Chinese Election Meddling Hits the Midterms

Beijing-linked cyberactors seek to sow divisions, discourage Americans from voting, and discredit the election process.

By , a senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
A woman walks past election signs ahead of the U.S. midterm elections in Silver Spring, Maryland, on Oct. 28.
A woman walks past election signs ahead of the U.S. midterm elections in Silver Spring, Maryland, on Oct. 28.
A woman walks past election signs ahead of the U.S. midterm elections in Silver Spring, Maryland, on Oct. 28. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Having consolidated his hold on power at the Chinese Communist Party’s recently concluded 20th National Congress, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has now set his sights on influencing the U.S. midterm elections. China’s latest efforts to sow doubt about U.S. election integrity are consistent with Xi’s stated goal of championing China’s autocratic model as a “new choice for humanity.” The threat of Chinese interference in democratic elections demands immediate action by policymakers in Washington and other Western capitals.

As early voting across the United States kicked into high gear this fall, so, too, did the activities of Chinese government-affiliated cyberactors seeking to discourage Americans from voting, discredit the election process, and sow further divisions among voters.

In one social media campaign uncovered by U.S. cybersecurity firm Mandiant, a Chinese hacker group with the code name Dragonbridge posted English-language videos across social media, blogs, and other platforms questioning the efficacy of voting and highlighting “civil war” as a possible way to “root out” the United States’ “ineffective and incapacitated” system. These posts also suggested attacks against law enforcement and other forms of political violence. Separately, Twitter announced in late October that it had disrupted several China-based operations on its platform. Those campaigns involved 2,000 user accounts and more than 250,000 tweets containing false election-rigging claims about the 2020 U.S. presidential election and hate speech against the transgender community.

Having consolidated his hold on power at the Chinese Communist Party’s recently concluded 20th National Congress, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has now set his sights on influencing the U.S. midterm elections. China’s latest efforts to sow doubt about U.S. election integrity are consistent with Xi’s stated goal of championing China’s autocratic model as a “new choice for humanity.” The threat of Chinese interference in democratic elections demands immediate action by policymakers in Washington and other Western capitals.

As early voting across the United States kicked into high gear this fall, so, too, did the activities of Chinese government-affiliated cyberactors seeking to discourage Americans from voting, discredit the election process, and sow further divisions among voters.

In one social media campaign uncovered by U.S. cybersecurity firm Mandiant, a Chinese hacker group with the code name Dragonbridge posted English-language videos across social media, blogs, and other platforms questioning the efficacy of voting and highlighting “civil war” as a possible way to “root out” the United States’ “ineffective and incapacitated” system. These posts also suggested attacks against law enforcement and other forms of political violence. Separately, Twitter announced in late October that it had disrupted several China-based operations on its platform. Those campaigns involved 2,000 user accounts and more than 250,000 tweets containing false election-rigging claims about the 2020 U.S. presidential election and hate speech against the transgender community.

Similarly, cybersecurity company Recorded Future identified another Chinese state-sponsored social media campaign aimed at dividing U.S. voters, this time by manipulating voter sentiments around divisive themes like racial injustice, police brutality, and U.S. military assistance to Ukraine. Likewise, in September, Facebook and Instagram parent company Meta uncovered fake accounts originating in China that targeted voters on both sides of the political aisle. While some of these fake accounts portrayed U.S. President Joe Biden as corrupt, others castigated the Republican Party and, in particular, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio for their stances on abortion access and gun rights.

For its part, the FBI warned that Chinese government hackers were actively scanning the two parties’ various internet domains, looking for vulnerable systems as a potential precursor to hacking operations. Such probing is broadly consistent with the intelligence community’s 2020 assessment about China’s interest in acquiring information on “US voters and public opinion; political parties, candidates and their staffs; and senior government officials.”

Above all, policymakers must make clear to Beijing that election meddling will not go unpunished.

These and other election-shaping operations are not occurring in a vacuum, nor are they amateurish one-offs that can be ignored. Indeed, they reflect Xi’s growing emphasis on what the Chinese call “discourse power”: Beijing’s drive to alter global narratives about Chinese autocracy and Western democracy by comparing, contrasting, and consistently misrepresenting the two competing visions in ways that are advantageous to China.

In its most extreme form, which China’s People’s Liberation Army calls “cognitive domain operations,” discourse power seeks to influence individual and group behaviors to favor China’s tactical or strategic objectives. China’s ultimate goal: to undermine an adversary nation’s collective will to resist Beijing’s intentions. This can be done by sowing social division, undermining faith in public institutions, introducing conflicting social narratives, and even radicalizing specific groups within a population. All these themes featured prominently in China’s recent cyberoperations.

To achieve discourse victory, China has restructured its party-state to support the integrated employment, across peace and wartime, of public opinion, legal, and psychological warfare. Beyond simply aiding in the formulation and execution of China’s political warfare strategy, China’s decision to centralize command and control enables the party to more effectively direct the nearly $10 billion it spends annually on foreign interference. Central to the strategy, according to Lu Wei, the former head of the Cyberspace Administration of China, is to “occupy emerging public opinion spaces,” especially social media and other internet platforms, to propagate messaging about democracy’s failings and autocracy’s ostensible benefits.

If the principal target of these political warfare operations is the United States, Washington is hardly alone. Hours after former British Prime Minister Liz Truss announced her surprise resignation, the Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times claimed Britain’s political upheaval demonstrated that Western democracy “cannot solve new problems.” This specious framing mirrors Beijing’s portrayal of the West’s pandemic response as “chaotic,” whereas China claimed its superior governance model, consisting of mass surveillance and lockdowns, achieved a “strategic victory” over COVID-19. These themes were later broadcast on Chinese and foreign platforms around the world, leading to a marked increase in favorable views—most notably in the global south—about China’s global stewardship.

As for the U.S. midterms, Beijing’s meddling is unlikely to cease on Election Day. In fact, just the opposite. After polls close, malicious cyberactors and Chinese state-backed media will almost certainly amplify claims about voting irregularities and contested election outcomes. These operations will not be limited to any one political party or geography. Their goals will be the same: to undermine democracy’s credibility and exploit cultural cleavages inherent in all pluralistic, nontotalitarian societies.

Identifying these social media campaigns may very well be straightforward, in large part due to contributions by technology firms headquartered in the free world. But undoing the long-term damage to U.S. institutions will be much harder. Even worse, China will almost certainly seek to employ this same playbook in other countries in the coming years.

That’s why policymakers in Washington and other democratic capitals must prioritize whole-society counteroffensives to respond to and ultimately neutralize China’s political warfare operations. That will require hardening democratic institutions, including modernizing campaign finance, strengthening counterinterference, and tightening espionage laws to increase transparency and disclosure requirements for individuals and entities that may be acting on China’s behalf, as well as toughening enforcement and sanctions to deter potential violators. Additional work must also be done to equip government officials, journalists, political parties, companies, civil organizations, and the general public with the information needed to reduce their exposure to China’s malign discourse. And that’s just for starters.

Above all, policymakers must make clear to Beijing that election meddling will not go unpunished. Upcoming meetings between democratic leaders and Xi at the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, are as good a place to deliver that message as any.

Craig Singleton is a senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former U.S. diplomat. Twitter: @CraigMSingleton

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