May 10, 2021 - Politics & Policy

China increases spending 500% to influence America

Illustration of an American flag in the dark with a spotlight revealing a section of the American flag made with Chinese flag colors. 

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

New foreign-agent filings are finally detailing a massive Beijing propaganda operation that's fueled a sixfold increase in disclosed Chinese foreign influence efforts in the United States in recent years.

Why it matters: Propaganda is central to China fulfilling its geopolitical aspirations, and its efforts to sow discord and disinformation in the U.S. have very real consequences for the American business, political and social climates.

  • According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Chinese foreign agent spending has skyrocketed from just over $10 million in 2016 to nearly $64 million last year.
  • Thanks largely to its stable of propaganda operations, China is now the top spender on foreign influence operations in the U.S.
  • American laws designed to force disclosure of paid foreign influence are beginning to reveal the huge sums Beijing has devoted to its effort.

What's happening: State-run Chinese news service Xinhua is the latest to reveal some of the inner workings of its U.S. operations.

  • Xinhua's U.S. arm officially registered as a foreign agent last week, three years after the Justice Department notified the company it was required to do so, as first reported by Foreign Lobby Report.
  • Its initial filing under the Foreign Agents Registration Act is largely generic, describing Xinhua as "an independent legal entity" that's simply "subject to government oversight."
  • In fact, the media organ is owned by the Chinese government, run by senior Communist Party officials and widely seen as a Beijing mouthpiece.
  • Its new FARA filing disclosed $8.6 million in payments since March 2020 from Xinhua's Chinese parent to its U.S. arm, including payments directly to bureaus in Washington, Los Angeles, Houston, San Francisco and Chicago.

The big picture: Xinhua is just the latest state-run Chinese media organ to register.

  • CRP data show Chinese entities spent more on registered foreign agent activities in 2020 than those of any other nation.
  • That was largely driven by FARA registrations by state-run media outlets such as China Daily and CGTN.
  • Together they accounted for more than two-thirds of Chinese FARA spending in 2019 and more than four-fifths in 2020, eclipsing big names such as telecom giant Huawei and surveillance tech firm Hikvision.

Between the lines: Like those of other nations, Chinese state-run media have resisted U.S. Justice Department demands to register under FARA, a law originally created to expose Nazi propaganda in the U.S.

  • Prior to their disclosures, these Chinese media organs operated in the shadows, unencumbered by FARA requirements requiring disclosure about their structures and finances.
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