China’s Influence Operations in the U.S. Demand Closer Scrutiny
They are more widespread and more subtle than is generally understood.
PRESIDENT BIDEN IS SENDING HIS top cabinet officials to China, ostensibly to lessen tensions between Washington and Beijing. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Beijing in June, and Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen visited last week. But in trying to warm U.S.-China relations, the Biden administration is playing into Beijing’s hands by helping China’s “united front” agenda.
While the term “united front” implies to Americans a common cause in a shared enterprise, to officials of the Chinese Communist Party, the term refers to the Leninist tactic of exploiting and coopting non-party groups to achieve the party’s objectives.
During his June 19 press conference in Beijing, Blinken said he “discussed the importance of strengthening people-to-people exchanges between students, scholars, [and] business travelers” in meetings with General Secretary Xi Jinping and other senior Chinese officials. This must have been music to the CCP leaders’ ears.
“People-to-people” exchanges date to the beginning of the diplomatic relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. The 1972 Shanghai Communique, signed at the end of Richard Nixon’s famous visit to China, included a reference to them.
More than fifty years later, there is overwhelming evidence that “people-to-people” exchanges are part of the CCP’s influence operations inside the United States. According to a 2018 report from a bipartisan Hoover Institution working group, such exchanges have “always been viewed as a practical political tool by Beijing, and all of China’s ‘exchange’ organizations have been assigned political missions.” [Emphasis in original.]
Americans may perceive the Chinese groups that operate the exchanges as similar to our own educational, nonprofit, or business organizations, but in fact, as the Hoover report warned, “no mainland Chinese organization in the United States . . . is free of Beijing’s control, even if it is not formally part of the United Front.”
The CCP’s influence efforts target American government—and not just the federal government in Washington, D.C. Intelligence agencies have warned that the PRC is intensifying influence activities at the state and local level. In the United States, and in other democracies, united front efforts are guided by Mao’s directive to “target local entities in order to weaken the national core,” an approach also known as “the countryside encircling the city.”
American higher education is another prime target. In recent years, scrutiny from the Trump administration, Congress, news outlets, and various researchers has exposed the nature of Chinese-funded and -directed programs on campuses, especially the Confucius Institutes which advance the CCP line on politically sensitive issues and seek to chill criticism of China’s shortcomings and human rights abuses. Chinese Student and Scholar Associations may offer some conventional activities for overseas students, but they also receive instructions from Chinese diplomats and have been linked to acts of intimidation against other Chinese students who have spoken out about Chinese repression. Reports have shown that although the number of Confucius Institutes has declined, the overall picture is more complicated and disturbing: Some have been renamed or moved within universities. Craig Singleton of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies reports that the institutes were disproportionately placed at research universities where they could advance the effort to acquire technology for China’s military modernization and expansion.
One stubborn obstacle to dealing with Chinese influence activities on campus is that university officials and faculty have accepted, uncritically, the CCP’s conflation of itself with China. As Perry Link, a scholar of China and the Chinese language at the University of California, Riverside, put it in 2014 congressional testimony, “A common, almost universal, mistake among U.S. academic administrators is to accept the [CCP] as the authentic voice” of China.
And as I note in a new Hudson Institute policy memo, Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, told me she has encountered administrators who
simply—literally—did not see and therefore did not understand the problem. They had no concept of the apparatus of party-state repression, especially overseas, and could not believe it had real consequences for people on their campuses.
As a result, the CCP has been able to neutralize criticism of its repression, aggression, and assault on democratic values by casting it as “anti-China,” racist, or xenophobic.
America’s foreign policy has also contributed to the legitimization of the CCP. In Washington’s pursuit of “engagement” with Beijing, officials have often minimized the fundamental differences between the American democratic and Chinese Communist political systems. Imagining that CCP leaders shared Washington’s vision for a China integrated into a world order led by democracies, American leaders have encouraged not only trade and investment but also participation in activities they may have thought would transform Chinese communism. These assumptions have proved dangerously wrong as Chinese Communist leaders pursued their own objectives.
The Trump administration took a number of important steps to inform state, local, and educational officials about the nature of the CCP and its influence tactics. A rule put in place in 2020 required prior approval for Chinese diplomatic travel around the country, including to university campuses. Not surprisingly, these efforts drew a bitter reaction from the Chinese government. Before leaving the United States, Ambassador Qin Gang, now China’s minister of foreign affairs, visited Rice University, where he promoted the resumption of exchanges, interrupted in part by the COVID-19 pandemic. Chinese state media account of Qin’s visit assailed “efforts to suppress and undermine the China-U.S. educational and cultural exchanges for political reasons.” Blunting the CCP’s influence on campus requires more than simply prior approval of diplomatic visits. The Biden administration should go a step further, imposing a moratorium on them until it has a comprehensive, public statement on China’s united front agenda in the United States.
It’s strange to see the Biden administration stressing people-to-people exchanges in light of everything that has been learned about the purpose they serve. It would be wonderful if Chinese citizens were truly free to interact and build relationships with Americans free from the CCP’s direction. But the difference between our two governments is, for now, too great, and wishing otherwise has dangerous consequences for American society and institutions.