During and following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the public was heavily focused on the possible effects of Russian state interference in the outcome. But that narrative has overshadowed the existence of China’s operations — many of them years in the making — to exert influence not just in U.S. elections, but across the broader political and social realms of American life.
Heading into the 2018 midterms, Beijing’s propaganda outlets have targeted Washington’s tough trade policies and the Trump administration, which are putting pressure on China’s export-oriented economic growth.
Officials working in the intelligence communities say that China is using sensitive issues such as tariffs to sow division among federal and state officials, while directing covert actors and front groups to alter public perceptions of U.S. policy on China.
Playing the long game
In late September, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-run China Daily ran a four-page insert in the Des Moines Register. One of the articles included in the advertorial attempted to convince locals that Trump’s tariffs on China were damaging Iowa’s soybean industry.
Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary of Homeland Security, said that the Communist Party is “playing a long game” in order to “influence American opinion,” when she was asked a question about election integrity at an Oct. 10 Senate hearing.
In a stern speech given at the Hudson Institute in Washington on Oct. 4, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence cited the “unprecendented” means China’s communist authorities have been using to achieve their aims. He noted that one CCP propaganda instruction tells its audience to “strike accurately and carefully, splitting apart different domestic groups” in the United States.
While Nielsen said that “voting machines and election infrastructure appear to be safe from China” for the time being, Pence noted in his speech that the state-controlled China Global Television Network reached more than 75 million Americans. Meanwhile, 80 percent of U.S. counties targeted by overseas Chinese propaganda outlets had voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
Also on Oct. 10, FBI director Christopher Wray told a Senate committee that China “represents the broadest, most complicated, most long-term intelligence threat we face.”
According to Wray, the threat of Chinese subversion far eclipses meddling by Russian agents. In a post-election review, Facebook found that only about 3,000 ads worth a total of about $100,000 “likely originated out of Russia” between 2015 and 2017.
“Russia is, in many ways, fighting to stay relevant after the fall of the Soviet Union,” Wray said. “They are fighting today’s fight. China is fighting tomorrow’s fight.”
Scholars, think tanks, and journalists have long warned about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) using its soft power throughout the United States and other countries to entice business, co-opt academics, sway politicians, and whitewash its grievous human rights abuses and other misconduct while silencing or marginalizing critics.
In an article published by SinoInsider, a New York-based think tank that specializes in Chinese politics and Sino-U.S. relations, the authors described China’s efforts as the creation and maintenance of a “Red Matrix,” referring to the virtual reality presented in the Matrix trilogy of films.
The article noted that during the Cold War, the Soviet communist bloc set up the Iron Curtain to shut out influences from the Western democracies, while “the CCP’s Red Matrix works to ‘plug in’ the world to a view of China that it controls.” This, according to the article, has hampered “recent efforts by countries to expose and counter CCP influence and interference.”
An analysis by investigative reporter Joshua Phillip of The Epoch Times laid out how the Chinese regime has been working at all levels to “subvert” U.S. society and administration using the doctrine of the “Three Warfares” — psychological warfare, legal warfare, and media warfare.
The Three Warfares first appeared in CCP documents in 1963, according to War on the Rocks, a website that deals with military affairs. In a 2013 report, the Project 2049 Institute stated: “Political warfare is a critical component of Chinese security strategy and foreign policy.”
For example, Phillip wrote that Chinese consular officials “engage in direct pressure on U.S. politicians, and The Epoch Times has documented cases in which U.S. representatives have received calls from the CCP, which attempts to pressure them over their stances on the Chinese regime’s human-rights abuses.”
In exchange for access to the huge Chinese market, Hollywood filmmakers are required to cut content the CCP deems sensitive, or are being forced to enter joint productions with Chinese companies. Even films produced for non-Chinese audiences are tailored to suit Beijing’s political tastes.
“This is serious when you consider how much of the U.S. film industry either is directly owned by Chinese companies, such as through the Dalian Wanda Group, or has agreed to work with the CCP,” Phillip wrote.
With the growing number of Chinese international students studying in the United States, the CCP has also spread its influence throughout higher education and the academic community.
Chinese Student and Scholar Associations (CSSAs), prevalent across American campuses, are linked to the CCP’s consular officials and put pressure on Chinese students to self-censor despite being on U.S. soil. Meanwhile, many colleges have accepted Party-funded Confucius Institutes, which spread the CCP’s narratives on Chinese culture and history while suppressing views that run counter to Beijing’s line.
Foreign scholars who hope to conduct research in China must avoid hot-button topics, such as the CCP’s persecutions of Tibetan Buddhists, Uyghurs, or the Falun Gong spiritual practice — effectively spreading the Party’s censorship to Western academia.
And CCP-funded inserts like the one that appeared in the Des Moines Register have also been run in prominent American newspapers.
“The paid inserts have in the past defended the CCP’s often brutal human-rights violations and excused its crackdowns on religious liberty. Sometimes, the paid inserts correspond with broader pushes. This has included paid inserts in The New York Times and other outlets, alongside paid broadcasts from CCP state-run media in Times Square to defend the CCP’s military push into the South China Sea,” Phillip wrote.
“They are trying to influence us in every way possible,” said Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security secretary.
Since his campaign for the presidency in 2015, President Donald Trump has condemned the CCP for its illicit trade practices, including the theft of trillions of dollars’ worth of American intellectual property.
More recently, with the U.S. government’s imposition of heavy punitive tariffs that began this spring, the Trump administration has begun taking China to task on its subversive activity.
“I don’t like it when they attack our farmers, and I don’t like it when they put out false messages,” Trump told reporters on Sept. 26 at the UN. “But, besides that, we learned that they are trying to meddle in our elections. And we’re not going to let that happen, just as we’re not going to let that happen with Russia.”