The Trump administration is publicly calling out China for attempting to influence U.S. politics ahead of the midterm elections. Privately, the U.S. government is looking past November as Beijing expands its already significant capability to interfere in American democracy over the long term. The United States must be aware of the growing threat and mount a response.
As the trade war between Washington and Beijing escalates, China is using economic leverage to exert pressure on the U.S. political system. Tactics already deployed include pressuring U.S. companies trying to do business with China and punishing U.S. exporters, especially in locations where President Trump’s political base resides.
Trump, taking this activity personally, tweeted this week that China is “actively trying to impact and change our election by attacking our farmers, ranchers and industrial workers because of their loyalty to me.” Trump threatened unspecified retaliation and escalated the trade dispute by announcing additional tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods.
While the trade war rages in public, behind the scenes the U.S. government is preparing for the possibility that the Chinese government will decide to weaponize the influence network inside the United States that it has been building for years. Although Beijing has not yet employed Russian-style “active measures,” it has these capabilities at the ready.
“We’ve seen a lot of preparatory work by the Chinese, and we understand what the realm of possibilities would be,” an administration official told me. “Our position now is to make folks aware of the danger that exists. These Chinese activities are all about influencing our democratic processes.”
The Chinese government denies all accusations of political interference abroad and typically paints such reporting as anti-Chinese, Cold War thinking. The Chinese government complained after national security adviser John Bolton listed China as one of four countries that interfere in our political processes on ABC News on Aug. 19. The Trump administration responded to the complaints by asking Beijing to confirm that it does not engage in such activities. The Chinese government changed the subject.
Economic coercion is only one Chinese interference tactic. Another is propaganda through media manipulation. This week, the Justice Department ordered two Chinese state-owned media outlets operating in Washington to register as foreign agents. This recalls action taken against Russian state-owned media outlets after the U.S. intelligence community reported that Moscow used them in its 2016 interference campaign.
The Chinese Communist Party and its allies have also bought up several Chinese-language media outlets inside the United States as part of an effort to influence overseas Chinese. That effort includes government officials building relationships with Chinese Students and Scholars Associations to help snuff out criticism of China on campuses.
Finally, Beijing interferes through co-opting American elites and persuading them to push Chinese Communist Party messages. Under President Xi Jinping, the party has been ramping up its comprehensive foreign influence operations strategy, known as “united front” work. Still described in Maoist terms — to mobilize the party’s friends to strike at the party’s enemies — the system is overseen by the party’s United Front Work Department.
“The UFWD directs ‘overseas Chinese work,’ which seeks to co-opt ethnic Chinese individuals and communities living outside China, while a number of other key affiliated organizations guided by China’s broader United Front strategy conduct influence operations targeting foreign actors and states,” says a report released last month by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
The report reveals the internal structure of Beijing’s foreign influence machine, the web of foreign organizations tied to the united front system and their extensive financial relationships with U.S. organizations, academic institutions and think tanks.
In March, the United Front Work Department largely absorbed three other Communist Party departments, including the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, the State Administration for Religious Affairs and the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council. That synergy allows the party to seamlessly repress Uighurs inside China while threatening their family members abroad. For Beijing, it’s all one strategy.
Add to that China’s traditional espionage and hacking, which FBI Director Christopher A. Wray called the “broadest, most pervasive, most threatening challenge” our country faces in counterintelligence. The potential for Beijing to disrupt American politics is far beyond what we are prepared to deal with.
Looking at Russia’s situation, Beijing may calculate that the costs of a massive, obvious political interference campaign are too high. But as tensions continue to rise, Beijing’s cost-benefit analysis may change. Meanwhile, the ongoing, quieter Chinese interference continues largely unaddressed.
The U.S. government should communicate clearly to Beijing that political interference won’t be tolerated, while raising the costs higher, inoculating our systems and preparing countermeasures. China must be compelled to operate inside our borders in a transparent manner consistent with U.S. laws and values.
The lesson of the 2016 election is that we must confront foreign interference in American politics before it becomes a full-blown crisis. China’s growing capabilities to undermine our democratic systems can no longer be ignored.