Argument

Beijing Has Learned How to Play U.S. Politics

China is listening to Trump’s phone, but what can it do with that information?

Hostesses laugh as they look at photos on their phones during the National People’s Congress at the the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
(Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)
Hostesses laugh as they look at photos on their phones during the National People’s Congress at the the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

A recent New York Times report alleged that Chinese and Russian intelligence agencies regularly monitor U.S. President Donald Trump’s calls on insecure mobile devices. According to the report, China has been using the information gleaned from Trump’s conversations to attempt to influence his approach to the trade war through figures such as U.S. billionaire Stephen Schwartzman, with whom the president talks regularly.

Beijing has denied the report, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying suggesting that if the president wanted security, he should switch to China’s Huawei brand instead of the iPhone. Foreign Policy talked to Peter Mattis, an expert on Chinese influence programs, research fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, and former China analyst at the CIA, on just what Beijing might be looking for in the president’s calls.

Foreign Policy: Which agency would be listening into Trump’s calls?

Peter Mattis: The most likely agency is the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s civilian intelligence and security service. Although the People’s Liberation Army’s signals intelligence capability has attracted notoriety, China’s most sophisticated technical skills probably reside in the MSS. We do not know how well or how routinely intelligence is shared across agencies—rather than forwarded to the top leaders—but if the MSS is the culprit, then it would be bureaucratically and operationally smoother to use the intelligence to support cultivating channels of influence.

FP: The Times report stated that China was targeting individuals close to Trump in order to influence his actions. How sophisticated an understanding does China have of U.S. politics and of the networks of influence around the president?

PM: I am not sure the PRC government necessarily understands the politics within and between the political parties, the relationship between branches, or the differences between the federal government and the states. But they do understand process and bureaucracy. For example, as part of the Chinese discussion of a “New Type of Great Power Relations,” officials like Ambassador Cui Tiankai emphasized the growing number of channels and dialogues between China and the United States. Beijing understood that by crowding the schedule, there would never be a good time for Washington to sell weapons to Taiwan, host the Dalai Lama, take action on human rights, or anything else that might cause the PRC to cancel these meetings. I think the PRC government understands American process better than politics.

But the Chinese Communist Party understands influence and how to wield it. The foundation for influence is “social affairs work,” which is a Communist Party idea dating back to the 1920s or 1930s. Intelligence work is like the hard core of information work, handled primarily by professionals. Move out to “united front” work—which might aptly be described as political mobilization—and it is handled by professionals but also by the broader CCP.

Ostensibly, united front work is the work of the whole party—every party cadre at every level all the time—but that is not really true in practice. Social affairs work—the collection of information on anyone who might be useful for generating political influence and power—actually is. We know this system works, because everyone who has dealt with the Chinese government has some experience in seeing a well-prepared PRC side that seems to have knowledge of personal information about their interlocutors.

The New York Times report suggests the application of the time-tested methodology: How do we understand the social networks around the president, and how do we reach into them? Even if the party did not have a 90-year history of social affairs work, thinking about influencing the U.S. system in this way probably would have occurred to them after the Clinton campaign finance scandal in 1996.

We can laugh off the attempt now, because Beijing had little idea how to influence U.S. politics on that kind of national stage. Those who fooled around with direct donations faced jail time and fines or had their money returned. By contrast, one well-heeled donor received White House approval to go ahead with another of his company’s rocket launches in China, despite an active investigation that later confirmed the company had provided illegal, export-controlled defense services to China. The mix of commercial interests in China and political connection in the United States proved a useful channel for influence, if not outright interference, for Beijing’s benefit.

FP: What about the possibility of more active measures like taking over Trump’s Twitter account?

PM: I would not be surprised if it was tossed around at the working level as something that could be done. The political sensitivity of doing something like that would suggest it would only be done with approval from the highest level. I would say we underestimate the MSS and the PLA’s Strategic Support Force if we believe they thought about it. There would be no reason do something like this, other than to cause chaos, and causing chaos is outside their normal approach to covert influence. But in a crisis spiraling out of control or shots fired, such efforts cannot be discounted as a possibility.

FP: Do Chinese leaders take greater precautions over their security than the U.S. president does?

PM: I suspect so. If you go back into old party history, it becomes pretty apparent that people were not willing to talk openly inside Zhongnanhai, the former imperial palace where the Chinese leadership lives and works, for fear of being overheard or taped by political enemies. One of the signs that such practices continue is the development of China’s private technical surveillance counter-measures industry—sweeping for hidden audio and video recording equipment. One of the drivers of its rapid growth was actually government officials worried that their own apartments and offices were being spied upon by their political rivals.

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