Report

Is China Really Meddling in U.S. Elections?

So far little evidence supports President Trump's claim.

U.S. President Donald Trump looks up as he sits beside Chinese President Xi Jinping during a tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing on November 8, 2017. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump looks up as he sits beside Chinese President Xi Jinping during a tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing on November 8, 2017. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

When U.S. President Donald Trump slapped steel tariffs on the European Union this spring, Brussels responded with what it hoped would be a politically painful set of retaliatory measures—tariffs targeting bourbon made in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s backyard and Harley-Davidson motorcycles from House Speaker Paul Ryan’s home state. It was a clear message to Trump’s two most powerful allies on Capitol Hill.

But at the time, no one in the Trump administration complained that the Europeans were meddling in the U.S. political process.

Yet when China responded to its own set of Trump tariffs by purchasing a China Daily insert in the Des Moines Register in Iowa that highlighted the mutual benefits of U.S.-China trade, a whole new front in the trade war opened up. Speaking before the United Nations Security Council last week, Trump accused the Chinese of attempting to undermine Republican candidates in the November elections.

“They do not want me or us to win, because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade,” Trump declared.

True, Iowa is a sensitive place in the U.S. political calculus; it is the first presidential caucus state and a key bellwether of Midwestern electoral trends at a time when Trump and the Republicans are fearful of losing the House of Representatives in next month’s midterm elections.

But the Beijing-funded China Daily has been buying inserts in local papers around the world for years. And there is little other evidence to back up Trump’s claims about Chinese election interference. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, merely shrugged at Trump’s accusation and said: “We do not and will not interfere in any countries’ domestic affairs.”

Nor did White House officials identify any specific Chinese activity that would rise to the level of election interference. In a statement to Foreign Policy, a spokesman for the National Security Council accused the Chinese government of “using all kinds of methods to try to get us to turn back our policies,” including by “targeting tariffs and retaliation at farmers and workers in states and districts that voted for President Trump.”

“Besides the unjustified trade retaliation, China is trying to exploit what they think are divisions between the Administration, state and local governments, and the U.S. business community, on our policies, which are targeting China for their decades of bad behavior,” the statement said.

Yet the NSC provided no details on the way in which the Chinese government allegedly tries to exploit those divisions. The CIA declined to comment.

The Trump administration appears divided on the issue. On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen contradicted her boss, batting down fears of Chinese meddling and saying there is “currently no indication that a foreign adversary intends to disrupt our election infrastructure.”

But a U.S. intelligence official familiar with the matter described Russia and China as among the most sophisticated actors that we’ve seen” carrying out influence operations. “We see China involved in influence operations around the globe.” The official added that American intelligence agencies are carrying out an assessment of whether Chinese operatives are targeting the U.S. election.

The China Daily inserts are only a small part of Chinas sophisticated propaganda operation, which includes newspapers and TV channels with a global reach. In recent weeks, the Justice Department pressured these outlets to register as foreign agents.

Administration officials have hinted that they will make public additional evidence this week to back up Trump’s claims. Vice President Mike Pence is set to deliver remarks on the issue Thursday, but White House officials on Monday declined to provide details on speech. A spokesman for Pence did not return multiple questions about the address. 

The controversy highlights an important issue: While Russia has been caught red-handed interfering directly in U.S. elections, China has not. Yet experts and researchers warn that Trump’s comments risk mischaracterizing the very real ways in which Beijing is seeking to suppress criticism and advance its policy interests through a variety of sophisticated means.

Unlike the slash-and-burn Russian campaign in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. election—which saw Kremlin operatives attempting to boost Trump by carrying out a coordinated campaign of hacking, leaking, and promoting divisive narratives online through the use of fictitious social media personas—China’s attempts to win influence and allies in the United States are far more subtle, relying to a greater extent on personal and business relationships. China also takes a more long-term view of securing influence than Russia apparently does.

This type of activity falls far short of what Trump described as “attempting to interfere” in an upcoming election. “This is political interference, not election interference,” said Abigail Grace, a research associate at the Center for New American Security think tank and a former National Security Council official. That distinction “may seem semantic but in today’s hyper-partisan environment … precision is something that we should demand,” Grace added.  

Plainly, Beijing is working to win friends and influence politics beyond its borders. To understand how the Chinese Communist Party seeks to do this abroad requires first understanding what has been known since the Mao Zedong era as “United Front work.” Broadly organized by the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party, these activities include support for overseas student groups, cultural associations, and influence operations.

“United Front work serves to promote Beijing’s preferred global narrative, pressure individuals living in free and open societies to self-censor and avoid discussing issues unfavorable to the CCP, and harass or undermine groups critical of Beijing’s policies,” according to a U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report from earlier this year.

“The whole point of United Front work is still as Mao described it—mobilizing friends to strike at your enemies,” said Peter Mattis, a research fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

Since taking control of the CCP in 2012, President Xi Jinping has repeatedly emphasized the importance of United Front work, funneling funding and cadres to the department. In 2017, Xi reportedly described United Front work as a “magic weapon for the victory of the party’s cause.”

These tools, such as funded trips for journalists to China, can appear fairly harmless on the surface, but they also involve mobilizing ethnic Chinese living abroad. In the past, this has led to racially based fears of a Chinese fifth column in the United States. Two decades ago, allegations that a Taiwanese-American scientist working at Los Alamos National Laboratory was stealing U.S. nuclear secrets exploded into a political scandal during the Clinton administration.

The allegations proved untrue, and while many Chinese operations inside the United States do target scientific and technological knowhow, analysts warn that U.S. responses need to avoid characterizing all ethnic Chinese as potential CCP collaborators.

In the United States, the United Front’s best-documented work is on university campuses. When Xi visited Washington, D.C., in 2015, and hundreds of Chinese students lined up to give him a flag-waving welcome, what appeared to be a spontaneous rally was in fact carefully orchestrated by the Chinese Embassy in Washington. Through the United Front, the embassy recruited local Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) to deliver people to line up for the CCP leader. The students were paid about $20 for their trouble.

CSSAs appear to be coming under increasing ideological pressure from local Chinese consulates, which have encouraged chapter heads to post articles promoting CCP talking points and study the pronouncements of party leaders. Chinese consulates provide financial support to some CSSAs and in some cases have the power to approve chapter officers.

U.S. intelligence officials warn that the Chinese emphasis on securing influence on U.S. campuses also may be used to acquire scientific and technological information. FBI Director Chris Wray warned lawmakers earlier this year that Chinese operatives—what he described as “nontraditional collectors”—are taking advantage of naiveté among American academics.

“They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere,” Wray said.

On at least one occasion in recent years, Chinese influence activities overseas have crossed over into outright election meddling, but far from the United States. Last year, a man with links to Chinese Communist Party officials shared a letter online encouraging ethnic Chinese voters in Australia to vote against the ruling Liberal Party in a by-election.

“For the interests of Chinese people, let us mobilise, share this message and use the ballots in the hands of we Chinese to take down this far-right Liberal Party ruling party,” argued the letter, which was signed by “a group of Chinese who call Australia home.”

The letter was shared on WeChat, the Chinese messaging application, by Yan Zehua, an Australian citizen with links to the United Front Work Department.

Alex Joske, one of the journalists who exposed Yan, said the operation represents a fairly typical example of United Front work in that it attempted to mobilize ethnic Chinese abroad to advance Beijing’s goals.

There is also evidence that China is using its considerable cadres of computer hackers to carry out political influence elsewhere around the world this year. Earlier this year, the U.S. cybersecurity firm FireEye revealed that it had detected evidence that Chinese hackers penetrated the computer systems of Cambodia’s election system. The company did not find evidence of vote tampering, but the attack on election infrastructure represents a novel development in Chinese hacking activity, which in the United States has mostly been limited to intellectual property theft.

Though the evidence remains far from clear-cut, the Chinese government may have dabbled in trying to influence a U.S. election at least once. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration was rocked by allegations that it had accepted campaign donations from non-U.S. nationals, a violation of U.S. law.

A subsequent Senate report “uncovered strong circumstantial evidence that the Government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was involved in funding, directing, or encouraging some of these foreign contributions.”

Senate investigators could never get to the bottom of the Chinese government’s role, but the report’s examination of the issue observed that “there are indications that Chinese efforts in connection with the 1996 elections were undertaken or orchestrated, at least in part, by PRC intelligence agencies.”

That experience likely served as a wake-up call for Chinese officials—“They didn’t know how to play at the varsity level,” Mattis said—and if Beijing decides to interfere in a U.S. election, expect a more subtle approach the second time around.

Indeed, as the atmosphere between the two countries grows worse, Trump’s accusations of meddling by China—which seem thinly based now—could become reality.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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