China’s Influence Operations Are Pinpointing America’s Weaknesses

From Iowa to Louisiana, Beijing has mapped out the pressure points of U.S. politics.

Then Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (L) talks with Rick Kimberley as they sit in the cab of a tractor while touring his family farm on February 16, 2012 in Maxwell, Iowa. 
     (Charlie Neibergall/AFP/Getty Images)
Then Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (L) talks with Rick Kimberley as they sit in the cab of a tractor while touring his family farm on February 16, 2012 in Maxwell, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AFP/Getty Images)

On the margins of the 2018 United Nations General Assembly, U.S. President Donald Trump issued an explosive claim, alleging that China was engaging in a campaign to influence the outcome of U.S. elections as retribution for his prosecution of the trade war.

Although the Trump administration has yet to provide specific information to back up these accusations, Beijing’s aggressive overseas influence campaigns are well known among China watchers. Following recent scandals in Australia, Cambodia, and New Zealand, and growing reports of interference efforts in the United States, there is a strong set of circumstantial evidence giving credence to the president’s claims. However, circumstantial evidence is not enough. The American public needs a thorough and honest accounting of the scope and nature of China’s current influence operations—especially as they relate to the 2018 midterm elections.

Under President Xi Jinping’s leadership, the United Front—the Chinese Communist Party’s primary tool for shaping public influence—has become an increasingly important component of China’s toolkit. Relying on deceptive elements, such as masking organizations’ connections to the official Communist apparatus, the United Front perpetrates targeted, low-intensity information operations designed to shape influential individuals’ perceptions of the CCP’s goals and objectives. With a dual domestic and foreign mandate, the United Front supports civil society entities, such as the China Overseas Friendship Association, to increase the international profile of some of the CCP’s most pernicious goals.

The United Front is placing a renewed emphasis on special initiatives designed to co-opt and potentially subvert ethnic Chinese individuals who are citizens of other nations. In countries such as Australia and Singapore, these initiatives have sparked internal debates about the dangers associated with racial profiling. In the United States, this co-opting through initiatives such as the Thousand Talents Program is resulting in powerful business implications, including the loss of key intellectual property, for some of the country’s leading corporate giants. In all cases, it is clear that the CCP’s view of ethnic Chinese citizens as extensions of their own apparatus fragments democratic, multicultural societies in a way beneficial to the party.

China’s state-owned media outlets, such as Xinhua and China Global Television Network, also shape foreign perceptions of the country by generating tailored pro-CCP content designed to appear as unbiased news. The spark behind Trump’s ire—a paid insert in a U.S. newspaper, the Des Moines Register—was published by China Daily, a Chinese state-affiliated newspaper. The decision to target Iowa was not a coincidence. Iowa is U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad’s home state, it frequently swings between Republicans and Democrats, and its residents are highly sensitive to fluctuation in agricultural prices.

Although the China Daily also runs paid advertisements in major U.S. newspapers such as the Washington Post, the decision to place an ad in the Des Moines Register highlights the United Front’s interest in subnational outreach, a recurring theme in its activities. For example, China’s Belt and Road Initiative feted the state of Louisiana. State and local governments, understandably focused on creating positive economic outcomes for their citizens, are less likely to be attuned to the geopolitical implications of Chinese influence campaigns.

But China’s influence campaign is still very different from the type Americans are most familiar with: the directed, purposeful Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. In contrast to the Russian effort, which was designed to elevate a U.S. candidate whom the Kremlin perceived as more favorable to Russian interests, Chinese interference is played with the long game in mind. Their actions are highly targeted, diffuse, and scoped to sway individual Americans who the Chinese perceive have sufficient influence to shape U.S. policy. This is distinct from legal lobbying activities, which involve retaining registered, professional firms that publicly disclose their activities. Instead, United Front activities seek to shape the perceptions and incentive structures of powerful businesspeople and companies, enlisting them as advocates for China’s preferred positions through irregular means, such as bribery, information distortion, and coercion.

With influence operations focusing on policy, rather than elections, the CCP aims to buoy U.S. social perception of China. When the party’s puppet organizations do take more strident stances, they are driven by defending China’s “core interests,” such as the reunification of the Chinese mainland with Taiwan and the territorial integrity of Tibet and Xinjiang. Frequently, this behavior is not designed to persuade outsiders, but to boost the offending employees’ own career prospects and image within China.

What Russian and Chinese influence operations do have in common is that both seek to exploit America’s open system, which prides itself on its internal diversity, by swaying and supporting interest groups favorable to their governments’ positions. Using diversity of opinion and freedom of expression as a tool to heighten internal divisions, Russia and China’s actions represent not just an attack on the U.S. political system but an assault on the foundations of U.S. governing ideology.

But a wholesale equation of Chinese interference with Russian meddling runs the risk of injecting partisanship into the national conversation on China policy and limiting the United States’ ability to develop tailored solutions to the unique challenge posed by each country. Partisan depictions of election interference send the wrong message to U.S. voters, who deserve free and fair elections regardless of which political party they ascribe to. Any attack on the U.S. democratic system must be perceived on an attack on all Americans—not just the party being targeted.

America’s open and increasingly commodified information environment creates ideal conditions for Chinese influence operations. Just as China’s powerful propaganda apparatus has perfected the production and targeted dissemination of sophisticated messages within the borders of its Great Firewall, the accessible U.S. system is riddled with vulnerabilities that enable foreign adversaries—such as China—to manipulate and shape public perception.

In the coming weeks, the key question will be if China’s traditional retinue of political influence operations has expanded beyond its primary mandate to include a more robust effort to affect U.S. elections. Given that the American public remains shellshocked from Russia’s involvement in the 2016 U.S. election, it is important that American leaders describe Chinese influence activities, whether they are political or electoral in nature, with precision and accuracy.

In order to back up the president’s claims, the administration must move beyond opaque public critiques of China and publicly declassify and disclose critical details. For the immediate task of assessing China’s interference in next month’s U.S. midterm elections, the Trump administration should enlist the FBI to conduct a thorough and speedy investigation. The inquiry should specifically address political activities designed to sway the midterm elections in order to assess the degree to which the CCP’s influence operations have matured. Uncovered information should be expeditiously compiled into a public report. Portions that cannot be declassified due to legitimate concerns about the protection of intelligence sources and methods should be incorporated into a classified annex and made available to all members of Congress.

Without such a step, onlookers will be left with little other than the administration’s word to evaluate the president’s claims. Given Washington’s current partisan posturing and the widening trust deficit between the American public and the United States’ political leadership, without hard evidence, it is unlikely that Chinese political interference will receive the nonpartisan hearing it requires.

Rooting out Chinese political influence will be a difficult task, but the sooner the CCP knows that the United States’ election and intellectual integrity cannot be unduly influenced, the more expeditiously Washington can reset standards in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship. Absent this renewed approach, what was once America’s most treasured asset—freedom of speech and the open exchange of ideas—could become one of its greatest weaknesses.

Abigail Grace is a research associate with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at CNAS.

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