A little-noticed passage in the Trump administration's National Security Strategy released last month previewed a new push to combat Chinese influence operations that affect American universities, think tanks, movie studios and news organizations.
A National Security Council interagency group is coordinating the administration's study of Chinese activities that are "outside traditional espionage, in the gray area of covert influence operations," a senior administration official said. The rationale, noted in the 55-page strategy document, is that "America's competitors weaponize information to attack the values and institutions that underpin free societies, while shielding themselves from outside information."
In targeting Chinese operations, the administration is walking a delicate line between helping American academics, think-tank experts and journalists resist pressure and fomenting mass public anxiety about Beijing's activities. Officials say they want to avoid the hysteria of the 1950s — but also help American institutions push back against intimidation from a Chinese Communist Party that is rich, self-confident and seductive in a way that Russia has never been.
The administration official said in an interview Tuesday that the target "is not Chinese soft power — the legitimate exchange of people and ideas, which is something we welcome. What we're talking about are coercive and covert activities designed to influence elections, officials, policies, company decisions and public opinion."
Kurt Campbell, who oversaw Asia policy during the Obama administration and now runs an Asia consulting group, offered a measured endorsement: "The NSC-led inquiry about Chinese influence operations, if conducted dispassionately, could be useful. We focus mostly on Russian influence operations. But the Chinese have a much more subtle and complex agenda here."
A catalyst for the Trump administration's probe was an investigation in Australia, which revealed what that country's security chief called "unprecedented" foreign meddling that could damage Australia's sovereignty. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull proposed new controls in December.
The administration official offered examples of how American institutions can be pressured by China:
● Universities host more than 350,000 Chinese, who make up nearly a third of all foreign students here. Beijing encourages students to join local branches of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association. Sometimes students get squeezed. The senior official cites the case of a Chinese student from a dissident family who was warned by a friend not to share personal details — because the friend would report them to Chinese intelligence.
Students and university officials who resist Beijing can pay a price. A Chinese graduating senior at the University of Maryland last year was shamed by social media into apologizing for a comment praising free speech. At the University of California at San Diego, an invitation to the Dalai Lama brought a protest from the local students' association and warnings that UCSD might not receive more Chinese students and that its graduates' degrees might not be recognized back home.
● Think tanks are eager to study China, but often the money to support research comes from business executives with close relations with Beijing. That can lead to subtle pro-China bias. In conversations with think-tank leaders, the senior official said, he has stressed "the need for think tanks to cast a brighter light in this area. We think sunlight is the best disinfectant."
● Hollywood studios face an especially delicate problem, because the Chinese box office is so important to their bottom line. Ticket sales in China rose from $1.5 billion in 2010 to $8.6 billion last year, second only to America's. Inevitably, U.S. studios fear offending Chinese official sensibilities.
● News organizations can face pressure, too. China can restrict visas for journalists or publications it sees as too aggressive. After Bloomberg News published revelations in 2012 about the family wealth of Chinese political leaders, Beijing temporarily blocked sales of Bloomberg's financial data terminals in China, a potentially crippling move.
China's glittering modern facade often convinces outsiders that it's a country just like those in the West. Not so, says Peter Mattis, a former CIA analyst who now studies Chinese influence activities for the Jamestown Foundation. When American thought leaders interact with Chinese representatives, it's not a free- flowing "conduit," he says, but a controlled circuit.
America has never faced a rival quite like China, which presents such a compelling, well-financed challenge to democratic values. America certainly doesn't want a new "Red Scare," but maybe a wake-up call.
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