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Photo: Michael Macdonald/EyeEm

Several nations try to influence America's domestic politics, but China has its own distinctive set of methods and goals, according to an FBI official who spoke to Axios about malign foreign influence in the United States.

Why it matters: “Our concern at the end of the day isn't focused on an election event. It is focused on the integrity of our policymaking process and the policymakers' decision-making ability," said the FBI official.

Key takeaway: Beijing is using economic carrots and sticks to cultivate relationships and gradually change perceptions from the ground up, so that hardline policies on China become less popular and harder to adopt.

China, Russia, and Iran all engage in influence activities, but their goals are different, the FBI official said:

  • "Russia wants us to tear ourselves apart."
  • "Iran wants us to leave them alone.”
  • "China wants to manage our decline."

Two other differences between how China and other nations wield covert influence abroad are method and scale.

  • Method: China's top tool is its wealth. It uses a toolkit that combines rewards and punishments to shape the behavior of its targets.
  • Scale: China's malign influence activities are global in scope and reach all the way to local governments, even town councils in some cases. Russian and Iranian efforts are usually regional and far more limited in scope; they lack China's global reach and economic clout.
  • “The scope and scale of what it is that we're facing is unprecedented," said the FBI official. "The growth of Chinese influence has absolutely been tied to the global growth of their economic influence.”

China is particularly focused on people-to-people interactions. Chinese delegations to U.S. cities and states, carefully choreographed trips to China for U.S. government officials and business leaders, and offers of lucrative investment projects and business deals may provide the initial hook.

Beijing's goal is to cultivate more people at the local, state, and federal levels who:

  • are friendlier to China-backed development projects
  • are less concerned about the geopolitical risk of the Belt and Road Initiative
  • recognize the value of telecommunications infrastructure at bargain prices

"If you've got a baseline across the country of folks who say it's not that bad, this is a relationship that we need, these are partnerships that we need, because it's creating jobs," then the U.S. can end up with federal decision-making process where "it makes it harder for us to say there's probably some lines we should not cross," said the official.

  • "Perception adds up and creates a policy environment."
Expand chart
Data: U.S. Census Bureau; Chart: Axios Visuals

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

Go deeper

Scoop: Stephanie Ruhle to replace Brian Williams on MSNBC

Photo: Nathan Congleton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

MSNBC will soon announce plans to move morning anchor Stephanie Ruhle to the 11 pm ET hour that Brian Williams turned into an elite destination, two sources familiar with the move tell Axios.

Details: The 9 am ET hour, currently hosted by Ruhle, will become part of MSNBC's flagship morning show, "Morning Joe," which currently runs from 6 am to 9 am ET.

Oath Keepers leader denied bail on Capitol riot sedition charge

Oath Keepers co-founder Elmer Stewart Rhodes. Photo: Susan Walsh/AP

A federal judge ordered Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes to remain jailed Wednesday until trial on charges stemming from the Capitol riot.

Why it matters: The judge said the most prominent far-right figure charged in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection had access to weapons and his alleged "continued advocacy for violence against the federal government" gave credence to prosecutors' view that, if released, Rhodes could endanger others.

Who in Congress is talking about Ukraine the most

Data: Quorum; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

Mentions of Ukraine or Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in congressional statements and social media posts have been on the rise — with nearly 1,000 already this month, according to data from Quorum.

Why it matters: The growing threat of a Russian invasion has been mirrored by a growth in Ukraine-related chatter.