Washington is waking up to the huge scope and scale of Chinese Communist Party influence operations inside the United States, which permeate American institutions of all kinds. China’s overriding goal is, at the least, to defend its authoritarian system from attack and at most to export it to the world at America’s expense.
The foreign influence campaign is part and parcel of China’s larger campaign for global power, which includes military expansion, foreign direct investment, resource hoarding, and influencing international rules and norms. But this part of China’s game plan is the most opaque and least understood. Beijing’s strategy is first to cut off critical discussion of China’s government, then to co-opt American influencers in order to promote China’s narrative.
Countries such as Australia, New Zealand and even Canada have been rocked by recent revelations of Chinese-sponsored efforts to corrupt their politicians, universities, think tanks and businesses. U.S. political and thought leaders are just beginning to understand the problem and come together to devise responses.
“We have a lot of discussion of Russian interference in our elections, but the Chinese efforts to influence our public policy and our basic freedoms are much more widespread than most people realize,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., co-chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China(CECC). “This is an all-out effort to not simply promote themselves in a better light but to target Americans within the United States.”
On Wednesday, the CECC will hold a hearing onthe “Long Arm of China” to expose Chinese efforts to gain political influence, control discussion of sensitive topics, interfere in multilateral institutions, threaten and intimidate human rights defenders, impose censorship on foreign publishers and influence academic institutions.
Rubio pointed to Chinese government-sponsored Confucius Institutes on U.S. university campuses that operate under opaque contracts and often stand accused of interfering in China-related education activities. China’s sponsorship of think tank research, academic chairs and intellectual partnerships also demand scrutiny, he said.
A recent report by Foreign Policy detailed how former Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa has spent money through his China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), funding research at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, the Brookings Institution and elsewhere.
CUSEF denies pushing Chinese government ideology, but its connections are clear. Tung is vice chairman of a body called the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which is connected to the United Front Work Department, the Communist Party agency designed to advance party objectives with outside actors.
Recipients of these funds routinely insist their academic independence is intact. But as China exploits these institutions’ need for cash, examples of self-censorship mount. Researchers understand that their access to China depends on not ruffling feathers. Publishers agree to erase critical articles from journals to gain access to the Chinese market.
By influencing the influencers, China gets Americans to carry its message to other Americans. That’s much more effective than having Chinese officials deliver those messages, said Glenn Tiffert, visiting fellow at the Hudson Institution.
“There needs to be a recognition in Washington to the extent U.S. institutions are turning to the Chinese for money,” he said. “People are starting to ask, to what extent does the person who pays the piper get to call the tune?”
There are other budding efforts to increase awareness of Chinese foreign influence activities. The National Endowment for Democracy issued a report last week called “Sharp Power,” which tracked authoritarian influence from China and Russia in several developing countries.
The general push is for U.S. institutions to join together to set standards and best practices for dealing with Chinese government-linked entities and when taking Chinese money. By pooling information and resources, universities may be able to resist Chinese pressures and advocate for academic integrity.
Still, a huge gap remains between China’s efforts and America’s response. Beijing is emboldened by perceived weaknesses in the democratic world and the Trump administration’s retreat from promotion of U.S. values.
While the Chinese Communist Party historically dedicated itself to defending its domestic repression and strict social controls, Beijing under Xi Jinping is increasingly promoting that system as a model for development abroad while working to define global governance to cement Chinese practices.
“We need to recognize there really is a struggle over both ideology and values going on,” said Andrew Nathan of Columbia University. “We won the Cold War, but history didn’t end.”
All countries seek influence abroad, pursue soft power and spread propaganda. But the Chinese combination of technology, coercion, pressure, exclusion and economic incentives is beyond anything this country has faced before. The sooner the United States acknowledges that reality, the better chance we have of responding.
Josh Rogin is a Washington Post columnist.