Great Hall of the People, Beijing, March, 2011. CREDIT: <a href="">Remko Tanis</a> <a href="">(CC)</a>
Great Hall of the People, Beijing, March, 2011. CREDIT: Remko Tanis (CC)

China's Influence Operations, with Peter Mattis

Aug 1, 2018

What's the difference between "influence" and "interference" when it comes to China's propaganda operations? How are these efforts structured? War on the Rocks contributing editor Peter Mattis breaks it down in this fascinating conversation. Plus, he warns against "McCarthyism" in regards to Chinese-American relations.

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Peter Mattis. He's research fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, and he's also a contributing editor at War on the Rocks. He's based in Washington, DC.

Peter, thanks for speaking with us today.

PETER MATTIS: Thank you very much for having me, Devin.

DEVIN STEWART: This is a conversation that's part of our Information Warfare series, an ongoing podcast series, and today we're speaking about Peter's research on Chinese political influence operations in the United States as well as Chinese influence operations in comparison to Russian operations and also how the United States might respond to these initiatives.

Peter, if I could, could I just ask what you do at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation?

PETER MATTIS: The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation is primarily about promoting public education about the consequences of communism in the 20th century and its lingering and still relevant legacy today. It began as a project to put together a Victims of Communism Memorial, which is on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC, and it's continuing with an effort to raise support for a museum that covers the history of communism and how its impact was felt across the world.

My role there is to add a little bit of a policy edge to the China-related research and think through some of the ways that we can deal with call it "old problems with new countries" like information warfare and political warfare with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

DEVIN STEWART: How would you describe what you're seeing in terms of the types of political influence operations that are being directed by the Chinese Communist Party?

PETER MATTIS: The way that I would describe it is that it's a whole-of-party effort. It's built into the way that the party functions on a day-to-day basis. I would say that it's not so much a campaign as it is a way of dealing with the world and the individuals who are in it. This isn't something like covert action in a democratic state, that is, outside special channels because it's an exceptional circumstance and uses exceptional tools that are not normally part of the policy toolkit, or at least that aren't authorized to be on a day-to-day basis, and it's not quite public diplomacy because it's not entirely out in the open and entirely in the clear, and its consequences certainly are not.

The primary way to think about it is as an aspect of the party's work called "united front work," which doesn't cover all of it, but it's an important piece. It's basically about how the party interacts with the world outside of it and tries to organize and maneuver the social groups outside the party.

A key distinction here is not so much about what happens across borders, but it's what happens across social groups. The border that matters is who is inside the Chinese Communist Party and who is outside of it rather than what's inside the People's Republic of China (PRC) and what's outside of it.

DEVIN STEWART: How are you seeing these operations conducted? What types of methods are being used?

PETER MATTIS: It runs the gamut from elite-level interactions where individual party members do what they can with the resources and platforms that they have or individual businessmen with the same down to the bureaucratic, the Ministry of State Security, which is China's civilian intelligence service, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Culture.

In this mass, there are three levels where this activity takes place. The first is at the leadership level. There is a Politburo Standing Committee member, one of the seven, who ostensibly oversees this work, and there are three other politburo members who run the United Front Work Department, the Propaganda Department, and the vice premier, who liaises between the party side of things and all of the ministries that are ostensibly under the state. They guide the system along. But anybody who is in the upper echelons of the party is likely to be involved in one way or another, depending on who their foreign contacts are or what kinds of things pop up in their portfolios.

At the next level down are the key party organizations. The United Front Work Department is a sprawling apparatus that looks at how to handle ethnic minorities and religious groups to non-party intellectuals. It has been the force behind building up party committees in small or medium-sized enterprises and now in foreign businesses as well as well as the ones you may have read about in Hong Kong. It's even involved in external propaganda activities.

The other key organization is the Propaganda Department, which in addition to overseeing news media is responsible also for building up voices outside of China. If you recall reading about or seeing the "eye roll heard round the world," so to speak, it was an obsequious question in Beijing from a reporter who is ostensibly based in the United States. That was probably a Propaganda Department operation of creating a media organization outside to reflect views back in.

The third and final piece is the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which at the central level has about 2,200 people, but if you include the entire apparatus, it's about 617,000 members, give or take a few. Some of these guys are party members, most of them are not. They are businessmen, they are artists, they are diplomats, they are other forms of cultural workers of one sort or another. They are people who are like a militia for the Chinese Communist Party in the sense that they're not quite the regular bureaucrats, but they are resources that are used and can be drawn upon to drive things forward.

The two billionaires down in Australia you may have read about, Huang Xiangmo and Dr. Chau Chak Wing, belong to the CPPCC system but not necessarily even at the central level. For most of the time they've been active they were at a local or provincial level commission.

DEVIN STEWART: What's the arrangement between that so-called "militia" and the committee itself? Are they on retainer or payroll? How does that work?

PETER MATTIS: What you get for being a CPPCC member or a local or provincial-level political consultative conference is treatment as a party cadre. You get little perquisites like expedited immigration, access to the party's healthcare system, you get access to business opportunities. It's like membership in a country club, but you're not paying dues so much as you are responding positively when the party asks you to do something.

DEVIN STEWART: On a volunteer basis.

PETER MATTIS: Right. Well, when you're dealing with a monopolistic political party, I'm not sure how much anything is truly volunteer when someone comes along and asks.


PETER MATTIS: There is a clear quid pro quo that you get benefits for the services that you provide.

DEVIN STEWART: What types of Chinese influence operations are you looking at in the United States?

PETER MATTIS: Right now I'd say I'm looking less specifically at the United States than looking at the party apparatus behind it because when you're thinking about how to counter what is taking place and preserving the integrity of our discussion on China or our policymaking process it's bad form I think to focus on what's taking place here until you can see what's happening inside China, what are the organizations involved, etc., coming over, because it would be too easy to say, "Ah, this person has these kinds of relationships" or "They met with this person," or "They took a little bit of money to travel to China or to handle this project" and say, "Well, this is a huge problem."

I think it's fair to say, "Maybe you shouldn't have taken that money," but—I may be getting ahead of myself here in the conversation—you want to have progressive mapping of what's taking place and understand what's happening on the Chinese Communist Party side and bridge that over to what you see happening in the United States. In that way there is, call it a "sunlight" period or a period where transparency is developing, and we can have a better conversation about what are the appropriate ways to engage with the party or with PRC organizations. That way we don't move to the extreme end, which was the McCarthyism of the 1950s.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you think it's a danger that United States society moves in that direction?

PETER MATTIS: It is a danger because this is a subject that's difficult to talk about. No one likes to admit that our perceptions have been changed or that we were duped in some way or another.

Just taking a quick glance at my bookshelf, Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking Fast and Slow pops up along with Psychology of Intelligence Analysis. This isn't really about duping; it's about the ways in which people can message and shift our thinking without us necessarily being conscious of it. I don't think we want to end up in that conversation about dupes before we really understand what has been taking place on the party's side.

DEVIN STEWART: I've heard the warning about a kind of hysteria or McCarthyism popping up against Chinese Americans, for example. What's the risk of that happening, and what would that look like?

PETER MATTIS: The Chinese American community has some legitimate fears, I think, of what the U.S. government could do or might do in response to this issue because in one sense FBI Director Christopher Wray was right when he said, "The Chinese Communist Party is trying to put together a whole-of-society effort." The policies are whole-of-society, but not everyone goes along with it, and certainly not every single Chinese person who goes abroad or has been living abroad for two, three, four, five, and six generations.

The U.S. government has not always been very good at that, distinguishing what are "normal" contacts and what are problematic contacts. You can see the dismissal of charges in a number of cases going back to the most famous involving Wen Ho Lee in the theft of nuclear secrets in Los Alamos to Sherry Chen at the National Weather Service or Xiaoxing Xi at Temple University. From that perspective you wouldn't necessarily think that the U.S. government is always going to be right and always going to be pushing ahead on the right things.

Yes, there have been cases that have been good—Chi Mak in San Diego; Kuo Tai Shen, who was serving as an intermediary between two Department of Defense officials and Chinese intelligence. So there is good and bad, but the U.S. government hasn't always been really strong at making sure that every case that was run to ground was in fact a real case.

DEVIN STEWART: You've made a distinction in War on the Rocks between influence and interference. Can you tell us what's the difference in your view?

PETER MATTIS: "Influence" is one of those words that stretches the gamut. If I say something is "possible," it means that it's just better than zero and just less than perfect certainty. To say something is possible just provides this huge range.

"Influence" is a similar kind of word. The moon exercises an influence on the tides. We can't see it or feel it, but we know that it's there, and we can see changes take place because of it. Influence could also be someone threatening to hit us, a much more visceral, much more direct kind of thing. If we're going to use a word like influence, it's too easy to lump together what might be good cultural influences or corrosive political influences.

"Interference," on the other hand, moves us toward a conversation I think about what is okay and what isn't okay, what is acceptable and what isn't acceptable. It also has the benefit of being something the Chinese Communist Party says that it doesn't do. So if we're going to engage with Beijing on a government-to-government basis, it gives us a set of activities to say: "Well, look, you say these are unacceptable. Well, these are the same activities over here that are considered unacceptable." So I think there's a rhetorical point or a negotiating point that's useful from it.

The second is that it narrows that discussion of influence down to something that is manageable. If interference, if these activities are corrupt our political system or our cultural life, they are coercive and prevent our citizens or people who are able to exercise their civil rights on American soil from doing so, whether it's freedom of speech, freedom of association, that they're able to do so.

You could say that it's interference if these activities are covert, if they're trying to hide the activity or hide the manipulation so that it's not clear who the actor is behind it and/or the consequences of those actions. That's why I think Malcolm Turnbull's "three C's" that I used there—the corrupt, the covert, and the coercive—are a useful way of framing the discussion.

Does it capture everything? No, but it's better than using a broad word like "influence," which is too prone to I think misunderstanding and pushing us toward an extreme view.

DEVIN STEWART: You've also made the distinction between the Russian approach and the Chinese approach. What are the two different approaches, and how do they compare?

PETER MATTIS: This is a hard one because there are overlaps. The piece that I wrote I think may have drawn the distinctions a little bit sharper than they end up playing out on the street, so to speak.

As I mentioned at the top, I see what the Chinese Communist Party does as more of a day-to-day routine of party activities. It's not so much a campaign where people come up with objectives and a plan of how to get there, it's simply this is the way the CCP trains its people to interact with the outside world, and therefore they do these things and execute on a day-to-day basis.

On the Russian side I think there is a little bit more of a campaign mentality. Not all the time, but there is a sense if you go back to the Soviet era and if you go to the current day that the intelligence services play an important role in deciding what the objectives are and how they are going to get there.

As a result, the clandestine resources of the Russian state are much more fundamental to what the Russians do. On the Chinese side you can say that the intelligence services provide a supporting role: They have a platform here, they can make introductions there, but they're not necessarily central to the CCP's approach.

A second point I think would be that the Russians, in part because of the centrality of the intelligence services, are more likely to recruit people directly to serve as agents of influence or to generate cultural product that can affect people's perceptions. At least in Chinese history or in the CCP's history there has been a focus not so much on finding and recruiting agents of influence but cultivating people and shaping their perspectives so that they go back with the appropriate message.

In some cases, that's pretty direct. We know now that Edgar Snow's interviews with Mao Zedong were in fact reviewed and edited by a team of people run by Zhou Enlai, but you could say that some of the other classic books from that era like Theodore White's were written from the perspective that the CCP wanted to give them: Here's the access that you've got. Here's the world that you can see, and if you can't see the rest of it, then you're going to go to print with what you can. In that way, they're a little more careful about shaping views or letting people put it into their own words rather than trying to push a particular message out.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you have an assessment of comparing the two strategies?

PETER MATTIS: In terms of their effectiveness?


PETER MATTIS: This is a really tough question to ask, in part because guessing at what the influence is or the impact almost requires thinking in a counterfactual way, which means you're not really going to have a concrete answer. It's not like we can put these back into a lab experiment and run it over again and see what would have happened without that.

If I were to pick which one is more effective, I would say over the long term the CCP's approach has tended to be a bit more effective, mostly because it's not so aggressive and it's tougher to find the key interactions that push things through. If I were to say how they've been effective, it would be that they've locked us into ways of thinking about the U.S.-China relationship that privilege the relationship over the responses that we might take to protect our interests.

If you think about the conversations that were taking place in DC when you were at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), if China was doing something in the East China Sea or the South China Sea or invested in intellectual property, anytime there's a conversation about retaliation or what do we do in response, the first question that always seems to be on people's minds is, "Well, what's China going to do?" It has never been: "Well, China has acted. It's our response." It's almost as though they get to move twice if we were playing checkers or chess.

The problem with that—it's perfectly reasonable to ask that question—is so often in U.S. policy we've talked about deterrence or enforcement as being the core piece of our interaction with China. We wanted to deter militarization of the South China Sea, we wanted to deter encroachments into Japanese territorial waters in the Senkakus.

But the way that I would think of it is: If a police officer saw a burglar running out of a store with a television set, let's say, if his or her first question was, "What if the burglar throws the television set at me?" that's not going to make for very good law enforcement.

It's perfectly okay to ask that question a few questions down the road, but the first question really should be: "How can I make an arrest?" or "Do I need to call for backup?" or any other set of questions about how do we go forward enforcing the law or enforcing the policies or the guidance that they're supposed to act under rather than: "Oh, my goodness. What's going to happen if we do something?"

That would be the impact that I think the Chinese approach has had on our system, to say they've been successful at injecting false choices into our discussion and trying to push us to make decisions on them, engagement versus containment: Are we going to have war or peace over these little rocks in the South China Sea, which incidentally are no longer rocks given they can garrison roughly 15,000 people and a regiment of aircraft?

DEVIN STEWART: How have they done that? How have they created this mental paradigm of allowing the Chinese to have two chess moves and we only get one? Do you know how that has occurred in Washington?

PETER MATTIS: I think part of it has been reacting to what the Chinese have said over and over in meetings. I don't want to go too far down the road of saying everything's coordinated in this massive Machiavellian way, but in a general sense the system knows where it needs to go, and people know how to act within it.

I think one of the ways, for example, on the issue of engagement and containment is that every time more aggressive measures have been discussed or even some less aggressive measures there is this push, "Well, the United States needs to show that it's not trying to contain China." I think we've heard it so many times that we've assimilated that, that we need to be responsive to that phrasing or that issue of reassuring the Chinese or the CCP that we're not trying to contain China's rise. That may now be shifting in the United States, but I think that was the view for a long time. We were constantly in this place of having to reassure rather than having to think about our own actions.

On Taiwan I think it has been a similar set of issues where the CCP simply repeated. When things are repeated long enough as people turn over, as new journalists come in and you think about, you don't necessarily have the working knowledge of all the ins and outs and all the phrasings, it's very easy to slip from "unification with Taiwan" to speaking about "reunification," and "Taiwan has always been a part of China," and that today is the aberration of Taiwan being separated from the PRC, not Taiwan being connected to Greater China, but being the historical aberration.

DEVIN STEWART: Peter, before we go, I think you've rightly warned in some of your comments and articles that we need to address this challenge without it becoming a witch hunt or something hysterical. How do we do that, and are we heading in the right direction?

PETER MATTIS: The short answer to that is with great difficulty because it's a delicate subject and a very difficult one. A lot of the ways we have to communicate about these things are not necessarily simple or easy or as clear as they might be. It's also very difficult to come to grips with how your thinking may have been impacted by these kinds of interactions.

Like I said, no one wants to think of themselves as being a dupe, even if that's not really the right way to think about how someone might affect your thinking. If you want to avoid going down the witch hunt road, I think it requires admitting that this is what the party does and this is how it tries to interact with the world and as a result there are problems that come from it.

Two, we have to have a discussion about values: What values are we prepared to defend? What values are important to our civic culture and civic life? A number of the values that I think most people living in democratic states would say are important are things like having a relatively free press, having civil society, having academic freedom, having the rule of law, and some of these are values that the party has identified as being hostile values that have no place in the Chinese system governed by the CCP.

I think that means we need to consider how some interactions and some engagement with the Chinese party state might be inappropriate with some of the key institutions of our democratic and civic life.

The next step I think would be mapping the CCP's activities and drawing it from the Chinese side over to the United States or over to Canada, Australia, and others, and seeing the ways in which the party seems to be trying to manipulate our interactions, see the ways in which they're trying to mobilize the Chinese community abroad as political props both to reinforce their legitimacy back home and to press their interests abroad.

As I mentioned at the top, you have to have a sunlight period where almost everything short of espionage can be forgiven in a sense, and a conversation can take place where you decide how we're going to protect certain values or what is acceptable engagement or what isn't. Because at the end of the day, this is not going to be a purely government response; it can't be to be effective.

The government is always going to focus on the illegal side of things. If it's legal, they're just going to look the other way and focus on what they should address. As people living in a democratic society, I don't think we would want it any other way.

But that also means that as citizens we have to have this conversation and make these judgments ourselves, and the best way we can do that is through a kind of civil conversation and on a case-by-case basis as these things come up.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you very much, Peter.

Peter Mattis is research fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and a contributing editor at War on the Rocks in Washington, DC.

Peter, thanks for speaking with us.

PETER MATTIS: Thank you very much for having me.

You may also like

MAY 23, 2024 Podcast

U.S. Election 2024 in a Post-Policy World, with Tom Nichols

"Atlantic" staff writer Tom Nichols returns to "The Doorstep" in its penultimate episode to discuss the lead-up to the 2024 U.S. presidential election.

ChatGPT homepage on a computer screen

MAY 15, 2024 Article

Forecasting Scenarios from the Use of AI in Diplomacy

Read through six scenarios and expert commentaries that explore potential impacts of AI on diplomacy.

MAY 15, 2024 Podcast

Beneficial AI: Moving Beyond Risks, with Raja Chatila

In this episode of the "AIEI" podcast, Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen engages with Sorbonne University's Raja Chatila, exploring the integration of robotics, AI, and ethics.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation