Jun 30, 2020 - World

China's influence operations are getting harder to hide

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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Beijing's political influence operations — quiet attempts to sway public opinion and policy in foreign countries — are receiving intense scrutiny in the United States.

Why it matters: Scrutiny can bring transparency, which analysts say is key to combatting authoritarian influence.

Driving the news: On June 10, the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a House caucus with about 150 conservative Republican members, called for sanctioning top officials in the United Front Work Department, a Chinese Communist Party bureau tasked with political influence, for their role coordinating influence operations around the world.

  • The United Front and its affiliates cultivate networks of friendly voices in the U.S. to "shape public perception" and create a "narrative favorable to China," the committee said in its report. "China does this through building a presence in educational institutions, think tanks, media, and the business community."
  • The RSC report also called for more stringent disclosure requirements for foreign funding at universities.

A case study: The China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), a Hong Kong-based organization headed by Tung Chee-Hwa, the former chief executive of Hong Kong, has long sought to sway the U.S. political environment in China's favor.

  • According to 2011 disclosures filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), CUSEF paid public relations firm Brown Lloyd James $20,000 per month to arrange various activities aimed at making the U.S. information environment friendlier to Beijing.

These activities included:

  • Arranging trips to China for journalism students to offer a "positive look at China's accomplishments" in order to "educate the next generation of U.S. journalists on China and U.S.-China relations while they are still honing their craft."
  • Crafting a "short-medium term U.S. campaign to influence key constituencies (politicians, academics, and experts) as well as general public opinion regarding China's true efforts and intentions in Tibet," including analyzing how "four leading United States high-school textbooks" portrayed Tibet and China, and then writing up recommendations for "countering the tide of public discourse."
  • Sending former U.S. government officials on trips to China and then facilitating these "third party supporters" to write "positive opinion articles on China" in national media outlets.

The big picture: These are the hallmark methods and goals of Chinese Communist Party influence strategies.

  • But until 2018, FARA filings did not disclose Tung's long-standing role as vice chair of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a political advisory body under the indirect control of the United Front Work Department that plays a key role in achieving the department's aims.

What changed: CUSEF attracted national scrutiny in late 2017, when it endowed a China studies professorship at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., and funded numerous other China-related initiatives at U.S. think tanks.

  • Media coverage identified Tung's role as CPPCC vice chair, and that advisory body's links to the United Front.

The results: Subsequent FARA filings disclosed Tung's leadership position at the CPPCC — the first time that a United Front-affiliated organization was mentioned in a FARA filing.

What to watch: Lawmakers have supported numerous draft bills aimed at increasing transparency of Beijing-backed initiatives in the U.S., but as yet few have been adopted.

The bottom line: In a liberal democracy where preserving political freedoms is paramount, sunlight in the form of disclosure requirements and public scrutiny can help blunt the impact of propaganda.

Go deeper: How the FBI combats China's political meddling

Go deeper