On Jan. 14, a Chinese woman addressed her husband in a YouTube video. In the less-than-two-minute clip, Li Huaiping explains that she hasn’t contacted her husband since September because of “relationship issues” and asks him to stop writing her.
Li Huaiping’s video is hardly a marital spat gone viral. It might be part of an operation conducted by Chinese authorities to mute criticism of China across the world. While Russian meddling in the U.S. political system gets the lion’s share of the attention in the United States, China’s transnational operation to suppress free speech and influence international public opinion is equally significant, extending to Chinese American communities as well as to the mainstream U.S. media.
Li’s husband is Chen Xiaoping, an American citizen and the editor in chief of Huopai Mirror Media, a Chinese-language media outlet based in Great Neck, Long Island. Starting in January 2017, Chen began interviewing Chinese dissident billionaire Guo Wengui and airing his reports on Huopai’s YouTube channel. On Sept. 18, just hours before Chen was set to interview Guo for the sixth time in New York City, Chinese authorities grabbed his wife in Guangzhou, China, and kept her incommunicado for some 120 days — until Sunday, a day after Chen released a letter to the Chinese government pleading for information about his wife.
“I have reason to believe that my wife’s disappearance was related to my current job in media,” Chen wrote in the letter, which he addressed to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Li Huaiping seemed to confirm this in her video in which she criticized what she called Chen’s “activities overseas” and exhorted Chen not to “irresponsibly” report the news.
This wouldn’t be the first time that Chinese authorities have terrorized the family members of overseas Chinese whose activities have angered the Chinese Communist Party. In 2014 and 2015, Chinese officials arrested three brothers of Shohret Hoshur, a Washington-based Radio Free Asia journalist who had reported on the intensified crackdown on the Uighur ethnic minority in China’s far northwest. After protests by the State Department, two of the brothers were released. A third is still believed to be in custody.
China has also sought to directly threaten the billionaire Guo, who is known for his sometimes breathless allegations about corruption and skullduggery at the highest level of China’s government. In May 2017, according to the Wall Street Journal, China dispatched four officials from its Ministry of State Security to New York City to meet with Guo and instruct him to stop criticizing the Chinese government and return to China. The officials were in violation of visa rules that barred them from conducting official business in the United States. The FBI wanted to arrest the Chinese agents, but officials in the State Department, fearing retribution against U.S. diplomats in China, persuaded U.S. authorities to allow them to leave America.
The pressure China places on dissidents and reporters in America’s Chinese-language media comprises a small part of China’s attempt to use its growing financial resources and international heft to bend American hearts and minds. China Radio International, China’s biggest state-run radio station, now broadcasts Beijing’s line from more than 30 outlets across the United States. In some cases, CRI leases the stations; in other cases, CRI has provided the capital to purchase the stations, using American front companies to avoid Federal Communications Commission rules limiting foreign government ownership. China Global Television, China’s largest state-run television station, broadcasts its pro-Beijing message on cable TV throughout the United States.
In addition, the state-run China Daily provides pro-Chinese reports that appear in numerous American daily newspapers and on their websites. The Washington Post is a beneficiary of this advertising largesse, running a China Daily report called ChinaWatch both in its newspaper and on its website. On the Web, the only way a reader can tell that the content is not from The Washington Post is by scrolling down to the bottom of the page and reading a disclaimer in fine print.
American scholars such as Joseph Nye at Harvard University and Elizabeth Economy at the Council on Foreign Relations have warned Americans not to overreact as they respond to China’s use of information warfare. No one wants a witch hunt like the one in the 1950s, when Sen. Joe McCarthy found “a Red under every bed.” But it’s also clear that China’s government is learning to leverage the freedom in American society to get its message out, even as it extends the lack of freedom in China to suppress alternative views overseas.