campaigns seek to sow discord and division within the target society, and to create confusion by blurring the distinction between fact and fiction. But the Chinese Communist Party’s approach to foreign influence operations is more subtle while remaining highly effective, making it in some ways more insidious, according to some analysts.

According to his personal website, Wang has served as the standing director of the United Front Work Department’s China Overseas Friendship Association since 2013, and he also serves as a member of the department’s advisory group. Many of his other activities are closely linked to the United Front as well.

Wang’s think tank, the Center for China and Globalization, was founded by members of the Western Returned Scholars Association, which is officially affiliated with the United Front. Wang publicly promotes the “Thousand Talents Plan,” a Chinese government program aimed at bringing foreign talent back to China; according to the program’s website, the United Front Work Department is one of several agencies that oversee the Thousand Talents Plan. Wang did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

Wang has a track record of publicly defending China from accusations of political interference abroad. In a January article about United Front involvement in Australia, the Los Angeles Times quoted Wang as saying, “In the past, China was always learning. Now China is saying, ‘Can we share something? Can we contribute?’ and that’s seen as a threat.” The article did not mention Wang’s affiliation with the United Front.

The United Front is one of Beijing’s main weapons to neutralize overseas opposition. Department officials and their proxies set up affiliated organizations abroad, or co-opt the leaders of existing ones. They then use these organizations to promote party-aligned views and marginalize dissident opinions both within overseas Chinese communities and in mainstream society at large.

In Australia, the United Front has had striking success. In the 1990s, the country had a flourishing network of Chinese-language news outlets and Chinese community organizations offering views at odds with the party line. Now, Beijing has managed to bring almost all those groups under its umbrella, meaning that Chinese-Australian communities have vastly reduced opportunities to hear or express views that go against the party line, even inside a liberal democracy.

“A significant part of the political interference in democracies by modern authoritarian states relies on forms of camouflage through which actors in the democracies don’t really understand who they are dealing with,” says Christopher Walker, co-author of the National Endowment for Democracy’s 2017 report on authoritarian influence. “Shining sunlight and helping relevant audiences understand the role of nominally autonomous figures and organizations — scholars, think tanks, educational groups — from China, as well as Russia and other such settings, is terribly important in the present environment.”

Rubio’s letter is aimed at shining some sunlight on Wang’s affiliation. The Wilson Center is congressionally mandated, receiving a portion of its funding from Congress.

United Front-linked organizations such as the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification, which aims to garner support for Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan, have long operated inside the United States with little public scrutiny. The controversy in Australia has kindled a nascent discussion inside U.S government agencies and among lawmakers and analysts about United Front activities on U.S. soil.

“Ultimately I think this is an extremely telling and important issue. But we need to scrutinize our scrutiny as well,” Daly says, adding that countries tend to overstate the level of risk when they feel threatened. “This is what think tanks are supposed to do.”

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr