U.S. Lawmakers Target Chinese Interference in New Bill

Bipartisan legislation would require an unclassified report on Chinese political influence operations in the United States.

Chinese people visit a national flag show at Chaoyang park on Sep. 30, 2006 in Beijing. (China Photos/Getty Images)
Chinese people visit a national flag show at Chaoyang park on Sep. 30, 2006 in Beijing. (China Photos/Getty Images)

A bipartisan group of six U.S. House members, led by New Jersey Republican Rep. Chris Smith, is putting forward a bill today that targets foreign meddling in political and other institutions of the United States — not by Russia, but by China.

The bill, “Countering the Chinese Government and Communist Party’s Political Influence Operations Act,” would require officials from across government agencies to investigate the issue and submit an unclassified report. It includes several policy statements aimed at defining the problem and the U.S. government’s position.

The proposed legislation follows reports of Chinese government meddling on the campuses of U.S. universities and intimidation of Chinese students. In Australia and Canada, intelligence agencies have uncovered efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to sway internal politics.

Smith, who co-chairs the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said in a statement that the United States needs to better understand the “malign goals of China’s political influence operations” but also to distinguish them from the “cultural, educational, and people-to-people exchanges which benefit both the American and Chinese people.”

We also need to make sure that Chinese-Americans and visiting Chinese students know that coercion and threats emanating from Beijing are an unacceptable intrusion of their civil liberties and will not be tolerated,” Smith said. 

“We cannot lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with civil liberties challenges, not just national security challenges,” said Samantha Hoffman, a researcher at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.

The Chinese Embassy did not respond to a request for comment.

Since he assumed office in late 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has placed greater emphasis on the overseas activities of the United Front Work Department, one of China’s covert political influence agencies.

Attempts to raise awareness and combat party influence operations have brought up fears of racism among overseas Chinese communities. Both Australia and the United States have a history of anti-Asian policies, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act passed by U.S. Congress in 1882 and later the Japanese internment camps in the American West during World War II.

The bill attempts to address such concerns by drawing a distinction between the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese people themselves.

“Over the past decade Beijing has increasingly sought influence beyond its borders, through institutions and individuals, and largely to the detriment of human rights,” said Sophie Richardson, the China program director at Human Rights Watch.

“Clarity on the Chinese government’s and Chinese Communist Party’s activities and goals in the U.S. is long overdue,” she said.


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

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