Flag of the CCP. Via <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flag_of_the_Chinese_Communist_Party.svg">Wikimedia</a> (Public domain)
Flag of the CCP. Via Wikimedia (Public domain)

Information Warfare: the Communist Party of China’s Influence Operations in the United States and Japan

Aug 29, 2018

This report draws in part on Hudson Institute's report on CPC influence operations: Parello-Plesner, J. and B. Li. (June 2018). "The Chinese Communist Party's Foreign Interference Operations: How the U.S. and Other Democracies Should Respond." Available at: https://s3.amazonaws.com/media.hudson.org/files/publications/JonasFINAL.pdf.

This report examines the Communist Party of China's political influence operations in the United States and Japan. It summarizes these operations, paying special attention to cases that lie in the gray area between influence and interference, and discusses the two countries' policy responses to these influence operations.1

Communist Party of China (CPC) Influence Operations in the United States

Setting aside the extremes of espionage and transparent public diplomacy, the CPC conducts its influence operations in the considerable gray area afforded to it by liberal democratic societies like the United States. Specifically, due to their openness the U.S. political process, media, and academia offer points of entry for the CPC's operations. This work, CPC officials point out, is conducted within legal parameters. Their insistence, far from assuaging suspicion, has led to a burgeoning field of reporting casting sunlight on the opaque world of influence operations.

Politically, the CPC has leveraged its increasing economic clout to entice current and former U.S. officials to take actions favorable to the party's interests. For example, Senator Steve Daines (R-Montana) secured an agreement to ship $200 million worth of Montana's beef to China in November 2017. The next month, he hosted a National People's Congress (NPC) delegation of legislators from China's Tibet Autonomous Region. Remarkably, the NPC delegation's trip to Washington coincided with a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on CPC repression in Tibet and a visit by the president of the Tibetan government in exile, raising suspicions that the NPC delegation was orchestrated to undercut activist messaging. More recently, Chinese Commerce Ministry spokesperson Gao Feng's direct entreaty for U.S. companies to "do more to lobby the U.S. government and work hard to safeguard their own interests" preceded two reports on pro-CPC lobbying conducted by former U.S. officials, several of whom have business ties with China.

Moving away from the Beltway to America at large, the CPC has expanded its operations within the U.S. media market to disseminate pro-Beijing messaging. In some cases, such as Xinhua (China's state-run official news agency) establishing U.S. field offices, the connection between what is being published and Beijing is transparent. In other cases, such as American newspaper Qiao Bao's ties to the CPC's Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, the connections require considerable effort to unearth. Somewhere in between lies The Washington Post's "China Watch" section, which is a paid advertisement taken out in the newspaper by the state-run China Daily. While it is labeled as an advertisement, some have criticized it for being intentionally misleading.

In addition to disseminating its own messaging, the CPC has profited from "opinion deterrence" in the U.S. media. Hong Kong company Integrated Whale Media's purchase of a majority stake in Forbes Media was quickly followed by the magazine's termination of its relationships with CPC critics Gordon Chang and Anders Corr. It could be that Forbes' editors had internalized the CPC's red lines on their own and acted accordingly, or that the editors received instructions to curtail anti-CPC opinions on their platform. Cases similar to this one have occurred in the entertainment industry as well, though there self-censorship has more to do with winning access to the Chinese market than ownership. A co-writer of Marvel's Doctor Strange film, for example, admitted that concerns about CPC censure led to the reimagining of the comic book's Tibetan character as a Celtic mystic.

Beijing's gray area involvement in American academics has three major prongs—Confucius Institutes, CUSEF, and CSSAs. Confucius Institutes came under increased scrutiny early in 2018, as fears about CPC influence on campuses naturally extended to the Chinese government-funded institutes. Prominent examples like that of Chicago University, which shuttered its Confucius Institute in 2014 over concerns about losing control of faculty hiring and programming, and recent reporting on the relationship between Confucius Institutes and the Chinese telecom giant ZTE have combined to raise questions in Washington's national security circles about the institutes' purported innocuousness.

Those same circles have raised similar questions about the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF). The Foundation's chairman, Tung Chee Hwa, serves as vice chairman on the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), an arm of the CPC's United Front apparatus, forming an indirect link between Beijing and numerous U.S. institutions that have accepted CUSEF funding, including Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. (Tung was also the first person to serve as the Beijing-appointed chief executive of Hong Kong after the 1997 transfer of sovereignty from the UK to China, a highly sensitive and important post.) Recipients of such funding have insisted that it comes without conditions or limitations.

Unlike its indirect CUSEF link to American campuses, the CPC directly manages Chinese Student and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) at American campuses. Chinese embassies and consulates provide funding for CSSAs, which in turn provide information-gathering and ideological support for the CPC. Primarily focused on ensuring that Chinese students and scholars living abroad do not become "a problem," this exchange amounts to another form of opinion deterrence as Chinese students and academics are pressured into toeing the party line in their American public lives. A recent example of this kind of pressure is the fallout from Chinese student Yang Shuping's commencement speech at the University of Maryland upon her graduation. The University of Maryland CSSA sharply rebuked Yang for praising the "fresh air" of American democracy and contrasting it with that of China. In a meeting with Washington metro area CSSAs, a Chinese embassy official "praised the group's response and encouraged other CSSAs to follow suit."

CPC Influence Operations in Japan

As a relatively open and democratic society Japan offers several points of entry for CPC influence operations.

The first of these points is Japanese universities. According to a report by AidData, Japan was home to 14 Confucius Institutes in 2016. Although this pales in comparison to the U.S. figure (107 as of July 2018), it is tied for second-most in Asia and Oceania (behind South Korea). Indeed, according to the report 29 percent of China's public diplomacy activities are conducted through the institutes. Compared to media coverage in the United States, however, concern about the institutes remains sparse.

Japanese universities also offer the CPC access to their students. According to AidData's report, the CPC sets up exchange programs between universities "to create personal relationships between Chinese people and their counterparts in receiving countries to build trust and grow a 'cadre of willing interpreters and receivers' that adopt China's norms and values in the political . . . sphere." Given that Beijing has positioned China's interests as diametrically opposed to Japan's in some cases, such as the dispute over the Senkaku islands, its "cadre growing" efforts have been met with opposition from Tokyo.

This capital city pushback leads the CPC to the next point of entry in Japan—sister city diplomacy. In 2016, China had 377 sister city arrangements with Japan, more than twice the amount of the second-highest count (South Korea at 180), and conducted 45 percent of all its public diplomacy efforts through these arrangements. Presumably, smaller sister city arrangements are not subject to the same level of national security scrutiny as the Tokyo-Beijing one, making cultural diplomacy easier for the CPC. As with university exchanges, these efforts aim to form lasting relationships with opinion makers in Japanese society.

The third major point of entry for CPC influence operations, making up the remaining 26 percent of public diplomacy to Japan, is elite-level visits. The intermittently warm and cold relationship between the two capitals makes this point of entry subject to political constraints. Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and the fortunes of its so-called "China School" faction provide onlookers with a convenient bellwether for Japan-China elite-level visits. Diplomats belonging to the China School favor warm relations with China, and in periods when the group wields influence in MOFA, high-level visits are more common. However, the China School has been the target of criticism for having compromising attitudes toward China. The decline of the China School's prominence in MOFA signaled an increasing tension between the two governments in the early 2000s. Nonetheless, the appointment of an ambassador to Beijing from the China School in 2016 coincided with a "tactical détente" between Japan and China, and high-level visits have been increasingly common in the past two years.

Responses from the United States and Japan

U.S. concerns about CPC influence operations remain primarily a Beltway concern. Yet that has not stopped policy makers from pursuing legislation aimed at these operations. Representatives Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) and Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) introduced the "Countering the Chinese Government and Communist Party's Political Influence Operations Act of 2018" in June. The proposed legislation would require Confucius Institutes and other CPC-funded think tanks to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. It would also require the secretary of state to submit an unclassified report on CPC political operations.

U.S. policy makers have also taken non-legislative measures, particularly regarding Confucius Institutes. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Representatives Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas) have all written letters to schools in their respective states advising them to terminate their relationships with the institutes. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) wrote a similar letter advising The University of Texas at Austin to reject funding from CUSEF. Some schools have acquiesced, while onlookers have raised concerns that the senators' efforts ought to be directed at more credible threats to national security. Confucius Institutes have also figured prominently in recent Congressional hearings on CPC authoritarianism, alongside industrial espionage and repression in Xinjiang.

Japan has taken a different course in response to CPC influence operations, fighting propaganda with propaganda. For example, last year Japan's MOFA covertly paid a London think tank to produce anti-China commentary favorable to its agenda. Cases like this and a massive increase ($500 million in 2015) in MOFA's public diplomacy budget constitute an unprecedented push by Japan to shape global public opinion. Some experts have criticized Japan for the heavy-handedness of its recent operations, while others see them as an improvement over past campaigns ("Cool Japan") or at least more credible than the CPC's framing of international affairs.


1 This field of journalism extends beyond CPC influence operations. An August 2018 report by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian at The Daily Beast identified South Korea as the largest foreign spender on lobbying in Washington (available at: https://www.thedailybeast.com/when-donald-trump-won-south-korea-started-raining-cash-on-dc).

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