China’s interference remains largely unchecked

It has been one year since the release of “China’s Influence and American Interests,” a report produced and endorsed by many of America’s leading China experts, which warned of a coordinated effort to co-opt and coerce the political, academic, and economic institutions of the United States and other open societies in directions more favorable to Beijing. The anniversary of the report is an opportunity to assess what new information has been learned and whether any of the vulnerabilities flagged by the report have been addressed.

The report emphasized the distinction between legitimate public diplomacy efforts, which includes state-run media outlets such as CGTN, and illegitimate efforts at interference, defined by former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull as activities that are “covert, coercive, or corrupting.” The report also stressed that because China often targets Chinese communities abroad, regardless of their citizenship, more should be done to protect and defend the rights of Chinese-Americans and nationals in the United States against encroachment by Beijing. 

Even as new information about China’s interference efforts have steadily surfaced, and despite signs that governments are increasingly aware of the issue, public progress in countering the risk of improper interference has been mixed. The most visible efforts have been directed towards universities, tied to the United States’ broader concern about technology competition and theft. But the perceived heavy-handedness of some of the government’s actions have prompted pushback while other sectors flagged as a concern, such as the independence of Chinese-language media in the US, have gone unaddressed. Meanwhile, in China, there has been no sign in a change of its tactics in response to greater scrutiny – likely a mix of tone-deafness and determination.

The domestic-focused issue of China’s interference, many of whose risks can be readily addressed, has gotten lost in the broader foreign policy conflict between the United States and China, which is less readily fixed. As a result, the American political system, colleges, corporations, media, and the diaspora community remain vulnerable to China’s predations.

More examples and heightened awareness

In the United States, public awareness of China’s interference operations has never reached the degree of salience it has in Australia or New Zealand – recent examples of China pressuring the NBA after a team official expressed support for the Hong Kong protests and a daring South Park episode criticizing Hollywood self-censorship aside. Earlier this year, the FBI reportedly launched an investigation into whether a massage-parlor entrepreneur had illegally channeled foreign money to President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. Unfortunately, this was seen as but another example of the scandal that otherwise surrounds the administration, as opposed to a risk independent of it. The March 2019 fine of a Jeb Bush super PAC for accepting money from a Chinese national, instead of underscoring the risks of foreign money in American politics, barely registered notice.

Twitter and Facebook’s decisive moves to block Chinese misinformation on their platforms amid the Hong Kong protests were important but also unsettling: China has embraced tactics pioneered by Russia in the 2016 US presidential election. As the Taiwanese and another US presidential election near, continued vigilance is necessary. 

Meanwhile, examples continue to mount of censorship in academic publications, pressure on foreign universities to cancel events critical of China, and harassment of companies that failed to present Taiwan as part of China on their products or websites. Amnesty International, a human rights group critical of Beijing, has even alleged that it was denied a lease for its New York offices because the building was owned by a Chinese company. 

The affiliations of US companies, many caught in the middle of the broader trade war, were also questioned. Most prominent of these was Google, which was scrutinized for its willingness to collaborate on artificial intelligence research in China, which US experts said meant effectively working with the Chinese military, while withdrawing cooperation from the Department of Defense. Amid significant external and internal pressure, the company dropped separate plans to re-enter China with a censored search engine. 

Overseas, several new efforts documented China’s interference efforts, but no country has yet followed Australia’s lead in passing legislation intended to address it. In a seemingly retaliatory move, China hacked Australia’s parliament and political parties. Later, questions were raised about one member of parliament’s affiliations with United Front groups. In New Zealand, legislation to counter election interference has been considered, but has yet to fully cohere. Evidence also emerged that the Chinese language New Zealand Herald is subject to Beijing’s control. In Canada, publication of Claws of the Panda coincided with a broader reevaluation of the Canada-China relationship prompted by China’s aggressive retaliation against the country for its role in arresting Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou at the request of the United States. In the United Kingdom, a report by a former British diplomat warned of the risk of interference in that country, which was further affirmed by a parliamentary report on interference at universities. In Germany, The Atlantic took a close look at China’s influence on university campuses, while Bloomberg investigated how China has insinuated itself more broadly across Europe. The Jamestown Foundation, a US-based think-tank, published two articles on China’s influence operations in Japan and Singapore, the latter of which was dismissed by the Chinese embassy as “lies.” 

Universities in the crosshairs

Universities have been the most visible focus of US government efforts to counter improper interference. The FBI and other national security officials have reportedly engaged university officials and corporate executives on China’s efforts to misappropriate cutting-edge research. In the biomedical sector alone, the New York Times has reported nearly 200 investigations of intellectual property theft are underway, almost all of which involve China. While university officials have consistently acknowledged the government’s concerns, some have also warned that heightened visa restrictions on Chinese students and scrutiny of other institutional ties to China has veered from the realm of the reasonable into race-based harassment and counterproductive stemying of research.

Several universities have also discontinued their ties with China’s Confucius Institutes, which are intended to promote language and cultural education, but which critics allege allow China to control discussion of the country on campus. (In Australia, the government is now considering requiring these institutions to register as foreign agents.) As confrontations between students from mainland China and Hong Kong at Western universities attest, strident nationalists need little direction from Beijing or their local consulate to attempt to shut down activities they consider anti-China. Most universities, sensitive to the fact that Chinese students are a significant source of tuition revenue, have responded with less than strident defenses of free speech.

At universities and other research institutions, including within the government itself, the government has targeted participants in China’s Thousand Talents, a programmed designed to attract Chinese nationals or ethnic Chinese scientists abroad to contribute to China’s research efforts. Participants have been punished primarily for failure to disclose their affiliation or because of violation of contracts which prohibit receiving outside payment for work related to their primary job. As scrutiny of the program mounted, China begin erasing online references to the program.

China largely stays the course

China, meanwhile, has largely ignored or dismissed criticism of its practices and, in some respects, has acted even more determinedly. Researcher Alex Joske has studied recent organizational shifts in China’s United Front Work Department that suggest an “increased focus” on overseas Chinese communities. In February, the department hosted its first-ever national conference on United Front overseas work (in China’s system, local governments also have responsibilities for projecting influence abroad). 

In the United States, state-owned broadcaster CGTN registered as a foreign agent, an act that did not meaningfully increase transparency around or change the nature of its operations. And as national tensions rise, it appears that China is increasingly focused on cultivating relationships at the state- and city-level. In May and July, the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, considered part of China’s influence apparatus, co-hosted a conference with the US National Governors Association and a US-China Sister Cities summit. Instead of being chastened by the scrutiny, China seems even more deeply committed to its influence operations.  

Swept up in the broader US-China conflict

Attention on and action against Chinese interference operations have been overshadowed by the broader US-China trade conflict. Even the efforts focused on universities exist principally because they overlap with broader US concerns about technological supremacy, not because of interference in and of itself. All the while, the principal risks of Chinese interference, although tempered somewhat by increased awareness, remain.

Congress has introduced two bills related to Chinese interference, but neither have advanced. A bill introduced by Senator Marco Rubio would direct the departments of State and Homeland Security to devise a long-term strategy to counter political influence operations in the United States and abroad. Another bill would require annual reports on CCP influence and propaganda activities, presumably longer than the two page discussion on influence operations that was newly incorporated in the Pentagon’s most recent annual assessment of China’s military.  

With new information continuing to be released by academics and the press, the inadequacy of the most concrete legislative proposal – for additional reporting – is clear. Key priorities include allocating additional resources for investigating and deterring foreign money in elections and foreign influence over media. Universities and think tanks should develop codes of conduct to guide their exchanges with Chinese counterparts. And the US must do more to engage the Chinese-American community as partners, whereas today many feel subjected to unwarranted suspicion.

In publishing the report last year, the authors were careful to use the phrase “constructive vigilance.” The report stated, “for all the tensions in the relationship, there are deep historical bonds of friendship, cultural exchange, and mutual inspiration between the two societies, which we celebrate and continue to nurture.” China’s most egregious interference attempts should not give reason to close off America’s open society. If anything, China’s efforts call for the defense and strengthening of open society with greater transparency, a commitment to institutional integrity, and a more confident assertion that American institutions be afforded the same opportunity to legitimately compete for the hearts and minds of China’s citizens that China has in America.