Spotting China's Influence Operations, with Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian

Aug 29, 2018

The Chinese Communist Party's main goals for influence operations in the U.S are "to make sure that the U.S. does not stand in China's way in terms of its global, foreign policy, and economic goals, and second, to silence or marginalize critics," says Allen-Ebrahimian, a security reporter for "The Daily Beast." Who are the principal targets? Elites, Chinese-American communities, Chinese students in U.S. universities, and American academics.

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 Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian. She is a reporter at The Daily Beast and was also a writer for Foreign Policy magazine.

Bethany, thanks for coming today.

BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN: It's great to be here, Devin.

DEVIN STEWART: This is part of our ongoing Information Warfare podcast series. It's also a cluster of projects.

Your theme—great to have you here—has been Chinese influence in the United States over the several months, maybe years, that you've been following this for various outlets.

Before we get into some of the case studies illustrated in your articles, can you give us the big picture about what is China's approach to political influence campaigns in the United States, and what are they trying to achieve with those?

BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN: Obviously, the first important distinction to make is that we're talking about the Chinese Communist Party and their influence and not Chinese people themselves. That's an important distinction to make because one of the Chinese Communist Party's big projects is to equate themselves with the Chinese people. They do that for several reasons. First of all, that way if they are criticized, the people who are accusing them they can accuse of racism; second, it cements their rhetorical and emotional power over their own country because if Chinese people equate themselves and their own nation and identity with the Chinese Communist Party, that leaves much less space.

That matters because some of the influence that we see here, the influence operations especially around language and things like that, one of the goals would be to equate the Chinese Communist Party with the Chinese people.

In terms of the United States, there are several different goals and several different approaches and levels at which the Party does things. Overall, I'd say that the main goal is to make sure that the United States does not stand in China's way in terms of its global, foreign policy, and economic goals, and second, to silence or marginalize critics.

If we're going to talk about the ways that it does that—again, this is political influence operations, so we're not talking about traditional diplomacy, we're not talking about hard power like military power in the South China Sea; we're talking about softer political influence operations. That would involve things like co-opting the elites, so however you want to do that, making friends with them, offering them amazing business deals in China, so that certain key powerful people in a country—political campaign donors, real estate magnates, people like that in the smoke-filled rooms—are going to support or not get in the way of China's goals.

Another important target of influence operations are the Chinese American communities or overseas Chinese communities in the United States. The Communist Party has learned a really important lesson from the Revolution of 1911, which resulted in the founding of the first modern China, so the Republic of China. The Qing Dynasty was felled by a democratic movement, a movement that flourished abroad. Sun Yat-sen spent time in Japan; he spent time in Hawaii, and others did as well, and that's where they were able to develop their ideas about republican governance, develop their networks, and then eventually come back to China and successfully bring that kind of regime to China.

The Communist Party does not want to replicate that, so they want to make sure that within overseas Chinese Communities all over the world dissent is crushed and that there is no room for it, or that it's marginalized, and that within those communities the pro-Beijing line is upheld. A lot of this kind of not soft exactly, but softer influence occurs in Chinese communities.

This also happens at universities, for example, China using visa restrictions to pressure U.S. academics to not criticize China. Again, we're getting to the control of information: What kind of research are academics doing? Are they going to choose to research human rights lawyers, or are they going to choose to research China's "economic miracle"? Which one does Beijing want? Obviously, the latter.

So they can pressure U.S. academics by threatening to not grant them visas for the research that is necessary for them to advance in their careers. Then you get a lot of academics who perhaps understandably will succumb to that pressure to some extent.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you so much, Bethany. That's an incredible overview.

A couple of questions. How successful do you think these types of campaigns have been? It's very hard to assess success with these things, but if you could take a stab at giving an impression of how effective they are.

Also, why now? Why is everyone talking about this among foreign policy circles—which is not everyone in the world. It's a little community, and you're perhaps the most prolific person writing about this topic on China and the United States. Why suddenly does it seem to be everywhere? Did something change, or is it just that we're more aware of it? What's going on?

BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN: I think a couple of things happened. It's important to look at Australia because they've been having this debate for a year and a half to two years now. They have had some really great investigative journalists such as John Garnaut and Nick McKenzie, who have been writing about this for a decade, and there is this whole body of knowledge that has been built up about what the Chinese Communist Party is doing in Australia. But that debate in Australia really exploded about a year and a half ago, and there were some big revelations about Party-linked campaign donors.

It's interesting also because in Australia one of the reasons that debate took off is because they were looking at the United States and seeing the Russia influence debate here, and so they were like, "Oh, foreign influence in our political system, hmm." So it was easier to start talking about that.

Back here in the United States now, we have seen Australia talking a lot about this. There is a lot of intelligence sharing between the United States and Australia on these issues. They are both members of the Five Eyes. There are academic exchanges, scholarly exchanges, many kinds of exchanges. I think what has happened here is that people are looking at Australia and asking the question, "Is this happening here in the United States?" and, of course, the answer is yes.

DEVIN STEWART: Getting back to effectiveness, what's your assessment? Is this making a difference? Is it even possible to tell?

BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN: Sometimes it's possible, and sometimes it's really hard to know.

Take the academics at universities as an example. Because so much of this is personal self-censorship, personal decisions made in the quiet of one's own mind, judging what are my chances if I go this direction in my research or if I go that direction in my research, or if I say this in a public setting or if I say that? Because so much of self-censorship happens in one's mind, it's really impossible to trace. With that, you have to look at the overarching quality of the narrative.

In other ways, it is pretty clear. For me, what I have found is that that influence is pretty clear in the Chinese communities, especially among Chinese community organizations. From what I've heard, from what I've seen, and from what people have told me, in previous decades it was much easier for independent-minded Chinese organizations to be politically active or to speak out in ways that Beijing would not have been happy with.

If you learn to see the signs for this and you look at Chinese community organizations all around the country, they have clear ties to the United Front or to United Front-linked organizations, and that's one of China's main political influence agencies—it's a Chinese Communist Party agency.

DEVIN STEWART: You said, "learn to spot the signs." Very interesting. What are some of the signs that people could be on the look-out for to see connections?

BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN: That's a pretty complicated question. I will just say briefly that you would want to look for are they echoing not hip, if you will, but very current-day Chinese Communist Party rhetoric? Are they talking about the Belt and Road? Are they talking about peaceful reunification with Taiwan and things like that?

Simply saying that is not enough to indicate that they're under Beijing's influence, and that's a really important point because we have free speech in this country, and anyone can have any point they want and should not be accused of being an agent of foreign influence because of what they say. But if you combine that with silence on certain issues that Beijing considers to be core interests, like human rights, like Taiwan, like Xinjiang, like Tibet, and especially if you see members of those organizations—this is really the clincher—being involved with certain Chinese Communist Party agencies or government organizations.

For example, if you're looking at a certain Chinese community organization and the president of it is invited to go on a trip to China by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, which is now a part of the United Front Work Department, you can guess that either Beijing is trying to establish a relationship and co-opt this organization or that has already successfully happened.

DEVIN STEWART: This has become also a very touchy topic. Like you said at the beginning—I watched the C-SPAN interview with you, by the way; it was like a minor war zone there. You handled it very well. That was quite intense.

But as you said at the outset, the Chinese Communist Party is trying to identify itself as being synonymous with Chinese people, and that's the thing that gets people in trouble. You can't say "Chinese" without people getting a little bit sensitive about that. What has been the reaction to your reporting on this topic, and what do you make of that reaction?

BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN: To my surprise I haven't faced a lot of personal attacks. I thought that I would. I have always tried to the very best of my ability show a balanced picture. For example, with the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSA), universities, these organizations do have close ties to the Chinese consulates. CSSAs do a lot of really positive things for Chinese students. Mostly they serve as social organizations, and that's very normal, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Also sometimes the consulates will make political demands of the students who have this relationship with them and feel that maybe they owe them things, or for various reasons they will comply with that. It's not a black-and-white issue; it's really quite complicated. People act in rational ways for rational reasons. Mostly it's something we need to understand. I think that's really important.

You have to really avoid criminalizing this kind of stuff. You don't want to try to sic the justice system on these people. It's something that needs sunlight, and we need to be able to have open discussions about it, but you have to remember that, especially in this political environment with the person who is currently in the White House, there is a lot of nativist sentiment, and I think that fears that some people have that there will be some kind of wave of anti-Chinese sentiment, I think that is a completely reasonable fear, and I wouldn't want to be a part of that.

At the same time, the Chinese Communist Party is targeting people of ethnic Chinese heritage. They actively target them and they actively victimize them. They try to shut down their speech. I think this issue is a human rights and civil rights issue because Chinese Americans in this country should be able to organize and have demonstrations and have their own Chinese-language publications that enjoy free speech, and those should not be censored by Beijing.

Actually, a lot of my articles I have received a lot of encouragement from Chinese and from Chinese Americans because they say thank you: "Thank you for speaking out about this. I didn't know anyone cared about this. We feel trapped. We feel under pressure. No one has been paying attention to us." So I try to listen to those voices as much as I can. If they start to say, "You have to be careful the way you're going about this, Bethany," I try to listen to them.

DEVIN STEWART: That's encouraging.

You mentioned several case studies which you outline in distinct articles that you've written for the two or three outlets that you write for, including The Daily Beast and Foreign Policy magazine. You talked about cultivating friendships with the elites, cultivating ties with Chinese communities. You also talked about presence on American campuses.

I think you mentioned before the podcast to me that the campus article is one of your favorites. I've read it two or three times. It's a fantastic article.

BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN: That's so nice to hear. Thank you.

DEVIN STEWART: Of course. It's right on my desk. "China's Long Arm Reaches Into American Campuses" is the title. Tell us about what you learned from that reporting. Also, I'm really curious about how you did it to the degree you're comfortable sharing your methods with us. That would be so interesting.

BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN: The most important thing I learned from that article is that I need to listen to Chinese people when they talk to me. The things that they say are true and real, and their experiences are real, and I think that oftentimes that gets overlooked for various reasons. Being a first- or second-generation immigrant in this country, their voices tend to be marginalized, especially in media.

There was a smaller article that preceded that one about one CSSA at Georgetown University.


BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN: The Chinese Students and Scholars Association. There are 100 to maybe 150 of them around the United States. They're not the only Chinese student organization on campuses, but they're probably the most widespread ones. Most of them will explicitly state that they are under the official guidance of the Chinese consulate.

I learned from that one that when Chinese people tell me something they're telling me the truth and I should listen and that the best reporting comes from that. I had written a previous article about the CSSA at Georgetown because I got some documents showing that it received a small amount of money, $1,200 or something, in 2011 from the Chinese consulate. Not a big deal.

DEVIN STEWART: In Washington.

BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN: In Washington, right. I was like: "Oh, look. The Chinese embassy gave this student group money."

After that, I got an influx of Chinese students from around the country sending me information about their CSSAs. They're the ones who gave me that information. They took screenshots of things that were concerning them from the WeChat groups of their CSSAs.

In fact, I had conversations with four CSSA presidents. Two of them were perfectly fine with close ties to the consulate, and two of them were deeply uncomfortable. The ones who were very uncomfortable with it, they're the ones who sent me screenshots—

Chinese consular officials have divided the country up into regions. The education officers in the consulates for those regions will systematically make a WeChat group for all the presidents of all the CSSAs in that one region so they can send them all a message simultaneously via WeChat or have private messages with them.

I looked at some of those conversations, and I saw those groups. I got to see some of the messages that were sent, and some of them were political directives. Last year, around the 19th Party Plenum, the groups were strongly encouraged to have Xi Jinping thought study sessions, and that is kind of new. That's a new level of political pressure that is being directly levied here on students who are supposed to be in this free environment, away from the Marxist-Leninist authoritarian system there, and yet the Chinese Communist Party has found a way to pressure them even here.

DEVIN STEWART: So why is it new? I suppose there's something going on in Beijing. What's the difference now?

BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN: I wouldn't say there's a big difference. I think if you want to look for a difference you'd have to go back to the early 1990s. In 1989 the Tiananmen Square Massacre was an earth-shattering event for China and for the Party in many different ways, and a takeaway that the Party had was: "Wow, we have a global image problem. Also, a bunch of Chinese people who are maybe against us have now scattered and left China and gone around the world, and we need to keep close tabs on them."

So they really upped their efforts. The United Front Work Department launched on this big expansion globally around that time. That's really the key thing to look at. In the past 10 years certainly it has continued to expand, and I would say in the past two to two and a half years, for example, CSSAs have faced a lot more political pressure. So in the past two to three years there has been even greater pressure to not talk about Taiwan independence or to not associate with dissidents.

As to why we're talking about it now, I really think it's just now we're finally paying attention.

DEVIN STEWART: You've written several articles about this. It seems like you're onto something here. I'm wondering if your project is going to amount to something bigger. Are you planning on a book?

BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN: Am I planning on writing a book?

DEVIN STEWART: I suppose you get that question a lot.

BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN: Devin, all journalists are planning on writing a book.

DEVIN STEWART: That's the official response.

BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN: That's the official response.

DEVIN STEWART: But you're not running for president.

BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN: I am not running for president, no. I will never be involved in politics in that way.

DEVIN STEWART: Bethany, before we go—and it has been wonderful to speak with you—what about the American response to this? First of all, do we need to do anything? Are we doing enough? And what to make of the current tenor or environment between the United States and China in general?

BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN: I think on this particular issue of covert political influence inside the United States, Samantha Hoffman and Peter Mattis wrote an article a month or two ago making a very good point that I agree with, which is that our first instinct should not be to go for a national security response. We don't want a bunch of prosecutions. That's not what we want here. What we want is sunlight. [Editor's note: For more from Mattis, check out his recent Information Warfare podcast.]

We want to know when there are covert campaigns to suppress the free speech of various people, of academics, of people in Chinese communities, of anyone. We need to know as that is happening. So we need journalists to cover this more, and we need just a greater social awareness that this is an issue. I'd say that's the first thing.

In relation to that, government reports. I know that the government has classified information about some of this. If they would declassify some of that so that journalists don't have to do all of that work all over again, that would be incredibly helpful. I think at this point we just need to know more. We need more sunlight and more transparency.

I think we also need to enforce the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) a lot better so that if people are getting funding, organizations are getting funding from Chinese Communist Party agencies or from the government, they have to report that. It doesn't make it illegal, it doesn't mean they can't do it. We just need to know where the funding is coming to know where the rhetoric is coming from. I think the American people have a right to know.

DEVIN STEWART: Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian from The Daily Beast and from Foreign Policy magazine. Thank you so much. It has been great.

BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN: It has been great. Thank you.

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