At a time when US-China relations are at their worst in decades, Beijing is ramping up efforts to influence American politics, media, and society.
China is continuing a pattern of influence operations it began earlier this century in the Pacific Rim, seeking to shift narratives in its favor and promote pro-Beijing politicians – or sometimes just sow chaos and falsehoods.
American law enforcement authorities are preparing for influence efforts in the 2022 midterm elections, and both Google’s and Meta’s cybersecurity arms have warned of Beijing-backed online meddling.
Although China’s heightened efforts in the United States are relatively new, it has spent years developing strategies to influence politics and elections throughout the Pacific Rim. In Australia, Beijing-linked donors directly paid prominent politicians to attempt to shape Australian foreign policy more favorably toward China.
There and in New Zealand, Taiwan, and parts of Southeast Asia, China supported pro-Beijing businesspeople in taking control of much of the local Chinese-language media. In one notable case, politician Yang Jian, who had spent 15 years working in China’s military intelligence sector, was elected to New Zealand’s Parliament in 2011.
He had close connections with organizations linked to the United Front Work Department, a leading Chinese external intelligence organization.
Yang Jian then held a top parliamentary position dealing with China policy and allegedly helped soften New Zealand’s approach to Beijing. Australian officials have voiced worries about similar attempts at political penetration.
In February, Australia’s security agency reportedly foiled an effort by someone using an offshore account to transfer funds to Australian candidates who supported the interests of a foreign government.
An influential Labor Party senator, Kimberley Kitching, alleged that the perpetrator was Chau Chak Wing, a Chinese Australian billionaire who reportedly has close ties to Beijing. Chau Chak Wing has denied the charge.
Beijing has also attempted to intervene in elections through coordinated information and disinformation campaigns designed to promote candidates sympathetic to the Chinese government and its actions.
It has done this widely in Australia, New Zealand, and across Asia. Most notably, in the lead-up to the 2020 Taiwanese presidential election, Chinese officials reportedly instructed local media outlets close to China to promote its favored presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu.
Han did not win, but China has increased its disinformation and other influence efforts targeting Taiwan just before the island’s local elections in November. In recent years, China has expanded its efforts beyond its near neighborhood and into the United States.
According to reports filed to the Justice Department under the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), China has spent more over the past six years – US$280 million – to influence American politics than any other foreign country.
Unlike Russia, which often targets individual politicians or just tries to create chaos, Beijing generally wants to change US views of Beijing more broadly.
“You might think in terms of the Russian intelligence services providing bursts of bad weather. China is changing the climate,” Ken McCallum, the director general of Britain’s MI5 intelligence agency, said in 2020.
Chinese state media organizations operating in the US were responsible for a significant amount of money reported under FARA. CGTN, a state-broadcast company, reported more than half of the $280 million.
Pro-Beijing actors, including private media outlets controlled by owners sympathetic to Beijing, now dominate the Chinese-language television, print, and online media in the US, a tactic China first perfected in New Zealand and Australia.
A report by the Hoover Institution, a policy think tank based in the United States, found that Beijing or its proxies, such as pro-China businesspeople, now control nearly all of the Chinese-language media in the US.
This allows Beijing to feed its propaganda to millions of people, potentially influencing how they vote. Many of these readers and viewers live in highly competitive congressional districts in California, New York, and other states.
The report also said that Beijing is gaining control of American university associations for students of Chinese heritage and using those to try to shape campus and political discourse.
In addition, China often pays top publications to run deceptive inserts that are really advertorials but not clearly marked as such. A report* released in September by the US-based rights watchdog Freedom House said:
Chinese state media content reaches news consumers in the United States directly through offline and online paid inserts from China Daily or the Xinhua News Agency in national and regional news outlets, such as Time magazine, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, CNN, and Foreign Policy.
There are also at least two American radio stations that now broadcast Chinese Radio International propaganda, according to Freedom House. The FBI said it is now operating seven times as many China-related investigations as it was four years ago.
And in October, the Associated Press obtained an unclassified US intelligence advisory that said China likely is trying to help sway midterm races to “hinder candidates perceived to be particularly adversarial to Beijing.”
With members of Congress wary of Chinese influence, Beijing has increasingly targeted local politicians, mayors, governors, and state legislators, according to a report the US National Counterintelligence and Security Center released in July.
China, the report said, has “stepped up its efforts to cultivate American state and local leaders in a strategy some have described as ‘using the local to surround the central,’” meaning Beijing is cultivating local officials and hoping they can affect national politics in various ways.
In one prominent effort, a suspected Chinese spy, Fang Fang, ingratiated herself with major members of the political community in California’s Bay Area, including the office of Representative Eric Swalwell. She did the same with several prominent mayors in the Midwest.
Current and former US intelligence officials and one former elected official speaking with Axios said Fang Fang had collected a large amount of “private but unclassified information about government officials and other political intelligence, and that she was almost surely sending this data back to China.”
Swalwell has stated that he was “shocked” to hear about the investigation and that he and his office shared no sensitive information with her.
Earlier this year, Beijing tried to directly intervene in a New York congressional primary to prevent one candidate, Chinese dissident Xiong Yan, from winning. His loss probably had something to do with Chinese pressure, as well as other political factors.
Still, the US Justice Department charged five Chinese intelligence agents operating in the United States with harassing Xiong Yan, another unnamed legislator, and other dissidents. Beijing seems undeterred by the charges.
China also has increased its efforts to use disinformation online to meddle in US elections, sometimes to cause chaos and other times to promote one politician over another. The country’s poor global image could hinder these efforts, but by hiding the sources of its disinformation using bots and fake profiles, Beijing can potentially avoid that problem.
China is increasingly copying Russian tactics, including using fake profiles to foster online anger among Americans about issues that divide via race and class, such as the activities of groups focused on social justice or the expansion of gun rights.
The Freedom House report said that since 2019, “thousands of fake [Chinese] accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were detected and shuttered for inauthentic behavior [targeting the United States].”
Such activities, it said, included manipulating discourse about events within China, the reputations of US-based critics of the Chinese Communist Party, Covid-19, and American political divisions.
In September, Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, revealed that it had found and removed a China-based operation to target users of its platforms with content about the US midterms. The following month, Google said it caught Beijing using trolling and other tactics in an attempt to divide Americans ahead of the elections.
The United States has displayed much stricter scrutiny toward Beijing in the last four years. So strict that the Justice Department’s initiative, designed to counter national security threats, was closed because it seemed to unduly target Chinese nationals and Chinese Americans without amassing enough evidence against them.
The strategy was designed to step up efforts to search for Chinese spies in the US, particularly in academia and research. But it repeatedly failed to make cases against targets, despite opening thousands of investigations, and allegedly too often relied on false information.
Still, the FBI and the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), which combats foreign disinformation, have become more skilled in recognizing Chinese disinformation online. The center has received significant funding from Congress – over $150 million in this year’s appropriations – which has repeatedly extended its operations.
Major tech companies, too, have labeled obvious state media online, and have become better at taking down dubious posts.
In terms of in-person spying, the FBI needs to expand its focus on local politics. China is increasingly stepping up its intelligence efforts to cultivate ties to lower-ranking officials in the hopes of stealing information, and having candidates on Beijing’s side if they reach higher positions of power and contest major elections.
The FBI says 80% of economic espionage prosecutions brought by the Justice Department in recent years involve cases that would somehow benefit China. In 2020, the FBI reported that it believed Chinese hackers used disinformation to interfere in the 2016 and 2018 US elections.
This took place on all levels, not necessarily to promote any one candidate but rather, Russia-style, to sow chaos. The agency also said Americans should be prepared for interference in the 2022 midterm elections.
That interference could most likely come via China’s political influence campaigns, control of the Chinese-language media, and online disinformation. Indeed, the Freedom House report said that “multiple disinformation campaigns targeting US audiences were documented” from 2019 to 2021.
In a speech at MI5 headquarters in the summer, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that there was a “breath-taking” Chinese strategy to steal information from the United States and affect American politics. He also asserted that Beijing poses a bigger political-influence threat than Russia, though some analysts think this is highly debatable.
American officials have privately raised concerns about interference with Beijing. Publicly, China has strongly denied this behavior. Nonetheless, Chinese influence in American politics, media, and society is becoming increasingly commonplace – and that influence will likely grow in the coming years.
*Editor’s note: The author worked on this report, but not the portion on the United States.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of ChinaFactor.