China's "Opinion Deterrence" with Isaac Stone Fish

July 12, 2018

Chinese stamp commemorating the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship in 1950. CREDIT: Wikimedia/Public Domain

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I am speaking with Isaac Stone Fish. He is a senior fellow at the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations in New York City.

Isaac, great to see you again.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Great to see you. Thanks for having me.

DEVIN STEWART: This conversation is part of an ongoing series of explorations on information warfare. Information warfare might be more precisely called "influence campaigns." Information warfare might sound a little bit too exciting or violent. I think influence campaigns might be actually a better title.

Today we're actually looking at the way China is trying to influence the way public opinion thinks in America, how public opinion feels, and also how China is affecting the opinions of the elite in the United States.

With that, Isaac, everyone likes to talk about Elon Musk. You can't avoid talking about him these days. He tweeted that he had a very good meeting with the Chinese recently. Tell me about Elon's tweet. [Editor's note: This podcast was recorded before Musk made controversial comments on Twitter about a participant in the cave rescue operation in Thailand.]

ISAAC STONE FISH: There is this wonderful subgenre of tweets of important men visiting Beijing and being blown away by this marvelous model of efficiency and love and world peace. Elon's version, which he tweeted today was: "Just finished an amazing three-day visit to China. The world has never seen human energy and vigor at such scale. Incredibly impressed with Tesla China Team and the potential for the future."

DEVIN STEWART: For the listeners, while you were doing that you were doing a Trump gesture. You were doing one of these. It seems almost automatic that when you read a tweet—

ISAAC STONE FISH: Interesting. I didn't even notice that.

DEVIN STEWART: —a bombastic tweet requires one of those things.

ISAAC STONE FISH: When someone is saying something that's so divorced from reality one maybe needs to gesticulate like that.

I thought this was fascinating, and you and I had talked about this a minute before we dived in here. It's fascinating, Beijing's ability to convince people that China is this Shangri-La of good governance and efficiency when anyone who spends anything more than a month in China realizes that the reality is so much more complicated.

DEVIN STEWART: It's very complicated. We were also talking about is it possible that Elon Musk is messing with us on Twitter, and "us" meaning the people who are reading those tweets. It's like turtles all the way down.

So the Chinese are trying to influence the way we think as Americans, and then Elon Musk goes over there and perhaps is influenced in a certain way, and now he's delivering a message back in English to an American social medial platform. How do we unpack the incentives or the layers of what could the message actually be? It's very complicated.

ISAAC STONE FISH: It's very complicated. Elon Musk has 22.2 million followers on Twitter. He is seen as an independent, respected source for business information. That he is communicating this message, regardless of what his intentions are or whether or not he actually believes it, is a really nice PR (public relations) boon. It is small in the wealth of the universe of things in this space, but it's a nice little PR boon. It's, "Oh, here's really good PR from China," and it's so much more effective than if this came from a Chinese Communist Party official or a Chinese businessperson. It's like native content.

DEVIN STEWART: Could it be that his Chinese interlocutors, his hosts, put upon him, "If you make us look good on Twitter, you'll get something in return"? Is that possible?

ISAAC STONE FISH: My guess is that it was done in a far more sophisticated manner and that someone—it may have been Chinese or may have been in Tesla—made it clear to Elon that this is a good way to improve the chances that Tesla China would succeed.

It's certainly possible that Elon 100 percent believes this or that he's trolling on us and wants to put out a viewpoint that he feels is controversial. It feels like the more likely answer—this is just speculation—is that he thinks this is good for business.

DEVIN STEWART: It's kind of like a funny sub-tweet. It's like, "Hey, I don't know if China's reading this right now, but I think you guys are really great."

ISAAC STONE FISH: "You guys are fantastic," yes. "By the way, there are some regulatory issues we're dealing with," just—

DEVIN STEWART: I'm sure we can work them out.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Wink, wink. I'm sure we can find something that works for both of us. Win-win.

DEVIN STEWART: You've been looking at a variety of ways that China in general has been influencing American public opinion in a variety of articles that you've written and a lot of research you've done. First of all, what is the broad strategy from China influencing the United States? What are they trying to achieve? Is there a strategy, and what's the goal?

ISAAC STONE FISH: I think it's important to contrast what China is doing with what Russia is doing. Russia influence operations and Russia influence is much more about sowing chaos, it's about destabilization, it's about making America weaker. China is much more about making China stronger. It's much more about China as opposed to the United States. The United States is a vector and a way for China to become stronger.

There are two goals that it seems like Beijing has when it acts to influence America. The first is to pave the way for China's rise, to make the world safe for China. The second related way is to decrease critical information about the Communist Party.

DEVIN STEWART: What does that mean, to "make the world safe for China"? Does that mean lower instability? Does it mean curtail free speech? What does it mean exactly?

ISAAC STONE FISH: It's more on curtailing free speech. It's not about curtailing free speech in order to curtail free speech. It's not an end to itself. It's that if people can say whatever they want about Beijing, they're going to have opinions that: "Hey, maybe the Communist Party is not the right institution to govern China. Maybe China should liberalize. Maybe there should be democracy in China."

But the Party thinks that it is the institution that should be governing China and that it is the one that can make China a true global superpower. If Americans are debating, "Hey, should we liberalize China, should we democratize China?" that is bad for China's ability or Beijing's ability or the Communist Party's ability to be dominant.

The other issue with that, the other side of it, is trying to reduce the idea that China is a threat. We've seen so much messaging from the Party, especially over the last decade about "peaceful rise," "peaceful development," "peace," peace this, peace that. Xi Jinping five or six years ago made a little bit of a mistake in this, and sometimes you see these strategies from the cracks in it as opposed to the whole. He talked about China being a "sleeping lion" that was awakening, but it was awakening peacefully. I think his advisors probably realized that the image of a sleeping lion awakening peacefully is not one that helps people sleep well at night.

DEVIN STEWART: Sounds like a vegetarian lion.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Right, what is it, a free-cycling lion? I'm dating myself here. Freegan? Anyway, not a comfortable image for the rest of the world, so they shelved that one.

DEVIN STEWART: Those two goals, paving a nice world for—"paving" sounds very infrastructure—China and reducing criticism as the big two goals for China's influence campaign. Can you explain how they go about doing those two things generally, and then we can get down to specifics?

ISAAC STONE FISH: Totally. I think in terms of reducing critical information, a lot of that happens in Hollywood, and a lot of that happens in the academy. By trading access for compliance Beijing incentivizes academics, administrators, and students to not study, to not research, to not write or speak about the most sensitive areas. There is a sophisticated hoodwinking going on here. I'd love to get inside the head of a top Chinese propaganda official and see how much of this is actually planned.

In America we think the most sensitive issues about China are things related to the three T's: Taiwan, an island nation that Beijing claims; Tibet, a Chinese region that is famously restive; and Tiananmen, referring to the massacre in 1989. Other two areas than that are China's rule of Hong Kong and then also Xinjiang, where Beijing is carrying out apartheid-like policies to the native Uyghur people there.

Actually, the most sensitive issues are: Does Beijing deserve to rule China? Does the Communist Party deserve to rule China? Do the men at the top of the party—and they're all men—are they the ones who have the mandate, who bear the responsibility well to be the ones who govern China? By focusing the debate on the three T's and by saying, "Hey, these are the sensitive issues," we're just not talking about should China democratize, should the United States help China democratize, should they push for liberalizing China, is that in our interest, is that not in our interest, how much do we support Chinese dissidents here, and questions like that.

The way it happens in Hollywood is by saying to studios: "You all want to get into the Chinese market? Well, I don't really know how we feel about any movies that have any sort of critical elements against Beijing."

DEVIN STEWART: Does that go on the flip side as well because I realize anecdotally—and I think you and I have talked about this before—when I look at the credits or who was involved with making a movie, if there is anything with a Chinese name in it, there always seems to be a very virtuous Chinese character in there. I guess my question is: Do they push for appealing characters as well as reducing the negative characters?

ISAAC STONE FISH: It's definitely both. It's more good information and less bad information. I think this is very patronizing to people in China in general because people in China can handle negative portrayals of Chinese. They see it every day. Just like people in America, they walk around the streets and they see people doing things they don't like to do. They see people doing things they don't think of as positive, they don't like. Chinese are adults. They can also handle Chinese people doing bad things, but the Party is very sensitive to that, so we don't see it in movies.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's talk about some of the specific cases that you've written about. Just talking about movies, one of your op-eds is titled "The coming Chinese crackdown on Hollywood." Can you explain what you were trying to say in that op-ed?

ISAAC STONE FISH: One of the changes in a recent important Communist Party meeting was putting the body that manages China's relationship with Hollywood more firmly under Party control. In China, there is the Party and the government. They're interlinked and they're related, but they're not the same thing. The Party serves above the government.

For example, in a Chinese province like Sichuan, the number-one official is the Party secretary, the number-two official is the governor. So the head of the Party is number one, the head of the government is number two.

DEVIN STEWART: Can I just ask you to clarify that because my understanding is that Xi Jinping has been able to consolidate the bureaucracy and the Party to feel like they're unified. Is that true, or is that just something I've heard?

ISAAC STONE FISH: I think he is moving in that direction, and I think he has made it more streamlined and has taken away daylight between the Party and the government, but there still is a separation of the two.

DEVIN STEWART: Okay. So there might be some rivalry?

ISAAC STONE FISH: Less that there's rivalry and more that there is an institutional difference. For example, Xi has three titles. He is the chairman of the Central Military Commission, which is the body that runs the military.

Interestingly, as kind of a funny side note, China does not have a military, the Communist Party has a military.

DEVIN STEWART: Right. It's in their name. [Editor's note: China's armed forces is named the People's Liberation Army (PLA).]

ISAAC STONE FISH: The "People's"—People, AKA the Communist Party.

He is the party secretary of the Communist Party, and he is the chairman of China. The chairman of China is the head of the government. But the important title is the head of the Party. That's what really matters. In times past there have been Chinese officials who were the head of the government, but they weren't ruling the country.

This is a little bit of wonky partyology/inside baseball here. Things under the Party tend to be more conservative than things under the government or things under semi-Party organizations. Because the relationship with Hollywood is moving more under the Party, therefore it is likely that we'll see a tougher crackdown on Hollywood movies in China and also Beijing pushing for more censorship in Hollywood when it comes to China.

DEVIN STEWART: Very interesting. What does that actually look like on the ground, so to speak? Does Spielberg give Xi Jinping a call and say, "Hey, I have this idea, let me pitch this movie idea to you"? That's a caricature obviously. Is it a phone call maybe between Hollywood and Beijing? Or do they send them a script? How does it work?

ISAAC STONE FISH: You're definitely right about the phone or in-person meetings as the communication of choice. I think Beijing and Hollywood, especially after the Sony hack, recognize that email is not a great method of communicating when you want to keep something secret.

I think what happens is that when, say, a producer in Hollywood has a movie that they want to screen in China, which is basically every movie, they show it to their Chinese partners to make sure that it's not going to be a problem.

DEVIN STEWART: What does that look like? Is there a screening somewhere? What does that mean, show it to—

ISAAC STONE FISH: My understanding—and I do need to report this out—is that in pre-production they have a draft of the script and they show it to a Chinese partner, and it's much more like: "Oh, what do you think about the script? Do you think we have any issues here?"

DEVIN STEWART: Is he living in Los Angeles, this partner?

ISAAC STONE FISH: I don't know how much of it is with Chinese Party officials or with people who just have a good eye for what the Party wants, but I think the more pernicious aspect of this strategy is that a lot of times Hollywood studios don't even need to show it to a Chinese partner to get the result that Beijing wants because they censor themselves. That is much harder to prove, and it's a much more effective strategy because Beijing isn't doing anything. It has laid the groundwork, and people when they self-censor tend to be more careful than when they're censored.

DEVIN STEWART: More like deterrence or something.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Exactly.

DEVIN STEWART: Opinion deterrence.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Opinion deterrence. That's nice. Opinion deterrence.

DEVIN STEWART: That's our next article. I've got to write that.

The other case is Forbes and South China Morning Post (SCMP). I'm putting them together, they're two separate articles that you've written about. What happened to the editorial independence of Forbes? Why are you worried about that? Then tell me about South China Morning Post, which was, or I suppose maybe still is, a pretty good newspaper in East Asia.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Forbes has had a pretty rough going over the last—depending on how generous one feels toward Forbes—several years or the last decade or so. Since they were taken over by investors who have connections to China—I want to say that they're Hong Kong citizens, but I'd have to double-check on that, I don't have that in front of me—there were a few worrying cases—

DEVIN STEWART: I think you're right, yes, Hong Kong.

ISAAC STONE FISH: —of them seeming to censor articles or being far too critical on articles that were critical of Beijing. A big example was with Gordon Chang, who is a notorious China pundit. [Editor's note: Check out Chang's 2017 Carnegie Council talk on Trump, North Korea, and China.]

DEVIN STEWART: He's kind of a China basher, right? He's a hawk.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Whatever side of the spectrum that is, he is very much on that side. Gordon's a very nice guy. He and I disagree about I don't want to say everything, but the Venn diagram of our viewpoints overlapping is quite small.

Where it certainly does overlap is that I believe that Gordon should have the right to express his views without censure or censorship. Forbes seemingly disagreed.

DEVIN STEWART: Was he a columnist and they got rid of him? What happened?

ISAAC STONE FISH: He was a regular contributor there, and they got rid of him. I believe that they also deleted the archive of his stories, which is a pretty striking thing to do and makes one think that they were worried about offending Beijing.

DEVIN STEWART: He wrote The Coming Collapse of China.

ISAAC STONE FISH: He did, yes. If one wants to be generous to Gordon about that, the book was a little early. It came out in 2002.

DEVIN STEWART: But everything will collapse at some point.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Exactly.

DEVIN STEWART: It could be 5,000 years from now.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Nothing lasts forever.

DEVIN STEWART: Nothing lasts forever.

ISAAC STONE FISH: If Guns N' Roses taught us one thing, it's that.

DEVIN STEWART: That's true. Many things.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Many things.

In terms of the South China Morning Post, they have a partnership with Politico, which is an excellent journalistic organization and one that I respect greatly. In The Washington Post I wrote an op-ed criticizing Politico for partnering with South China Morning Post because the South China Morning Post is now a newspaper owned by Alibaba.

When I was speaking to people about this article, they drew the comparison between The Washington Post, owned by Jeff Bezos, and the South China Morning Post, owned by Alibaba. There are a few key differences between that.

DEVIN STEWART: I would think so.

ISAAC STONE FISH: There are many key differences, but to name a few of them: Alibaba the company owns SCMP, Jeff Bezos the individual owns the Post.

DEVIN STEWART: That's Jack Ma.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Not Jack Ma, the company Alibaba. Jack Ma runs Alibaba, but he doesn't own the South China Morning Post. Alibaba owns it.

DEVIN STEWART: We should clarify that.

ISAAC STONE FISH: The major difference is that Jeff Bezos seemingly does not interfere in any way with the editorial content of The Washington Post, but far more importantly, if Donald Trump were to say, "Hey, Jeff Bezos, don't run stories critical of this aspect of my life," Bezos would ignore him or leak it to the press or say, "Okay, thanks for your opinion. I'm not going to change it in any way."

It's almost certain that if Xi Jinping were to call Jack Ma and say, "Hey, listen, this story that you did, I find it offensive, take it down," Jack Ma would take it down because Xi has far more power over Jack Ma than Trump does over Jeff Bezos. That is just a fact about the difference between the systems in the United States and in China.

Although Alibaba is a private company, although it is a major international corporation that has done a lot of really excellent work, its success depends on its relationship with the Party, and if the Party feels like Alibaba is anti-China or going against China's interests, it can shut it down.

DEVIN STEWART: Is that also because in The Washington Post case it's Bezos's interests rather than the company's specific interest and with South China Morning Post it's Alibaba's interest, which means it's precisely commercial? Is there something to that or am I off?

ISAAC STONE FISH: I think you can link those things. I think if Jack Ma owned the South China Morning Post as opposed to Alibaba, it would be seen as a different strategy. But it's also Alibaba's interests are not served by having a crusading paper that goes against China's interests. Alibaba's interests are served by the South China Morning Post not being a problem for Beijing.

People sometimes compare media in China with Al Jazeera, which is funded by the Qatari government. A huge distinction there is that Al Jazeera can report excellently on the world and be very ginger and self-censorship-y when it comes to Qatar, and that doesn't really matter because it's Doha, it's Qatar, it's a tiny country. China is 1.4 billion people, and there are few important global stories that don't have a China angle these days, so there's no way for papers that are controlled by China or beholden to China to report well on the rest of the world but not on China.

DEVIN STEWART: Have you noticed an editorial difference?

ISAAC STONE FISH: The differences that I did notice—there were a few times where—

I'm going to cheat here. I'm going to read my article. What are my examples?

There was a galling case in July 2016 where the paper interviewed a detained Chinese activist without a byline and claimed that the activist "regretted her decisions" and "repented."  At this point, the family couldn't even reach her, and there was a lot of controversy that Beijing had caused that story to be planted there—that was the thinking at the time—so that it would make it seem like this dissident had apologized.

SCMP increased its positive coverage of Alibaba, although the CEO of SCMP denied that Alibaba's ownership affected that in any way.

The other thing which I thought was very worrying was that the SCMP ended its Chinese-language coverage and deleted its Chinese-language archives.

The biggest worry to Beijing—and this goes back to the general influence picture—is not what Americans think about China but what Chinese think about China and what Chinese think about the Party. The SCMP publishing something critical in Chinese is a far bigger worry to the Party because that more directly affects Communist Party stability, the ability of the Communist Party to govern, than what you and I talk about or what we publish or what other people publish in America in English.

DEVIN STEWART: We have time for a couple more questions, Isaac. I just would like to know first of all—and we can talk about maybe some of the projects you're working on right now—how effective are these initiatives by China? Have you seen any evidence that opinions are changing? Is there any impact on any important decisions that are being made, or is that just too murky or difficult to assess?

Also, based on your answer to the first question, the second is: What should we do about it? What should democracies do about it? Should we care? Is it really overblown? Should we just ignore it? What do you think?

ISAAC STONE FISH: Gallup published a poll earlier this year that said that American perceptions of China were at an almost 30-year high.

DEVIN STEWART: I saw that.

ISAAC STONE FISH: The highest point they'd been since February 1989, when President Bush had just been to China. Then, Tiananmen Square happened on June 4, they dipped, and they haven't come back up until recently.

DEVIN STEWART: So it has recovered.

ISAAC STONE FISH: It has recovered. It's striking because the policy community in DC, the military, and generally speaking the business community have grown far more worried about Beijing's intentions, especially over the last year or two.

It's hard to show causality there. Maybe China as a nation deserves American appreciation.

DEVIN STEWART: Sure.

ISAAC STONE FISH: It's also possible to surmise that there is a link between how Beijing is presenting itself to how Americans perceive it.

It is really important to mention here that a lot of things that I write about are things that are affiliated with the Communist Party. The Communist Party is not China. The Communist Party wants people to think that it's China.

The fear and the worry that I have about Chinese influence is not about Chinese students studying here, it's not about Chinese tourists. The more engagement, the more interaction, the more conversations we have with Chinese people, the better. My worry and fear is about activities led by the Party, sponsored by the Party, affiliated with the Party, that are non-transparent and that in some ways seek to undermine some of the liberal advantages and openness that we have in the United States.

That leads to your second question. The way that we counteract these things is not by behaving more like China. We don't limit Chinese students here. We don't necessarily limit Chinese investment. We don't behave in non-transparent fashion. We have a public debate about what kind of China is in America's interests sort of like I would argue Beijing is having behind closed doors, and what can we do about that?

There is a long history of American folly in trying to change China.

DEVIN STEWART: That's for sure.

ISAAC STONE FISH: I think Jonathan Spence, the old historian, wrote a book To Change China: Western Advisers in China, which is a tongue-in-cheek title because the people who tried to change China couldn't. That said, the United States has more ability than any other country outside China to, if we want to, support democratic initiatives, to support Chinese dissidents, to push for more openness in China.

I think there has long been a perception among the political and military elite in China that the United States doesn't want China to succeed and doesn't want China to rise. The United States always denies that.

We need to have a debate as a nation over how we want our relationship with China to be and what kind of China better serves American interests, and I think that is the way that we counter Chinese influence operations, by being more transparent, more open.

DEVIN STEWART: I like it. It's very liberal.

Do you have an answer? What kind of China would you personally like to see, or are you just encouraging the debate?

ISAAC STONE FISH: I think I can hide behind my position as a journalist and not answer that very good question. I guess another way to sneak away from that question is: I would like to see a China that has Chinese people giving far more of a say in how they want their country to be.

One of the things that really bothered me living in China—I spent about seven years in China—is you'd ask people about their political views, and a lot of times you'd get an answer, "Oh, yes, us common people, we don't know about politics," or "This doesn't concern us." It concerns them on a very deep level. I think sometimes people are aware of that and they just don't want to engage, and sometimes people are unaware of that. It would be nice for them to be able to have those conversations.

DEVIN STEWART: Absolutely. I completely agree.

Before we go, any new projects that you're working on that you'd like to talk about?

ISAAC STONE FISH: Thank you for asking. I am doing a book on this subject, about Chinese influence in America, that I hope to have out by the 2020 election because there's so much focus in the United States on Russia and on Russian influence on the 2016 election and on Trump's very bizarre relationship with Moscow. Compared to China, Russia is in many ways a minnow. China is far more important economically, it's far more important geostrategically, and it has a far more important relationship with America.

U.S. relations with China are far more important than U.S. relations with Russia. In some ways they're good and in some ways they're bad, but my book makes the argument that this is the relationship that we have to pay attention to, and China has a far greater impact on America and on America's democratic future than Russia does.

DEVIN STEWART: I assume your book is called Peacefully Awakening Lion?

ISAAC STONE FISH: It's a very long title with a lot of really long-syllable words.

DEVIN STEWART: A lot of metaphors?

ISAAC STONE FISH: There's a dragon riding a panda. The cover is red and black, and there's a Great Leap Forward joke in the title.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you have a working title?

ISAAC STONE FISH: I don't have a working title, so if anyone who is listening has a suggestion for a title that doesn't involve the Great Wall, dragons, the Great Leap Forward—

DEVIN STEWART: Pandas.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Pandas.

DEVIN STEWART: Kung fu.

ISAAC STONE FISH: The word "red," kung fu, chopsticks, Confucius. Are we missing any?

DEVIN STEWART: Kung Pao chicken or something like that.

ISAAC STONE FISH: No Kung Pao chicken jokes. Really, ideally no jokes at all. If anyone has a serious title for a book that I think will hopefully do a good job of elucidating some of these issues, then I'd love to hear it.

DEVIN STEWART: Isaac Stone Fish is senior fellow at Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations in New York City. Isaac, great to see you again.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Thanks, Devin. Thanks for having me.

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