The Trump administration is publicly calling out China for attempting to influence US politics ahead of the midterms. Privately, the United States is looking past November as Beijing expands its already significant capability to interfere in American democracy. The US 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 US political system. Tactics already deployed include pressuring US companies trying to do business with China and punishing US 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 US is preparing for the possibility that the Chinese will 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 interference and typically paints such reporting as anti-Chinese, Cold War thinking. The Chinese 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 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 US 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 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 US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.