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It’s Past Time To Take China’s U.S. Subversion Operations Seriously


The investigation of Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election has been going on for almost a year now. Its scope and objectives seem to expand daily. It has consumed the majority of our attention and resources.

In the meantime, another country has more subtly and expensively wielded its soft power on U.S. soil. That country is China. Unlike Russia, the Chinese government has a different set of objectives: it wants to use its influence to quiet critics of its authoritarian regime and its policies on human rights and international affairs. By controlling discussions and shaping public opinion in America, China hopes to export its authoritarian ways globally with little resistance.

Fortunately, China’s interference in the United States didn’t go unnoticed. This Wednesday, the Congressional Executive Commission on China, chaired by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), will host a public hearing, titled “The Long Arm of China: Exporting Authoritarianism with Chinese Characteristics.” Such a hearing is long overdue, because “Attempts by the Chinese government to guide, buy, or coerce political influence and control discussion of ‘sensitive’ topics are pervasive, and pose serious challenges in the United States and globally.”

Some Countries Have Fallen to China’s Interference

China’s interference on foreign soil usually involves several means. One is using technology to obtain political, economic, and even personal information to its advantage. For example, the German intelligence agency (BfV) disclosed  Monday morning that Chinese intelligence used fake profiles on LinkedIn, a networking site, to target at least 10,000 Germans, many government officials and politicians. According to BfV, the Chinese objective is to gather information on these Germans and even possibly turn some as informants.

Three years ago, two U.S. government databases, which contain personnel records and security-clearance files on about 22 million Americans, were hacked. It was one of the worst cyber intrusions in U.S. history, and officials said they traced the hack to the Chinese government.

No country has suffered more than Australia. Australia’s domestic spy chief Duncan Lewis alerted Parliament that China’s interference in Australia was occurring on “an unprecedented scale.” The Sydney Morning Herald filed a series of reports on how the Chinese government interferes in Australia through a combination of covert and open operations, including:

Monitoring and controlling Chinese people in Australia, especially Chinese students. Many Chinese student and scholar groups receive direct “guidance” from the Chinese embassy. Those who follow the Chinese Communist Party’s line are rewarded with perks and prestige. Chinese students who participated in democracy movements in Australia, however, reported that their families back in China were harassed by police.

Subsidizing Chinese media in Australia. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, the Chinese government’s outreach arm is the majority owner of several supposedly independent Chinese-language newspapers. These outlets promote Chinese government propaganda, such as supporting China’s island building activities in South and East China Seas. Chinese government agents also warned advertisers to stay away from the Chinese newspaper that dared to take a different view.

Direct contribution to political candidates. Australian senator Sam Dastyari, a leader of the Labor Party, is in hot water right now. He not only accepted campaign contributions from Chinese donors (which was legal in Australia until recently), but also has become an advocate for Beijing’s official political positions.

Dastyari was caught on tape defending China’s aggression in the South China Sea. He also reportedly pressured the Labor Party’s deputy leader not to meet Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists. Unfortunately, Dastyari isn’t the only one who took Chinese campaign contributions. Politicians from both parties in Australia took in millions of campaign contributions from Chinese in Australia who have close ties with Beijing.

The Australian government finally woke up recently. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull introduced a new anti-foreign interference law, which bans ”foreign donations to political parties and activist groups, including some charities – and also require former politicians, lobbyists and executives working for foreign interests to register if they seek to influence politics in Australia.” The Chinese government broke diplomatic protocol and responded angrily, calling the law driven by a “cold war mentality and ideological bias” and called the politicians who support it racists.

Using Americans to Influence Americans

China deploys some similar tactics they used in Australia in the United States too, especially on U.S. campuses. Many Chinese students and scholarly associations inside U.S. colleges and universities work closely with Chinese embassies. Not only Chinese students are monitored. China seeks to change American students’ opinion on China through Confucius Institutes in more than 100 American colleges and universities.

There are around 1,000 Confucius Institutes in 120 countries. They are directly funded by the Chinese government’s outreach arm. Even though they reside within foreign colleges and universities, China has the sole control of teachers and curriculum. Sensitive topics such as the 1989 Tiananmen Democracy movement are forbidden.

The concerns over academic freedom and freedom of expression in Confucius Institutes reached a high point when more than 100 University of Chicago faculty signed a petition, which led to the closure of UC’s Confucius Institute in 2014. Naturally, Rubio identified Confucius Institutes’ influence in the United States as one of the key discussion points for the Wednesday’s hearing.

Besides trying to influence Americans directly through Confucius Institutes, the Chinese government also uses American influencers to shape favorable public opinions. In August, Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) announced a new endowed professorship in the China studies department and a new research project to examine “what China’s broader role in Asia and the world means for its neighbors and partners.”

What SAIS didn’t say was that funding for these new initiatives came in part from the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), a registered foreign agent bankrolled by Hong Kong’s former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, who has close ties with Beijing.

Similar Chinese government-funded initiatives can be found in other prominent U.S. think tanks and institutions such as the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institute, East-West Institute, Carter Center, and the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. China’s goal is to cultivate the “right” American voices in the right place to change the public debate on China, to take favorable positions on China-related issues without China directly injecting itself. Such a covert approach is usually much more effective. After all, “who better to influence Americans than other Americans?”

Action Speaks Louder than Words

Rubio deserves credit for bringing public attention to China’s interference in the United States. Things brought up in the hearings may be new to some politicians. But most China watchers are well aware of these issues and have warned the U.S. government repeatedly.

What we want to know is what actions the United States will take after the hearing. After all, action speaks louder than words. Unfortunately, China’s impressive economic gains in the last three decades ensure that Chinese government has enormous financial power to fund all these operations. Without creditable and effective actions, the United States may end up on the losing side of this war of soft power.