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Combating China’s Influence Operations

China has lately been infiltrating a wide range of US institutions – from universities and think tanks to the mass media and state and local governments – as well as the Chinese-American community. The only way to stop it is with a strategy of "constructive vigilance."

NEW YORK – As trade negotiations between the United States and China limp toward an uncertain conclusion, much of the world remains fixated on the potential escalation of the conflict between the world’s two largest economies. But narrow discussions about tit-for-tat tariffs, Chinese mercantilism, and intellectual-property theft fail to recognize the broader implications of the trade war: the US and China are losing their ability to interact in a manner that is anything but adversarial.

For the US, China represents a rapidly escalating threat – a perception underpinned partly by the large bilateral trade surplus and China’s brazen efforts to capture American technology. But it is also – and perhaps more importantly – driven by China’s pursuit of military hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region, its rapidly growing overseas investments, its attempts to reshape global policy debates, and its efforts to exert influence over other countries, including the US itself.

Such efforts, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned last year, include the use of non-traditional actors to infiltrate democratic institutions, especially in academia. In this sense, Wray concluded, the “Chinese threat” is more than “a whole of government threat”; it is “a whole-of-society threat.” Our recently published report, China’s Influence and American Interests – the product of a 23-member working group that we co-chaired, convened by the Hoover Institution and the Asia Society – confirms this fear.

In fact, the report concludes, the Communist Party of China is infiltrating a wide range of US institutions – from universities and think tanks to the mass media and state and local governments – as well as the Chinese-American community. The CPC is burrowing into the soft tissue of American democracy.

This is neither a blatant deployment of “hard” military or economic power, nor the type of transparent exchange through which democracies exert “soft power” on the rest of the world. Instead, it is a form of what has been called “sharp power”: the use of “covert, coercive, and corrupting” tactics (in former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s words) to compel countries to toe China’s rhetorical line and support its interests.

The key to deploying this sharp power is the CPC’s sprawling and sophisticated “United Front” apparatus, an almost century-old system for promoting Chinese propaganda and influence abroad. This apparatus – and China’s Leninist system more broadly – has little regard for the integrity of civic institutions, and even less for values like freedom of speech, religion, and assembly. On the contrary, it readily exploits the openness of Western liberal democracies to achieve its own ends.

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What are those ends? Unlike Russia’s influence operations, which center on electoral manipulation through disinformation about the target country, China’s foreign operations, including in the US, focus on narratives about itself. Its leaders want to shape how the world views China’s rise, in order to minimize challenges to its militarization of the South China Sea, repression of religious minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, pervasive surveillance of its citizens, and resistance to democratic reform in Hong Kong.

To achieve this, China leverages its own citizens abroad – especially those in academia, whether faculty or students – and members of the Chinese diaspora, whom it considers “fellow countrymen” (同胞们) who owe loyalty to the “Chinese motherland” (中国祖国). Already, many Chinese students do not feel free to speak candidly in American classrooms; Chinese experts self-censor so that they can obtain visas to return home; and most Chinese-language media in the US now reflect a China-friendly line.

As Wray put it, China’s influence operations demand a “whole-of-society response” – one that, in our view, should emphasize “constructive vigilance.” US universities, think tanks, media, associations, and local governments must demand transparency in their dealings with prospective Chinese partners, including full disclosure of any ties they have to the Chinese state, the CPC, or the military.

Crucially, the US must ensure that its response does not risk triggering racially driven attacks on Chinese in America. China may view anyone who is Chinese or has Chinese heritage as a potential agent. But, to uphold its values of fairness and equality, the US must look squarely at behavior, rather than ethnicity.

To be able to recognize suspect behaviors and defend their integrity, US institutions must learn more about whom they are dealing with, including by cooperating with peer institutions in the US and abroad. China’s purveyors of sharp power cannot be allowed to employ a “divide and conquer” strategy.

Finally, US actors must demand more reciprocity in their dealings with their Chinese counterparts. Only by ensuring more open and equal exchanges can the US hope to transform China’s covert sharp-power operations into authentic soft-power ones, with each country enjoying access and influence within the other in a transparent manner.

China is likely to remain America’s main rival for global power and influence for the foreseeable future. But that does not mean that the two countries must maintain a dangerously adversarial relationship. On the contrary, they should pursue a policy of constructive engagement – one that keeps the competition fair, enables mutually beneficial cooperation, and supports peace between the world’s two largest powers.

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