China's Political Influence on Democracies, with Sarah Cook & Isaac Stone Fish

May 29, 2019

China is radically expanding its strategy to wield influence in the domestic politics of other countries. This information campaign is designed partly to bolster China's power but also to undermine the space for rights and democracy in other states, and to potentially support pro-China authoritarian leaders. Don't miss this in-depth discussion that details how this is happening worldwide, what it means for the future, and what we can do about it.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, everyone.

We have Sarah Cook from Freedom House and Isaac Stone Fish from Asia Society. Isaac is working on a book on the topic of our discussion today, which is China's information campaigns in democracies, specifically, but obviously China's information campaigns are all over the world, so that'll be a very big book.

Also, a couple of promotional things. I have to brag about this little piece that I wrote to show you that I'm a legit Asia specialist. This just came out about two hours ago in The Hill. I'm called an "opinion contributor," because they're free, opinions, and that's about what I can contribute.

This is a story of looking back on my career over the past 25 years and looking back on how American foreign policy is made and why Americans should come together and stop beating each other over the head on Twitter and on social media and in various forms and just remember that we're fellow Americans and we have shared interests and shared values. I think the challenge of China presenting an alternate system to the United States makes that coming together, that bipartisanship, that comity, that unity, makes those virtues more important and more urgent than ever.

When researching this piece I came across this very interesting group called the Committee on the Present Danger. Who knows that committee? I'd say about 5 percent of the audience knows that committee.

First of all, just read my article because it's a nice summary of this committee. They started in 1950 with Paul Nitze—everybody know who Paul Nitze is? That's another about 5 percent—and essentially created the strategy to defeat communism in 1950. President Truman was persuaded by the onset of the Korean War.

So here we are 70 years later returning to basically the same themes of uncertainty on the Korean Peninsula and the return of the Committee on the Present Danger, which reassembled itself recently about a month ago in Washington, DC, headed by Steve Bannon. Anyone heard of Steve Bannon? Okay, that's about half the audience. We're getting warmer.

Their basic modus operandi, their approach, is to identify a global threat to American values and American democracy and then essentially recommend that America dramatically increase its military presence. That's essentially their calculus. They did it in the 1950s and then in the 1970s with Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld. They created the so-called "Team B" exercise to go against the National Intelligence Estimate on the Soviets. Who knows Paul Wolfowitz? And Rumsfeld? There we go. So now you see it's relevant.

After the 9/11 attacks they recommended the Global War On Terror and now they've reassembled, and the new threat is the Committee on the Present Danger: China. So they love fighting communists. They're going back to their roots. They're going back to their old jams.

The problem is that Steve Bannon and Newt Gingrich at the opening of this said, "We have to go after American elites like McKinsey, Booz Allen Hamilton, Goldman Sachs," and other elites who are "too soft on China." I think we should really caution against going after our fellow Americans. If you just want to do business with China, that should be allowed, and we shouldn't engage in a purge mentality in the United States.

Again, maybe it's unrealistic to think that we could come together as a country, but I continue to dream. It's a big dream.

I also would like to thank Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) for partnering with us on this event. There was some support from Taiwan about a year ago on a similar event we held, and I just wanted to say if you don't know why Taiwan would be interested in supporting an event like this, I don't know why you're here.

But if you need to know why, Taiwan is a fellow democracy that is one of, if not the biggest, recipient of Chinese influence campaigns. So they have a lot of interest and a lot of experience with the topics that we have today, and like Carnegie Council they want to educate the public and support our efforts to educate the public on how to spot influence campaigns and what they look like and maybe how to respond appropriately.

Let me just tell you a quick story. Do you remember about 10 years ago the idea on U.S.-China relations was, "Well, just keep engaging with them, and eventually the Chinese will come to their senses, and they'll adopt American-type institutions, they'll come around, and we'll percolate and infiltrate their thinking and make them want to adopt free-market capitalism and democratic liberal institutions eventually."

To that end, Carnegie Council 10 years ago was doing a bilateral Beijing-New York track-two dialogue on fighting climate change together. It was right around the Olympics, so I got to go see the Beijing Olympics, all the infrastructure. It was very exciting, and it was kind of optimistic at that time that maybe still China and the United States might merge together in systems. Now that type of thinking seems so alien and out of date.

Today what do we have? Today we have the 2020 presidential candidates fighting for who can be toughest on China. Trump is mocking other candidates: "That guy can't be tough enough; I can't wait for that guy," mostly guys, some women, too. That's one point.

The second is that we have now according to the press a full-on trade war with China, very antagonistic. The American media is now calling it a "new Cold War," which I thought was a wonky thing that people said in think tanks, but now I think even The New York Times uses that expression.

I don't think that's a precise way of describing the relationship, but that's what the public discourse is like. Xi Jinping recently said to the Chinese people to prepare for "a new Long March," and the thinking—at least in the American media, because Americans love to think everything is about us—was that Xi Jinping was saying this because, "Oh, this is because America is doing a big trade war, so it's our fault." It always comes back to us.

With that, the rationale for this conference is really looking at what some have called a "Gray War" between the United States and China. This is more like a corporate competition, jostling, poking, and up and down. It's not an all-out overt war, but it's influencing and shaping and things like that.

Influence campaigns, political influence on democracies, is one of many policy tools that the United States and China and other countries all around the world deploy. They use these tools to influence the politics of other countries that matter, essentially. The United States and China matter, and we're trying to influence one another.

This is not an antagonistic panel. We all love to go to Asia, we love Asian countries, and we're going to talk about that, how to avoid stereotypes and things like that. This is really meant to be an examination of a type of instrument that's used in a Gray War.

Everyone's done hearing me, so I'm going to start out with Sarah Cook from Freedom House to give us the big picture, and then over to Isaac on the big picture, and then I'll do a couple of questions following up, and then we'll turn it to the audience.

Sarah, take it away.

SARAH COOK: Starting on Devin's point, I think when we're thinking about this topic generally, one of the real things to maybe keep in mind and think about how we articulate it is to disaggregate China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and it's hard, especially when you're trying to write succinct headlines. But it really is different.

When you look at it what's happening, especially the phenomenon, the dynamics that are more aggressive and more intentional, it's Chinese Communist Party strategy, and even though the Chinese Communist Party rules China, and under Xi Jinping the state and the Party have become fused more than they had been previously, there are lots of Chinese people and other people in China and outside of China who do not agree with the Chinese Communist Party or may not even be necessarily affiliated with the Party.

It's very different when you see something that's very closely linked—some people might have heard the term "the United Front Work Department." That's actually a department of the Chinese Communist Party that does coordinate a lot of this type of influence campaign not only in the media, which is what I'm going to talk about more, but there are lots of different ways in which the Chinese Communist Party tries to influence democracies.

My particular area of expertise is with media, on social media, so I'm going to talk a little bit more in-depth about that, but it ranges from political donations to various other forms of trying to co-opt or influence key politicians, in some cases indirectly. I would also like to particularly mention other ways, supporting certain candidates, influencing the diaspora—I'll talk about diaspora media—but there's a range of different strategies.

If you look at the literature and the writings of the Communist Party and the United Front Work Department, they're super-clear that these are strategies. Sometimes I'll be looking at the phenomena, and then I'll go and read one of their documents: "Oh, my gosh. They're basically doing what they said they were going to do."

A lot of the things I would say are the phenomena, the examples, that are not so benign, that gear more toward what some analysts in Australia have said are not so much soft power but are more "coercive, corrupt, and covert," things that— depending on the country's laws, may actually be illegal or in other cases would just be very clearly problematic in terms of democratic values and institutions— are coming directly from the Communist Party. Then it gets murkier because when you talk about China's political influence, there are other indirect aspects, where it's not always entirely tied to the Chinese government. You can't always trace it back to the Communist Party.

In some cases there are even certain ways in which the Chinese government does business and does certain things and engages in certain things and the way Chinese companies are forced in a lot of ways between a rock and a hard place to operate both inside China and abroad ends up having an arguably negative influence on democracy and democratic norms outside of China in a way that you might say would be larger China-influenced, but again I would say most often the source comes back to the authoritarian government in Beijing.

In terms of thinking about the media and informational space part, a lot of you have seen the China Watch supplements in the news. If you go on Facebook, Chinese state media have tens of millions of followers on their Facebook pages. If you look a little bit further down, you can look a little closer and look at where they're advertising to.

They don't do that many Facebook ads in the United States. It's a lot to other developing countries, so if you go to Chinese Global Television Network (CGTN) Français—and this is to Facebook's credit that it makes my work easier because they've become more transparent about who's advertising to who—and you see that the ads promoting the page are actually going to Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.

I don't know if there's fully a correlation; I don't entirely know what's been happening, why this is the case in Tunisia, but if you look at the last Pew survey about perceptions of China, including vis-à-vis the United States, Tunisia's like off the charts. 66 percent think China and Xi Jinping personally—they give them very good scores, I guess I would say.

I can talk a little bit later about some academic studies that look at this more rigorously, but you see those are examples that are very clearly state media trying to push out and get into the narratives of other countries.

From that perspective there are two things I will touch on, and then I'll pause. One, what is the Chinese Communist Party trying to achieve with this? Two, what are the main ways in which they're actually going about trying to influence media and public debate in other countries?

The goals are very closely tied to the Chinese Communist Party's own priorities. They want to portray a benign China, a benign regime, a benign form of governance. They want to suppress critical coverage and especially investigative journalism and exposés. Some of the research that we had done, one of the things that was interesting was incisive political commentary.

For example, in places like Taiwan, especially in the Chinese-language media, that was one of the areas where it has become tighter. Particularly if certain media owners have been co-opted by the Chinese government and will manage the content of their stations or newspapers differently, it's the commentators who are being more critical of the Chinese government that start to lose their jobs.

Another aspect when you're looking at the global role that China has is to make other countries be more open to Chinese investment and involvement and influence. That's another key goal, and that relates also to trying to suppress coverage of, say, environmental degradation or other problems that can come in some cases, corruption that emerges from the way that the Chinese government and state-owned enterprises and other companies do business in other countries.

A newer element that has emerged, particularly in the last two years, is this question of the China model. In the West we used to always talk about, "Oh, is there a China model? Are other countries following the China model?" The Chinese government never talked about it. Then, at the 19th Party Congress, Xi Jinping comes out and was like, "Yeah, we're going to be the model, and we're going to show other developing countries a way of governing." It's framed in this CCP-speak that sounds very innocuous, but it basically is how their governance system could work elsewhere.

I think you do get a more proactive narrative, trying to relay to people in other countries—and in some cases it's very practical with the export of surveillance technologies and things like that—of transporting the China model to other countries.

For the media influence sphere, I would say there are three main ways in which it plays out: One is this element of the propaganda side, the insinuating, especially of Chinese state media content and narratives even through other actors, into the media space. Some of it is direct. A lot of it's indirect, like by paid supplements, by other ways in which—

They have a term called "borrowing the boat to reach the sea," where they're inserting—because how many people are going to go pick up a copy of the China Daily? But there are a lot more Americans—not only in America, it's in Australia, it's in the United Kingdom, it's in Kenya, it's in Argentina, it's in Peru, it's in Senegal—are picking up their newspapers, and there they see the China Watch supplement. It says it's an advertorial supplement. It might say it's from China; it definitely doesn't say that it's a state-owned newspaper. So that's one thing, this element of propagandizing and inserting the narrative.

Now you can say, "Well, that's soft power. That's what we do, everybody does." The tricky thing is this lack of transparency, where it's not made clear what the origins are and the state motivations behind it.

The second type is more problematic, which is the suppression of critical coverage. I wrote a report called The Long Shadow of Chinese Censorship: How the Communist Party's Media Restrictions Affect News Outlets Around the World, that has a pretty detailed analysis of all the different tools in the toolbox for this, but it ranges from various forms of direct action, like Chinese diplomats and embassy officials actually going to media owners, to journalists, to others outside of China and telling them, threatening them, intimidating them—it happened to cable company executives in the United States so that they wouldn't put a dissident Chinese TV station on the air in the Washington, DC, area—so those types of efforts that are really direct to try to pressure various people outside of China to change their coverage of China and their work on China.

A second is the whole issue of economic carrots and sticks, and that's various means of co-opting and using particularly media owners who have business interests in China, either getting them to buy certain media outlets, like has happened in Taiwan, or suppress some of the critical coverage in the media outlets they already own.

A third is working through proxies, so putting pressure on governments, satellite companies, and others, advertisers, in order to suppress critical coverage and make the financial sustainability of critical news outlets more difficult.

The last is various forms of cyberattacks and physical attacks.

The last point I'll just make quickly is I think there's a new form in which the Chinese government and Communist Party and related companies are increasingly in a place where they can influence the narratives in democracies, and that relates to content management and delivery systems.

You have a situation where in many parts of Africa a Chinese company that is privately owned—but has received subsidies from the Chinese government and has what is clearly a close relationship—called StarTimes has overseen the transition from analog to digital television in multiple countries, and lo and behold, after a while it comes out that, you know what? Their cheapest package now no longer includes BBC World, their cheapest package now only includes CGTN, the international arm of the Chinese state media broadcaster, and local channels.

Then you have other examples of various ways in which key nodes in the information flow in other countries may be coming under control, and maybe they're not being activated now, but one of the challenges is to look at that arena and see how they could be in the future, perhaps.

DEVIN STEWART: So Isaac, big picture.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Thank you. Sarah, I think you made a lot of great points there. I really like how you started with this idea of separating the Party from China. The Communist Party loves to portray itself as China and loves to create this sense of inevitability over its rule and loves to associate itself with China. It's certainly not, and when we talk and write and think about China we should be as careful as we can to distinguish between the two.

I also think it's very important to bring up that the United States has a terrible record of handling foreign threats without resorting to nativism, anti-immigration policies, racism, and in the case of the Japanese during World War II, actual internment in concentration camps.

We are at a very fascinating, important, but also fragile time in the state of this country. We, as citizens of America, need to figure out a way to counteract pernicious influence from Beijing, from the Party, without allowing some of the horrors and tragedies that this country has seen in the past with immigrants and with intellectuals. We really don't want this to be another Red Scare.

I think it was worrying what you were talking about with Goldman Sachs and the global elites—and also this nice Jewish coating there: Goldman Sachs, global elites; like, cute, Bannon, we get it—and we need to figure out a way to have this conversation to push back against people from companies like McKinsey and Goldman Sachs giving us the party line and clouding the democratic debate without going too far, and it's a difficult challenge, and it's something that's very important for us to work on.

I'd like to talk about two important ways that Beijing influences America. I think it's useful to distinguish between how Beijing plays this game and how Moscow does.

Moscow, it's a lot more about chaos for chaos's sake; China, it's a lot more about China. It's a lot more about changing the way Americans think about and interact with China. On the one hand, you think, Oh, that's less important. It's not about changing the way they do things in America, it's about changing the way they think about China. But it never just stays in the China field. It always bleeds into other aspects.

As part of the book I'm doing I've been looking at various individuals and institutions and their relationships with China over the last couple of decades, and it's fascinating to see how—like that old cliché about Vegas, it just doesn't "stay" in that little field. It has really grand and in some cases quite worrying influences.

I'm not going to go into too much detail here about that, but I think a good way to think about what Beijing does is to put it into two different categories: It's about amplifying positive voices and suppressing negative voices.

Amplifying positive voices is about finding Americans who can be encouraged, or co-opted, or in some cases outright bought out, who are willing to express views that the Party appreciates. There are certain phrases that you hear being repeated a lot. I'm going to go into some of these phrases. It's important not to hear someone say one of these things and think, Aha! Spy! It's a very, very blurred line. There are a lot of gradations of this.

Beijing loves to describe itself as this country that has "lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty." That's a phrase that the Party loves to say. Yes, it's true, but it's also this received wisdom that makes it feel like the Party is the one that's responsible for the growth in China as opposed to unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit of Chinese people.

There's talk about "win-win," there's talk about the "camaraderie" with Taiwan, there's talk about "ethnic harmony."

There's this knee-jerk response whenever someone brings up the concentration camps in Xinjiang in Northwest China, where there are roughly a million Muslims in concentration camps. People will sometimes say, "Oh, yeah, but America had slavery," or America did this or America did that, or, "And actually this is America's fault because of the Global War On Terror."

No one who you should be listening to denies that America has not committed a lot of really awful things, past, present, and unfortunately future. But just putting two things next to each other doesn't mean that they're equal, and just because America has committed crimes in the past doesn't mean that we shouldn't very forthrightly call out the abuses that we see in some parts of China today.

I lived in Beijing for about six years, and it was interesting after I left to see the times when I was being groomed to be a friend of China or a China hand, or an "old Beijing," is what they love to say. There are certain things that people will say to you, and you learn how to speak this kind of coded language, where you say, "Oh, yeah, China is developing very quickly, and yes, along with that development comes these problems," like the pollution problem and the corruption problem and the traffic problem, and, "Oh, yeah, I guess we can mention Taiwan. It's sensitive, but I'm actually speaking very openly because I'm actually talking about Taiwan."

It changes the way that your brain works. I don't want to use the phrase "brainwashing," so I won't, but it gives you this already-built model that has been sanded over decades to how you should speak about China, and you have this sense of where these red lines are. It doesn't actually allow you to have your own truth.

I think this is far more worrying and far more pernicious for Chinese Americans, some of whom have family in China and so are worried about that, some of whom face accusations of racism on both sides or of being traitors to their race.

One of the things that I'd love to do with the research that I'm doing and the book that I'm doing is to give us and to give Chinese Americans their own ability to have a democratic debate about what we want to do about China's rise.

We are at a really important point in history. It could be that China soon becomes a country that has more ability to exert pressure internationally and domestically than America. Do we want to live in a world where China is the world's most powerful country? If not, can we do anything about it, and is what we would have to do worth the ethical sacrifices?

These are really, really difficult questions. I don't have good answers to any of them, but what I think is important is how do we as a country have this debate democratically so that we can decide, use the best information we can, and figure out what kind of world we want to live in.

Thank you.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you, Isaac.

So, quick follow-up questions to both of you.

Sarah, because we already addressed the other issues that we were thinking about talking about earlier, can you give us a sense of how effective these tools are in various regions? Also, if we are to do something about it—people always like to have a takeaway and some recommendations—what would you recommend policymakers or even citizens do?

SARAH COOK: Sure. I think this plays out differently in different countries and regions and even among different populations within a particular country.

Isaac mentioned the issue of the Chinese diaspora, and with regard to the Chinese diaspora the tricky part—not going in the direction where you're targeting members of the Chinese diaspora—is that many of them are themselves victims of the pressures that the Chinese government is exerting, more of things like censorship.

For example, I don't know how many—I'll go with Devin's approach. How many of you have heard of WeChat?

Instant messaging doesn't really do justice to WeChat. It's an application by Tencent. It's instant messaging, but it's also e-payments. It's like Facebook combined with WhatsApp combined with Google Pay, I guess, all wrapped up together. It's ubiquitous in China, particularly because there isn't a long history of—there isn't an established system for credit cards and things like that, so from the payment perspective it becomes very important.

It's ubiquitous in China now, and this is a relatively new phenomenon. But censorship and surveillance on the platform are extremely intense and have intensified over the last three years in a way that I think previously had been a little bit hard to imagine. I won't get into all the details of how Tencent—they are being forced, basically, by the Chinese government to censor and monitor people.

The thing to keep in mind is that WeChat is increasingly being used by people outside of China, hundreds of millions of people, especially members of the Chinese diaspora, but not only. It was actually in Mongolia the second-most popular downloaded app in 2017, and that's a young democracy that you could see a situation where the Chinese government might have an interest in wanting to meddle in their elections a little bit by manipulating content on a popular social media application.

What's happening is that we're seeing more and more evidence of WeChat monitoring for certain and censorship outside of China, including politically sensitive censorship. For example, a politician in Canada published something trying to speak to Chinese constituents to support pro-democracy Umbrella protesters in Hong Kong. That message was deleted.

In another case, when the arrest of the Huawei CFO happened in Canada, it was found that a lot of messages on WeChat groups were being deleted. Local Chinese-language media outlets in Canada were trying to report on this—WeChat breaks up into lots of different kinds of accounts, and you have certain kinds of public accounts that allow them to push out content to followers—and they weren't able to do it on that topic and had to do all these workarounds because they kept getting deleted.

I wrote an article about this a couple of months ago, and I got an email from an Asian American activist—he's not only an activist, he's a community organizer—critical of the Chinese government, but that's not really his focus. He lives in Massachusetts, and his focus is on Asian American issues. He wrote to me saying that he was censored and silenced on WeChat including in groups with other Chinese Americans talking about Chinese American issues. Basically what happened is he was sending messages to groups, I think that he had even started, and people weren't seeing the messages.

Then he was trying to go to the Facebook part of his account and post there, and his family in China weren't able to see it. Then he at some point completely got locked out of the account or tried to open another account with one of his kid's phone numbers in America and got locked out of that account eventually because of the kind of content he was sharing.

This is just a snippet. He actually said this seemed to have really intensified because he had a whole network of friends and people he knew that this had happened to relatively recently, in the last six months or so.

There are more and more examples of this coming in. We don't even have a clear picture. I really want to try to do a survey and let him and some of his colleagues try to figure out what's going on, but I think you can see here the way it really profoundly affects the kind of information that Chinese speakers in the diaspora can access.

In Australia it's the case as well. There have been studies of what was actually shared by Chinese-language newspapers there, even Chinese versions of English newspapers, about politics in China, and it was like the Party Congress, and there was nothing about politics.

You can see here a possibility where—now, is Tencent getting a directive from the Chinese Communist Party to do some of this kind of censorship? In some cases, probably yes. We know that it was told about the Huawei situation not to do it, and certainly the Umbrella Movement.

Were they told to do it outside of China? Well, maybe not. But there's definitely a situation where if it was decided that they wanted to be even more aggressive—either because this is just the way Tencent interprets the Chinese Communist Party's priorities that they need to implement it because they want to keep their business license in China, or if it's like specific directives—the reality is that it really influences the space.

Then you take a step back and say, "Well, first of all, Freedom House, we can't open an account and publish the kind of stuff that we publish." We publish the China Media Bulletin In Chinese. I can't start sharing that on WeChat to a constituency in the United States.

Dissident Chinese media here, who cover issues like what's happening in Xinjiang, like the persecution of Falun Gong, they can't. Even regular other media that might have accounts, they're afraid that their accounts are going to get shut down by WeChat if they start sharing that kind of information.

If a very large percentage of whether it's Chinese Americans or other members of the diaspora, WeChat is a primary source of news for them, and they're using it now to interact with politicians, that really creates a space both where the inherent manipulation on WeChat is affecting conversations and the space for more deliberate meddling becomes even starker.

I would say that's just one example of how it plays out, and that happens in different parts of the world.

Other ways in which the dynamics change—you have a situation in places like Africa, where the emphasis is really much more on propaganda than on the suppression of critical coverage, although it starts to emerge, partly because you don't have Tibetan and Falun Gong activists in Africa, which you do in other countries, and they're often the primary targets of the suppression.

But when a columnist wrote a column about what was happening in Xinjiang for a South African newspaper that five years ago a 20 percent stake was purchased by a Chinese company, his column got censored, and his contract got discontinued. So you see some of these dynamics that have started in certain places, and they pop up in others.

Similarly, in places like Latin America, again it's a little bit of a softer dynamic. In places where the Chinese government feels more threatened by certain conversations or by certain actors, the efforts are much more deliberate and strategic, and I think they end up violating freedom of expression in ways that undermine democratic norms.

When you have a dissident media that were started by Falun Gong practitioners that are actually an alternative to some extent to the pro-Beijing media or even some Taiwanese stations, in some cases the Chinese government has been very aggressive in trying to restrict their space. They threatened an RCN executive to not put New Tang Dynasty TV on television. They go to the advertisers—and this isn't just the Falun Gong-led papers, it also comes up with other critical and independent Chinese media in places like Canada.

Just a couple of weeks ago in Australia a local Australian council got repeated visits from the Chinese embassy until they finally canceled a Chinese New Year sponsorship partnership with an independent Chinese media outlet in Australia. So you have a situation where a Western politician basically sided with the Chinese government against an independent Chinese media outlet that actually played an important role in helping inform some of the major mainstream media reports that exposed the level of Chinese influence in Australia.

It's in those situations where we're thinking about, Well, what do we do about this? One of the first things is we have to find ways to uphold our values and our institutions. That means enforcing transparency.

Some Chinese state media are not registered under Foreign Agents Registration Act, and one of the main things the Foreign Agents Registration Act does is actually force transparency. And CCTV, the Chinese-language version of state broadcaster, is not registered. China Daily is, and some other ones are. That's, for example, one thing.

Another thing is to hold hearings or other efforts to make sure that WeChat, that Tencent—I would rather they not censor and monitor Chinese people inside China, but they certainly should be pushed to uphold the First Amendment rights and the rights to privacy of people outside of China in democracies and potentially suffer the consequences of lawsuits and fines and other regulatory consequences that you would expect pretty much any other social media company to experience.

Then I think we should have a situation where we're looking at ways to support the alternative media that are critical along a various spectrum of the Chinese government, whether it's funding, training, things like that, because the media gives an important window to our fellow Americans or others who are Chinese speaking.

ISAAC STONE FISH: I think one idea with this is we have a much more limited ability to change the way things work in China. You can make a strong argument that that's not our place to do, but we do have far more of an ability to restrict the influence of individuals and apps that come here and work against our values.

There's a really difficult conversation about reciprocity which we're starting to have. Because Beijing bans Facebook does that mean that we should ban Chinese social media apps? Well, no. That doesn't seem like a good way of doing things. But what is a better way of doing things?

We are in a very strange time in that there is strong bipartisan support for a lot of what Trump is doing with regard to China and a lot of, in my view, very deserved skepticism and disrespect for the man himself and a lot of his policies and for the way that he carries out those policies. So we have this groundswell of support for someone who doesn't really have bipartisan support in almost any other area, and part of our responsibility is to push back and not allow the Trumpian way of handing the relationship with China to be the way that we do it.


QUESTION: I am Gunal Chopra [phonetic] from the Indian Army, retired.

I have a good point for Sarah Cook. You mentioned WeChat. The Chinese are using it in a big way by the Ministry of Social Security. Chinese Intelligence knows that the West cannot monitor that, and that's the way they communicate. If we can do something about that, we can get them. But we have no source of that.

Second is, that like Davos they started a new conference two years back at Boao, Hainan Province, where they invite the heads of states just to manipulate their minds. They give them a free business-class ticket, $5,000 each, and manipulate their minds. That is something that you have missed out totally.

The third part is that as far as Canada is concerned, the entire Canadian penetration by Chinese intelligence, the Operation Side Window was top secret, every single sphere of Canada has been influenced by the Chinese. There are more than 25,000 Chinese spies all over.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Just to jump in on your Boao question there. This is a conference that is held in a resort island. It's sort of like Davos. It gets a wide participation from "elites"—I'll use the word—and heads of state around the world.

The issue is not that Beijing is hosting this major conference and bringing people together, the issue is that we have a lot of skepticism about Beijing's intentions, and there are a lot of issues with transparency about how Beijing and the Party operates.

There are a lot of other countries that do similar types of influence operations. We're actually living one right now. The Taiwanese are supporting this panel, and we're here saying messages that they want to be amplified. We tend to agree somewhat, I think, with a lot of those messages.

But it's not that Beijing is hosting this conference, it's that we have a lot of worries about the situation in Xinjiang and the situation with Chinese influence in America and the Party's grip on power. I think we want to try to disaggregate those.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Chopra]: If you notice, the museum they made, the South China Sea Museum, they make sure that every delegate who is of some consequence is taken there, and they show that in the past 2,000 years this South China Sea belongs to China. They made those barges, they made all this stuff that they probably manipulated.

ISAAC STONE FISH: A quick response to that, and then I also definitely want to see what he has to say. In Chinese, the phrase "South China Sea," they don't call it "South China Sea," they call it the "South Sea," Nanhai. East China Sea is "East Sea," Dōng Hăi. So we are doing some of the lifting for them. By calling it the South China Sea we are making people think that it belongs to China, when it doesn't.

It's similar to how we refer to Xi Jinping in English. We call him "president." China doesn't have a president. That's fine. You don't have to have a president. We don't have a prime minister. The three titles that Xi holds, two are chairman, one is general secretary of the Communist Party, but it's mistranslated into English to give this democratic veneer, and that is something that we also have to get rid of from our lexicon.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Chopra]: My last question for you is that the United Front organization is the strong arm of the intelligence organization, and that is totally handled directly by the CCP itself. When they call you "Friends of China" or "Honorable Friends of China," it means that it's just a job description, and you have to align by what China wants you to do. It's not a title or an honor in any sense.


SARAH COOK: To your point about WeChat, I don't know as much about it in terms of—do Chinese security services use it because they feel like the West can't monitor it? I'm not sure.

But what is certain is that WeChat is monitoring the conversation. It gives them insight into the communications of people who are using it outside of China. We know they also use it to intimidate people and collect information. We know that particularly in the case of the Uyghurs.

Just a couple of weeks ago a hacker came across—again, all these leaked databases that have no security—WeChat. There was one day of messages. There were like 37 billion messages that had been flagged because of certain sensitive triggered keywords. Ninety million of them were in English outside of China, and these were basically monitored and captured. They weren't necessarily censored, they were captured for review. And the list, it's South Korea, there might have been India, there was certainly Australia, and the United States.

So you have a situation where just from a surveillance perspective and national security—if you're certain people who are writing about certain things, you probably don't want to be using WeChat—and we have seen some countries like Australia and like India who have required, say, members of the military and others who hold sensitive government jobs not to be allowed to have WeChat on the phones that they use for that kind of communication.

QUESTION: Hi. My name is Kevin McMullen.

I'd like to know how this problem fits in to the whole global strategy of the new Cold War. The Navy War College makes a big deal about practicing an "economy of enemies," and that doesn't mean just during wartime.

Should we have a true rapprochement, for example, with Russia and Iran? Should we treat the president of the Philippines the way we used to treat Trujillo in the Dominican Republic? The famous phrase I think was, "He's an SOB, but at least he's our SOB."

I was present in this room when everybody but myself had a seizure because a speaker ended by saying, "The United States has no national security interest in promoting women's rights in the Third World." How do we fit this problem with China into the other issues in the world when we know that other countries are going to want a quid pro quo for cooperation?

ISAAC STONE FISH: The real low-hanging fruit with that is to not alienate our allies in Europe and Asia and Australia. That's another thing that I think a lot of people are pushing back on with Trump's strategy.

I would say, though, I don't think the new Cold War is the right way to describe it. I think as a nation we're grasping around for the right term.

One of the problems with the Cold War designation is that we were actually almost allied with China during the Cold War against the Soviet Union, so that is confusing. But it's also that we're so much more deeply integrated with the Chinese than we are with the Soviets. If anyone does come up with a really good term, let me know. I'd like to borrow it.

DEVIN STEWART: You don't like Gray War?

QUESTIONER [Mr. McMullen]: Should we perhaps try to bail out countries like Sri Lanka and Greece when they're subject to economic exploitation by China and as a result turn over their port facilities?

ISAAC STONE FISH: I think it's much easier to just not alienate Western Europe, Canada, and Japan, and a lot cheaper than to spend billions of dollars bailing out Sri Lanka or countries like that.

SARAH COOK: In this case, initially at least, the best offense is like a defense because they're already so far ahead of us. What we can do is actually set up better institutions, rules, and regulations to protect against I would say the undemocratic or the more problematic forms of influence, both for ourselves but also to set an example.

If you look at certain types of laws like the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), for example, in the United States. That's a committee that looks at foreign investment. Now other countries are looking at that as an example because that actually has helped protect certain key sectors in the United States, not only from Chinese but from other types of influence in investment that could be problematic.

So I don't think that the answer is only, say, for the United States to do a good job, but just in general for democracies or for some of the other countries to look at protecting—first, let's try to see how we protect our systems better and to share information and awareness about how this works and the tactics and what works to push back. That would at least be a first stage and would get us further than where we are now.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Xan. I work for a non-government organization (NGO) supporting youth around the world.

I just wanted to bring democracy back into the focus and ask, particularly in the developing world, what your thoughts are. From what I know, China is engaging in trade and aid and also potentially censorship and nefarious activities in democracies and autocracies across the developing world.

For all the activity you've mentioned, it strikes me as more self-promotion and more in the self-interest of China as opposed to actively trying to dismantle democracy, as it were. From the evidence you've seen do you think China is more focused on self-interest, or are they actively hostile to democracy and trying to destroy that?

ISAAC STONE FISH: I think it's the former. I think it is much more about China's interests than about trying to dismantle democracy.

It's very difficult and I think somewhat inappropriate for us to say, "Oh, China shouldn't invest billions of dollars in Cambodia or in Tajikistan" or in other desperately poor countries around the world that really do need the aid or really could use the aid. It's a difficult one to decide, "Okay, these are the cases which we should stand up and push on."

Also, getting a little bit to your question and the last point you just made, I don't think there should be a battle between democracies and non-democracies. Just with the numbers we don't do nearly as well than if it's about the American model and the China model.

This is another thing that's so unfortunate about the timing of this because in China and in countries around the world America was really this beacon of freedom, and I hate to use "was"—maybe sort of "was, is, maybe kind of a soft was"—but with the election of Trump we have much less soft power politically then we used to have.

In 2015-16 we would always win an ideological war with China, and now it's a lot more blurry. It'll depend a lot on what happens in 2020. I don't mean to be cliché here, but this really does start at home, and if we are able to improve our image by improving our domestic politics, it's going to be a lot easier to tell countries around the world, "Hey, our model is very attractive."

SARAH COOK: I actually would maybe differ with Isaac a bit on that, although I definitely agree it's certainly more the former than the latter. The tricky thing is that by its nature, the way the Chinese Communist Party operates and governs, China is anathema to democracy. Then the way they go out and do business in other places and try to impose and achieve the goals they're trying to achieve for their own self-interest ends up having potentially negative consequences on democratic institutions. You see that with regard to corruption questions and certainly non-transparency and the general opacity that involves a lot of dealings.

In the example I gave earlier of StarTimes, besides the issue of which channels more people have access to or not, in Zambia there have been some real concerns about how StarTimes ended up with a joint venture with the main broadcaster because there are questions of they shouldn't have been able to do that because usually there are anti-competitive laws to protect open competition so that a company that's delivering the content shouldn't be a content provider itself.

In general, what you see in terms of the aid, for example, that China gives to media sectors in different parts of the developing world, it tends to heavily favor the local state-run media. That's one example where it's favoring them at the expense of the independent or less-local media that are not as heavily state-controlled.

In some cases that might be happening in a democracy. In other cases I think it's something we would call at Freedom House the "partly free" countries, where there's really a battle going on. That's where—it's not even so much always consciously is this the China model, maybe for certain elites the China model or the American model.

There are so many democracies around the world, for example, in Freedom House's indices, that perform much better than the United States. It would be much better to have democracy with a Swedish model or even a Taiwanese model. Taiwan actually does better than the United States on our Democracy Index right now.

It's these day-to-day battles of in which direction is the policymaking or the economic clout and quid pro quo pulling, and what's happening in the developing world is that not only that China and the Chinese Communist Party are developing this economic clout and this access to nodes in the information pool that should they wish to do something more Moscow-like and meddle and cause chaos more aggressively, they're very well-positioned to do so.

We've seen some tinkering with that in Taiwan with regard to fake news and now trying to maybe buy up some popular Facebook pages and things like that. I think they have a special interest in Taiwan to undermine the current government, but we haven't quite seen how this plays out. The concern is that as they gain that kind of leverage it's really almost a question of when they're going to try to activate it when the Communist Party sees something that's in their particular interest, as opposed to if they're going to do it.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Norway has a stronger democracy than the United States, and I think three years ago they denied the Dalai Lama a visa because they didn't want to offend Beijing, so I think for this battle or Gray War or whatever we're getting into it's less about the strength of the democracy but the ability to stand up to Beijing.

SARAH COOK: In that the United States is in a unique position.

QUESTION: My name's Chris. I really appreciated both of your comments.

I hear you both as people who are looking to encourage criticism of China where it might be appropriate, but you're trying to moderate how far that could go, and I think the point that Isaac is underlining here about the context of the Trump administration is so important. It's one that I'm really frustrated hasn't been highlighted more in these kinds of discussions over the last couple of years.

To try to make it a little bit more concrete, I'm wondering if there are any thoughts you can share about whether you think invoking the Holocaust is appropriate in discussing what's going on in Xinjiang, or if you think that's something that pushes us too far in a direction that we don't want to go, big-picture.

QUESTION: Albert Goldson.

Geopolitical risk. Could you talk about the long game? There are thousands of young Chinese coming of age who have gone to American, Canadian, and European universities and have lived here anywhere from four to seven years. There are thousands of them. They go back to China. To what extent—they will be the new leadership of China, let's say within 20-25 years—will that improve American-Chinese relationships?

I'm not looking for them to convert China to a democracy. Rather, they would probably stay communist and autocratic. To what extent will that improve relations between China and the United States as far as just cooperation on quite a number of issues?

ISAAC STONE FISH: I'll try to briefly combine the two answers.

Adolf Hitler went to a Western university, and there's nothing naturally liberalizing about studying in America. People would ask me that question a lot when Kim Jong-un took power because he spent time in Switzerland. There are a lot of awful people who spent a lot of time—there's a lot of awful people from Switzerland. It's not a uniquely North Korean thing.

For the Holocaust question, I think it's really important that you bring that up. I think it depends on what you're using that information for.

About seven years ago there was a major scandal with Bloomberg News where they killed a story critical to high levels of the Party, and Matthew Winkler, the editor-in-chief at that time, compared the situation in Beijing to Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and said as a result they had to pull the story.

So it's problematic for two reasons. One, I was in Beijing at the time; that was certainly not the climate. You're allowed to have whatever opinion you want, but that was an inaccurate reading of the situation.

The second is that if it's as bad as Nazi Germany in the 1930s, why are you there in the first place? Why are you listening to the Nazi government telling you what to do?

I think there's China and then there's Xinjiang with this. The situation in Xinjiang is absolutely atrocious. It might be a lot worse than we think. It's very difficult to get that information out. And I think it's useful because we don't want to stay silent for this.

I think as we navigate how we manage our relationship with China we don't want to think, Oh, gosh. If I make this comparison, I might not get a visa, or I might have a harm in this business deal that I'm trying to do where I might be less influential. I think we just want to be able to say what we believe. We're not always going to be right. But we're not doing this so that we're pleasing Beijing, we're doing this because we want to share our opinions and we want to exert change and exert influence and have these conversations. So I think the more we talk about it the better.

SARAH COOK: I would say on that question I think it's one of these situations where we are certainly looking at as a pre-genocidal situation. Again, as Isaac said, we're not really sure exactly the scale of the deaths, for example.

One of the areas I've done a lot of research on is the persecution against people who practice Falun Gong in China, and that has been going on for 20 years. The article that I recently wrote found that four officials who are playing a key role in what's happening in Xinjiang had basically been running these same kind of transformation campaigns against people who practice Falun Gong in other parts of China.

One of the findings from a report we did on religion in China was that there is very credible evidence that people—prisoners of conscience—have been killed for their organs to be used in organ transplants. It's a really complicated technical explanation—and I'm happy afterward to explain why I think that this is the case.

When you look at what's happening in Xinjiang, on that background and some of the circumstances, it's really scary. It's really scary because they've got the massive biodata—basically what they do in China is they reverse-match organ transplants. People get transplants within a week, within a month. They reverse-match them to people in custody or who they otherwise have access to, and it breaks down across a variety of different populations.

From that perspective it's maybe a genocide; it may be pre-genocidal. The tricky thing with the Holocaust, being an Israeli Jew myself, is that it's tricky because right now there aren't, thank goodness, 6 million Uyghurs that have been killed in Xinjiang as far as we know. There are 2 million in concentration camps.

Looking at Germany in the 1930s is an interesting parallel—or even a little later than that—because you're looking at why are you pulling all these people indefinitely into concentration camps. What the risks that they are facing, and at what point does it turn into genocide?

That's a really important question we need to be looking at and thinking about, but even more is what do we do about it? That's where sanctioning some of the officials involved—both the big names like Chen Quanguo and some of the other people—hits Chinese officials in the pocketbook. They're really afraid of it.

That's probably why they're trying to give the Trump administration the trade war and stuff like that to not do it. But they really are afraid of it, and it can really make a difference all the way down the chain of command.

One of the things we found when we were doing research was that even Xi's anti-corruption campaign—because he had purged some of the big tigers who were leading the security services, when activists from overseas call local police and try to convince them not to persecute people, they're like, "Look, nobody protected Zhou Yongkang. Who's going to protect you?"

In these types of situations there is some wiggle room among local officials. They're all making their own cost-benefit analyses, and the more we can push them in the cost side so that they don't participate in life-and-death situations for Chinese people, whether they're Uyghur, Tibetan, Falun Gong, or other Han Chinese or Christians, is an important role and tool that we have in our hands right now.

QUESTION: I'm Jigar and the question I have was about Chinese media and influence operations abroad.

What can the United States do to compete with China for influence abroad in this sphere? Do you think Radio Free Europe, Voice of America (VOA), institutions like that, have a role, or do you think they're more suited for the 20th century and that the United States needs a new approach? If so, what would that approach look like?

QUESTION: Hi. Ed Albrecht from Mercy College.

The picture that I'm getting here is that an increasingly effective use of soft power by China should be counteracted with softer soft power on our side, where we appeal to values, democracy, and other abstract principles.

I'm afraid that might in a way be a kind of swansong of a dying West, where we just complain that values are not being respected, but in the meantime we just lose more and more power. Might not that be dangerous in the sense that it makes the realpolitik argument—to combat with more realistic terms—more appealing to people?

ISAAC STONE FISH: It sort of reminds me of Made in China 2025, which people have been freaking out about. I still do believe that a lot of the successes of the Chinese Party state over the last couple of decades were despite the Party as opposed to because of the Party.

The Chinese tech companies that we've heard of are all private companies. Huawei is confusing and unique, and who really knows who owns Huawei, but Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu all have deep relationships with the state, but they were private individuals who wanted to make money and build something.

I think we do much better to compete with Chinese media globally with The New York Times and The Washington Post and Reuters and the Associated Press (AP) and outlets like that as opposed to Radio Free Asia and VOA, which do some good reporting but have so little influence compared to how much money is spent on them.

I think the success of outlets like China Daily and CGTN, for them it's less about how people are actually watching them, but it's more sort of background noise that populates people's thoughts, and it's a template for people who want to be soft on these issues to speak. It's a lexicon for people who want to be beholden.

SARAH COOK: Just to clarify, my point isn't necessarily on the level of values. I think it's about institutions, which is different. If you're saying we're going to investigate WeChat and look at them and have people file lawsuits and say, "Look, you're operating in the United States. You cannot go and just delete a whole conversation by Chinese Americans about Asian American political issues. You just can't do that."

If you're saying, "Look, we're going to have standards of transparency that require you"—either codes of conduct like Google actually does on YouTube right now that CGTN is funded by the Chinese government; it does write that Radio Free Asia is funded by the U.S. government, but that's okay.

I think it's more about that. It's about the institutions, and how do you strengthen the institutions and find the right legal and regulatory as well as other elements that are maybe more—public awareness, which may be softer, but supporting civil society, informing journalists, supporting Chinese independent outlets or others who are facing cyberattacks regularly, providing them funding and expertise to push back against that so they can actually get their message out to the local Chinese community because they can speak to it much better than I can, and they have a right to have those debates.

It's really in those areas, honing in on what are the institutions and the rules to strengthen that aspect in a very practical way as opposed to necessarily just talking about democracy and values, which is also very important, but I think we really have to figure out where the rubber hits the road and figure out how to do that well.

DEVIN STEWART: We'll take this last question, and then I was thinking maybe you could synthesize the little bits that are remaining.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Solve the problems.

DEVIN STEWART: Solve all the problems.

QUESTION: My name's Evan Kornbluh.

Again on this question of propaganda, I'm curious if you guys or anyone you know in this space has looked at the role of digital literacy and the impact of this.

I know there has been some interesting coverage in the United States recently of how older Facebook users, for example, newer to the platform, are less well-equipped to distinguish between different types of disinformation. Have you seen any of that in terms of the relative influence of the propaganda in some of these other countries or in how we might do types of training and education that counteract it?

SARAH COOK: I haven't seen studies of that. Some of our friends in Taiwan could probably speak more because Taiwan's actually quite advanced in looking at issues of digital literacy and how to have people learn how to identify fake news, including from China and elsewhere.

In general, especially having just really dipped into the Facebook ads that the Chinese state media use, I think they're really trying to tap into not just the developing world but this newer generation of Facebook users.

There's also some really quirky stuff. People's Daily, which is the Chinese Communist Party's mouthpiece—I'll end with this little ad. On Facebook, they've got tens of millions of users, and I'm like, Who's following People's Daily? If you look at the Chinese version, it's the most staged—Xi Jinping on every page, like on the front page.

I go to their Facebook page. Well, of course it's panda videos, but it's all these other random things: a grandma climbing out of a 30-story building and getting down: "Don't worry. Granny's okay."

When you look at what's happening in different countries, you look at Socialbakers because I happen to be looking through a few different countries in Southeast Asia, in Indonesia—that's what got me looking at this—People's Daily is the seventh most followed—there are 4 million people from Indonesia following People's Daily on Facebook—Facebook media page in Indonesia.

What's People's Daily doing? First of all, is that content harmful? No. It does fit into, I would say, the sphere of China is benign, and it's all pandas, and Granny's climbing down from the 30th story.

But it also fits with what Isaac is saying. It is building a channel, because then, if suddenly there is some kind of confrontation, some big Chinese deal they want to get in Indonesia, suddenly they can very quickly switch over to providing content that serves their interests more directly and is maybe more directly on the level of politicized propaganda or even disinformation.

That's kind of an example of how things are playing out maybe in the social media sphere, especially among populations who maybe just don't know what People's Daily is. If you look at all the state media on Facebook, they're very deceptive in their tag lines. They just say, "The biggest newspaper in China"; they don't say, "The Communist Party's mouthpiece."

CGTN is just "24-hour news from China," it's not "state-owned 24-hour news." If you go through them one at a time, it's really quite deceptive the way they're self-promoting.

ISAAC STONE FISH: I would like to end in a response to your question. Among the many hilarious things that Thomas Friedman has said over his career was—

DEVIN STEWART: There's so many.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Yes. I'll just end with the one.

He went to a World Economic Forum Conference in Northeast China, and they were able to put the building together in several months, and in my subway in Bethesda the elevator has been broken for six months, and therefore China is so much more advanced, and they're eating our lunch. You just wish that he had entered into a Chinese apartment building. There are thousands of counterexamples of really falling apart Chinese infrastructure.

That's not to say that China is bad or America is bad or China is good or America is good, it's that the more people actually go and spend time in China outside of these packaged tours that the Party and the government and businesses put on for foreign dignitaries and foreign students, the more they see that it's a place that in some ways is really taped together at the seams.

I'm not saying that to say, "Oh, yeah, the Party's going to fall apart any day now," because who knows? You'd really go broke predicting on that.

I think the real issue is that the more Americans and other people around the world actually go and spend time in China and talk to Chinese people and learn the language, the smarter our policies will be, the more effective we will be at countering pernicious Chinese influence, and the more we'll learn about the country that for good or for bad is going to be our most important foreign relationship.

DEVIN STEWART: Excellent. I heard that Tom Friedman talked to a taxicab driver, didn't he?

ISAAC STONE FISH: Oh, my god. Wow. That's a scoop. It's great.


Isaac and Sarah, thank you so much. Thanks to TECO. Thank you all.

Also, we have a program called Information Warfare on our website. There are more than 35 episodes of podcasts. Check it out.

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