China Leaves Russian Meddling in the Dust
At least Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, and their surrogates in the Mainstream Media got one point right regarding foreign interference in U.S. politics: that it is totally bogus to compare the records of Russia and China in election meddling and in other aspects of American public life, and their abilities to do so.
Trouble is, the House Speaker, the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, and other Never Trumpers are wildly off-base about who the main culprit has been and will be for years to come. It’s not Russia, it’s China— and by orders of magnitude.
In fact, on top of efforts to shape voters’ opinions during election campaigns, Beijing for decades has been influencing American politics in ways Moscow can barely dream of.
Commenting on the spotlight that U.S. intelligence officials have placed on both countries’ interference efforts (along with Iran’s), Pelosi and Schiff declared that the analysis “provided a false sense of equivalence to the actions of foreign adversaries by listing three countries of unequal operational intent, actions, and capabilities together.”
In particular, they charged, the actions of Kremlin-linked actors seeking to undermine Vice President Biden, and seeking to help President Trump” were glossed over.
Pelosi stated subsequently, “The Chinese, they said, prefer (presumptive Democratic nominee Joe) Biden—we don’t know that, but that’s what they’re saying, but they’re not really getting involved in the presidential election.”
The liberal media, as is so often the case, echoed this Democratic talking point. According to The New York Times‘ Robert Draper, author of a long piece in the paper’s magazine section on Trump’s supposed refusal to approve anti-Russia interference measures or take seriously such findings by the intelligence community, China “is really not able to affect the integrity of our electoral system the way Russia can.”
What these Trump opponents have completely overlooked is that the Chinese are unquestionably meddling—though with some distinctive Chinese characteristics. And much more importantly, China has long been interfering in American political activities by capitalizing on the degree to which so many major American institutions have become beholden to the Chinese government through pre-Trump “bilateral ties.”
As for the narrower, more direct kind of election corrupting, you don’t need to take the word of President Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien that “China, like Russia and Iran, have engaged in cyberattacks and fishing and that sort of thing with respect to our election infrastructure and with respect to websites.”
You don’t have to take the word of Vice President Mike Pence, who in 2018 cited a national intelligence assessment that found that China “is targeting U.S. state and local governments and officials to exploit any divisions between federal and local levels on policy. It’s using wedge issues, like trade tariffs, to advance Beijing’s political influence.”
You can ignore Pence’s contention that that same year, a document circulated by Beijing stated that China must [quoting directly] “strike accurately and carefully, splitting apart different domestic groups” in the United States.
Nor do you need to take seriously the intelligence community judgement dismissed by Pelosi and Schiff that:
“China has been expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020 to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests, and deflect and counter criticism of China….Beijing recognizes that all of these efforts might affect the presidential race.”
Much harder to ignore: China’s decision at the height of the 2018 Congressional election campaigns to take out a four-page supplement in the Sunday Des Moines [Iowa] Register that clearly was “intended to undermine farm-country support for President Donald Trump’s escalating trade war.”
The New York Times itself reported that this past spring that U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that as the coronavirus pandemic was peaking in the nation, Chinese operatives were responsible for sending throughout social media scary sounding warnings that President Trump was about to lock down the entire country—complete with prepositioning troops “to help prevent looters and rioters.”
At least as worrisome: A new report from the information analysis firm Graphika documenting how, “Social media accounts from the pro-Chinese political spam network Spamouflage Dragon started posting English-language videos that attacked American policy and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump in June, as the rhetorical confrontation between the United States and China escalated.”
According to Graphika, such disinformation campaigns had begun in mid-2019, but were waged in Chinese and aimed at Chinese audiences. This new phase, however, targeted at the United States, represented “a clear expansion of its scope” and even featured “clusters of accounts with AI-generated profile pictures” to convey the impression that those sending these materials were actual human beings.
Also alleging that Chinese agents are increasingly active on major social media platforms—a study from research institute Freedom House, which reported that:
“[C]hinese state-affiliated trolls are…apparently operating on [Twitter] in large numbers. In the hours and days after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of Hong Kong protesters in October 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported, nearly 170,000 tweets were directed at Morey by users who seemed to be based in China as part of a coordinated intimidation campaign. Meanwhile, there have been multiple suspected efforts by pro-Beijing trolls to manipulate the ranking of content on popular sources of information outside China, including Google’s search engine Reddit,and YouTube.”
Last year, a major Hoover Institution report issued especially disturbing findings about Beijing’s efforts to influence the views (and therefore the votes) of Chinese Americans, including exploiting the potential hostage status of their relatives in China. According to the Hoover researchers:
“Among the Chinese American community, China has long sought to influence—even silence—voices critical of the PRC or supportive of Taiwan by dispatching personnel to the United States to pressure these individuals and while also pressuring their relatives in China. Beijing also views Chinese Americans as members of a worldwide Chinese diaspora that presumes them to retain not only an interest in the welfare of China but also a loosely defined cultural, and even political, allegiance to the so-called Motherland.”
In addition: “In the American media, China has all but eliminated the plethora of independent Chinese-language media outlets that once served Chinese American communities. It has co-opted existing Chinese language outlets and established its own new outlets.”
Operations aimed at Chinese Americans are anything but trivial politically. As of 2018, they represented nearly 2.6 million eligible U.S. voters, and they belonged to an Asian-American super-category that reflects the fastest growing racial and ethnic population of eligible voters in the country.
Most live in heavily Democratic states, like California, New York, and Massachusetts, but significant concentrations are also found in the battleground states where many of the 2016 presidential election margins were razor thin, and many of which look up for grabs this year, like Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
More broadly, according to the Hoover study:
“In American federal and state politics, China seeks to identify and cultivate rising politicians. Like many other countries, Chinese entities employ prominent lobbying and public relations firms and cooperate with influential civil society groups. These activities complement China’s long-standing support of visits to China by members of Congress and their staffs. In some rare instances Beijing has used private citizens and companies to exploit loopholes in US regulations that prohibit direct foreign contributions to elections.”
But even more thoroughly overlooked than these narrower forms of Chinese political interference is a broader, much more dangerous type of Chinese meddling that leaves Moscow’s efforts in the dust. For example, U.S.-owned multinational companies, which have long profited at the expense of the domestic economy by offshoring production and jobs to China, have just as long carried Beijing’s water in American politics through their massive contributions to U.S. political campaigns. The same goes for Wall Street, which hasn’t sent many U.S. operations overseas, but which has long hungered for permission to do more business in the Chinese market.
These same big businesses continually and surreptitiously inject their views into American political debates by heavily financing leading think tanks —which garb their special interest agendas in the raiment of objective scholarship.
Hollywood and the rest of the U.S. entertainment industry has become so determined to brown nose China in search of profits that it’s made nearly routine rewriting and censoring material deemed offensive to China. In case you haven’t noticed, show biz figures haven’t exactly been reluctant to weigh in on U.S. political issues lately. And yes, these entertainment figures include stars and leading coaches of the National Basketball Association, who have taken a leading role in what’s become known as the Black Lives Matter movement, but who have remained conspicuously silent about the lives of inhabitants of the vast China market that’s one of their biggest and most promising cash cows.
Moreover, the gap between this indirect Chinese involvement in American politics and Russian election interference is not only yawning. It shows no signs of closing. As a result, China’s overall advantage is so great that it makes a case for a useful rule-of-thumb: Whenever you find out about someone complaining about Russia’s election interference but brushing off China’s, you can be sure that they’re not really angry about interference as such. They’re just angry about interference they don’t like.
Alan Tonelson is the founder of RealityChek, a public policy blog focusing on economics and national security, and the author of The Race to the Bottom.