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Here’s How The United States Can Push Back On China’s Foreign Propaganda


If you control the narrative, you control the outcomes. That’s what China is attempting, as protesters in Hong Kong bravely resist the erosion of that autonomous city’s guarantees of freedom and rule of law.

The New York Times noted on Aug. 13 that the Chinese state-run cable TV news network, CCTV, issued a false report about the female Hong Kong medic whom Hong Kong police shot in the eye while she provided first aid to protesters. Instead, CCTV reported that she was handing out money to the demonstrators and that the protesters were slandering the police for her injury. The false report was quickly “liked” by some 700,000 people.

This sort of influence can change public policy. One clear and convincing example occurred in California in 2014. In January of that year, the California State Senate voted 27 to 9 to approve a bill, SCA5, that would place a constitutional amendment on the ballot to reverse the state’s voter-approved ban on affirmative action in admissions to state colleges and universities.

All nine state senators opposing the bill were Republicans who opposed affirmative action. Among the Democrats in support was then-Sen. Ted Lieu, now a U.S. representative. The measure was expected to swiftly pass the State Assembly, where Democrats held a 55 to 25 supermajority.

Then Something Unusual Happened

But an odd thing happened on the way to the bill’s inevitable passage—California’s large Asian population unexpectedly rose up to oppose the bill. Their concerns were valid. Some 36 percent of admissions at the University of California system in 2013 were of Asian students, while Asians as whole constituted 14 percent of California’s population.

At UC-Irvine, a state university known for its excellence in biomedical and computer research, about half of the student body was Asian, a third of whom were foreign students, mostly from the People’s Republic of China. Only 17 percent of the student body population was non-Hispanic white. If California’s ban on affirmative action were lifted, simple math dictated that it would result in a substantial reduction of UCI’s majority Asian student population.

Even under the state’s constitutional ban on affirmative action in higher education admissions, Asian-American critics pointed out that Asian students needed a 4.28 GPA to get into top-flight state universities while other minority students only needed a 3.7, as university administrators figured out ways to subvert the law’s intent.

But one crucial aspect of the mobilization of public opinion against the proposed affirmative action constitutional amendment has been overlooked: the active involvement of the People’s Republic of China. Chinese media directly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party issued reports critical of the measure. For instance, the English language Global Times, a paper controlled by the People’s Daily newspaper, itself working on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote about:

‘Hundreds of Chinese-Americans in Southern California gather(ing) to express their outrage against SCA 5, the controversial proposed amendment to the California constitution which would potentially decrease Asian-American students’ chances of being admitted into top public universities, despite the efforts of some legislators to mitigate community anger.’ Noting that ‘mounting pressure from the Asian-American community’ caused ‘three Chinese-American state senators who voted for the amendment’ to petition the State Assembly to defer a vote on the bill. While ‘More than 500 Chinese-Americans gathered in the rain on February 28 in front of the office building of state assembly member Ed Chau, protesting against SCA5 and labelling it as ‘Skin Color Act 5’. They urged Chau to vote against SCA5 in the state assembly. Chau promised at the gathering that he would not vote yes.’

Further, the Chinese Foreign Ministry, through its consulates in Los Angeles and San Francisco, helped organize opposition to the bill with the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council encouraging its citizens to sign an online White House petition, writing (translated from Chinese):

On the occasion of the Chinese New Year… State Senator Ed Hernandez… poured a cold water on the happy Asians (by asserting that) the UC system (had) too many Asian students (requiring) restrictions on Asians’ enrollment and increases to the enrollment rate of Hispanics and Afro-descendants in the system… (causing) an uproar in the Chinese circle. Asian students have always been known for their excellent performance, so they often have to score a lot higher than whites, Hispanics and Africans to get the favor of Ivy League. (With the Asian) admission (rate being) much lower than that of Jews.

Less than seven weeks after he voted for SCA 5, then-Sen. Lieu and two other Asian-American state senators asked the speaker of the Assembly to pull the bill. The State Assembly didn’t even convene a committee hearing on SCA 5, much less hold a floor vote. It died an unusual death, killed, in part, by an unprecedented lobbying effort by a foreign government.

What China Has to Do With All This

But why would the People’s Republic of China care so much about Chinese nationals’ access to California’s university system? In large part, because by sending their future scientists and engineers to the UC system, China can improve its ability to steal American intellectual property. For the Chinese Communist Party, access to UC’s knowledge is a national security matter.

That’s one reason the Chinese government established Confucius Institutes at college campuses throughout the United States and in other nations. Confucius Institutes are run by a Chinese Ministry of Education office known as the Office of Chinese Language Council International, or “Hanban,” its colloquial abbreviation. California hosts Confucius Institutes at UCLA, UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, San Diego State University, Cal State Long Beach, and Stanford University, with more than 70 other outposts across the United States.

Confucius Institutes serve three main purposes for the Chinese government: to steal intellectual property, to keep a watchful eye on Chinese students studying abroad, and to present a sanitized version of Chinese history devoid of the four “Ts”: Tiananmen Square, Taiwan, Tibet, and East Turkestan to aspiring American China experts. Some two dozen U.S. campuses have ejected their Confucius Institutes in the past five years, including San Francisco State University this last May.

Confucius Institutes: Global Chinese Outposts

Confucius Institutes can be problematic in other ways. At the end of July, a group of 300 students at Australia’s University of Queensland were peacefully protesting Hong Kong’s Beijing-controlled government and its increasing use of violence to quell ongoing protests against that they saw as eroding that city’s autonomy. With official diplomatic support from the People’s Republic of China coordinated through the campus Confucius Institute, students loyal to the Chinese Communist Party attacked the protesters. A similar scene happened contemporaneously at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, also a host campus of a Confucius Institute chapter.

While the Chinese government has Western campuses covered, it also blankets the airwaves through the China Global Television Network (CGTN). CGTN is part of the state-run China Central Television (CCTV), broadcasting on 56 channels to dozens of nations, with terrestrial transmitters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Chicago. CGTN has hundreds of staff, including personnel from nations other than China.

CGTN has repeatedly claimed it is independent and operates with journalistic integrity, but in February 2019, all pretense was dropped when the Chinese government network registered as a foreign agent per the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). RT, formerly Russia Today, filed under FARA in 2017.

This followed the Trump administration’s order to CGTN and another Chinese government media operation, Xinhua, to register as foreign agents after Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) urged a change to policy.

Demand that the Chinese Allow Equal Access

While FARA registration is a necessary step, what else might be done about hostile foreign information operations in our media diet and at our universities?

In the lead-up to World War II, Nazi Germany set up sympathetic support groups in the United States. The Friends of New Germany was formed in 1933, with the assistance of the Nazi Party. Congress soon investigated and, by 1934, concluded that the Friends of New Germany was a branch of the Nazi Party.

The risk that a bit of true history or an occasional objective news report might occur is too great a risk for the repressive regime in Beijing.

The Nazis created the German American Bund in its place, with membership limited to American citizens of German descent to avoid the impression that the group was directed by foreign nationals. This group eventually counted 25,000 members but was dissolved in 1941 as America girded for the war effort.

The Chinese Communist Party’s influence operations make the Nazis look like impoverished amateurs. One demand would likely solve the problem: full reciprocity. If the Chinese government wishes to maintain information operations and espionage centers on our campuses, then they must allow Lincoln Institutes on Chinese campuses in equal number.

If the Chinese Communist Party leadership wants to continue to broadcast its propaganda into America, then they must also agree to cease jamming Radio Free Asia broadcasts while allowing Radio Free Asia and Voice of America reporters free access across China.

Lastly, an encouraging bit of late-breaking news: on August 19, Twitter announced it was no longer accepting advertising from “state-controlled news media entities.” Twitter announced the policy change as they revealed that more than 900 accounts were created and promoted from within China to undermine the protests in Hong Kong. Facebook also acted against Chinese information operations against Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Twitter and Facebook are banned in China.

Of course, China will not accept reciprocity. Even though neither Lincoln Institutes in China nor Radio Free Asia broadcasts would feature the same sort of ideological discipline as their Chinese Communist counterparts, the risk that some liberty-minded teaching, a bit of true history, or an occasional objective news report might occur is too great a risk for the repressive regime in Beijing. Truth is kryptonite to the Chinese Communist Party.