Argument

Russia Is 4chan, China Is Facebook

Mike Pence’s equation of Beijing’s influence with Moscow’s hacking was misleading and dangerous

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence addresses the Hudson Institute in Washington on the administration's policy toward China on Oct. 4. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence addresses the Hudson Institute in Washington on the administration's policy toward China on Oct. 4. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s speech on China last week was the proverbial curate’s egg: excellent in parts but spoiled by its rotten segments. It laid out the global challenge presented by an increasingly aggressive, totalitarian, and reactionary Chinese state under Xi Jinping.

But it also contained dangerous exaggerations—for instance, Orwellian as China’s surveillance dreams might be, there’s no plan for a unified point-scoring system for citizens. China’s TV network only technically “reaches more than 75 million Americans” in the sense that they could watch it if they chose as part of their cable package; barely any of them actually do.

The most worrying part of the speech was Pence’s attempts to claim that China is interfering in U.S. elections, and his equation of the Chinese threat with the Russian one. As so often happens, Pence was playing to an audience of one—a man desperate for any distraction from his own problems with Moscow. President Donald Trump, after all, had already made the absurd claim that it was China, not Russia, who hacked the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016.

There has been virtually no evidence of Chinese electoral interference in the United States, and Pence presented nothing new. Appealing to local U.S. interests and voting blocs is neither covert nor illegitimate; it’s simple lobbying of the kind carried out by numerous countries, including U.S. allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. An insert in the Des Moines Register might be tactless, but it’s not sinister—nor particularly effective.

Nor, as Pence claimed, does China want “a different American president.” As best they can be divined, China’s feelings on Trump are mixed. While the trade war has brought up some harsh language, he was feted on his visit to Beijing last year, and the state media has been considerably less vitriolic about him than either former President Barack Obama or the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency. That whole section of Pence’s speech seemed designed to create a false equivalence between Russian and Chinese interference.

That ties into the Republican Party’s continued reluctance to take Russian electoral interference seriously—at least, as long as it helps them. That hasn’t infected all of the party; Republican representatives have helped ensure further sanctions on Moscow despite White House reluctance.

But nor is it limited to just Trump, who openly called for his political enemies to be hacked and whose own contacts with Russia during the election remain uncertain. It was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, after all, who threatened to accuse then-President Obama of partisanship if he raised the issue during the electoral cycle, leaving the United States vulnerable as a result. If an imaginary Chinese bogeyman becomes a way to deflect attention from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aid to Trump’s campaign, it will both damage efforts to defend against Russia and make it harder to take the real dangers posed by Beijing seriously.

There’s been no equivalent Democratic complicity with China. But there has been a worrying Democratic failure to speak up on the people’s republic over the last 20 years. Because the policy of engagement with Beijing, especially on trade, really came into its own under Democratic President Bill Clinton, the party pulled back from human rights issues and underestimated the security challenges ahead. Clinton’s speeches pushing Chinese accession to the World Trade Organization talked of an inevitable opening up, an end to big government, and the freedoms brought by the internet. (Hillary Clinton, in contrast, consistently spoke up for Chinese women’s rights, resulting in a particular animus for her from Beijing.) Especially after the last few years under the sharply regressive Xi regime, that now seems like a hopelessly naive perspective.

Human rights in China is an issue on which the Democratic Party should be a natural leader, from the repression of Muslims in Xinjiang to the attempts to assert state supremacy over women’s reproductive rights. But the best-informed, most active figure on China in the Senate, by far, is Republican Marco Rubio, followed by Republican Ted Cruz. Democrats need to be filling that gap.

Beyond the partisan issues, though, there’s a deeper danger in equating Russia and China. Think of it in these terms: Russia is 4chan, and China is Facebook. If you’re not familiar with 4chan, imagine the worst losers you knew in high school—not the nice, dopey stoners, but the rat-faced scumbags trying to take upskirt pictures—and then imagine them encouraging each other to be even worse people online. Like 4chan, Russia is all about chaos, mixed with a hearty dose of anti-Semitism and homophobia.

Russia’s essential goal is to disrupt, harass, and sow discord among alliances through whatever means it has handy—often without thought for the bigger picture. It’s most comfortable on the offensive, whether that’s the Democratic National Committee hack, the invasion of Ukraine, or the cyberattack on Estonia. As the former security chief of a major cloud company put it privately, “Russians are the ultimate shitlords. They’re all tactics—China is all strategy.” Russian operations have been highly effective at using existing divisions for leverage—but they’ve also wrecked the country’s image and left it struggling with sanctions and international opprobrium.

China, on the other hand, is Facebook. It doesn’t want to throw things into disorder; it wants to set the norms of how the world behaves—and of what everyone sees and reads online. (The two also share a disturbing enthusiasm for facial recognition technology and accumulating everybody’s data.) Chinese goals are clear, long-term, and achieved not through, for the most part, through dramatic techniques but through the allure of money and power. They include, for instance, forcing the derecognition and exclusion of democratic Taiwan, asserting control over the Chinese diaspora worldwide, shutting out foreign influence of any kind in the mainland, and preventing international organizations from criticizing Beijing’s worsening human rights record.

But just as the world needs Facebook in order to keep in touch with relatives and share baby pictures, it also needs China. Finding a balance between giving 1.4 billion people the representation they deserve in global affairs and countering their government’s attempt to restrict the freedoms of others will be hard. As Bloomberg columnist Adam Minter recently pointed out following the sudden disappearance of Interpol chief Meng Hongwei, it’ll get even harder as China’s domestic terrorism sabotages its own efforts.

Russian operations are often purely spiteful, but China’s are harder to handle exactly because they mix coercion with a legitimate effort to establish its voice in world affairs—and with the financial muscle that’s meeting gaps the West has failed to fill.

Developing countries need loans, and China’s Belt and Road Initiative provides them, even as it also gives Beijing a worrying hold over vulnerable countries. Students need to learn Chinese, and the U.S. government isn’t footing the bill, so the Chinese government gets a foothold in campuses through the Confucius Institutes. Chinese students in the United States, often exploited as cash cows and neglected by their universities, need a collective voice, and China funds their student organizations even as it wields them in astroturfed protests.

Dealing with China’s global efforts will require intelligence, patience, and concerted effort from democratic leaders from Washington to Kuala Lumpur. Allowing it to become a partisan U.S. issue, or ignoring the genuine needs that drive states and institutions to accept Beijing’s bargains, will fatally hamstring what should be a unifying cause.

James Palmer is a senior editor at Foreign Policy@BeijingPalmer

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