Welcome back to Axios China. Today we've got an exclusive look inside the FBI's China influence task force, the latest on China's financial stimulus amid the coronavirus epidemic, and more.
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios
In May 2019, the FBI's Foreign Influence Task Force quietly added a unit aimed at countering China's political influence in the United States.
Why it matters: "This is ultimately a potential systemic challenge to the world order that we've had for the past several decades," the FBI official told me of China's efforts.
The big picture: There is a growing body of evidence that China devotes massive resources to influencing the political environments of foreign countries, including the United States.
China's influence playbook centers around economic leverage stemming from its growing wealth. That includes:
The FBI task force's threshold for determining what counts as malign foreign influence is a four-word rubric: “subversive, undeclared, criminal and coercive.” The official, who spoke to me anonymously, defined the terms:
The focus is on party-connected actors, the official said.
How the task force works: The initiative, which is part of the FBI's Foreign Influence Task Force, is housed within the agency's counterintelligence division, with embeds from the criminal investigative, cyber and counterterrorism divisions.
Their advice: Do everything possible to manage risk.
The bottom line: China is increasing its efforts to hold sway over cash-strapped local and state governments.
Photo: Michael Macdonald/EyeEm
Several nations try to influence America's domestic politics, but China has its own distinctive set of methods and goals.
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," the FBI official said.
China, Russia, and Iran all engage in influence activities, but their goals are different, according to the official, who added:
Two other differences between how China and other nations wield covert influence abroad are method and scale.
Between the lines: “The scope and scale of what it is that we're facing is unprecedented," the official said. "The growth of Chinese influence has absolutely been tied to the global growth of their economic influence.”
Beijing's goal is to cultivate more officials at these levels who are friendlier to China-backed development projects and who recognize the value of telecommunications infrastructure at bargain prices.
Migrant workers in Quanzhou City on Jan. 15. Photo: He Canling/Xinhua via Getty Images
Migrant workers will be most negatively affected by the travel limits that China’s local governments have imposed to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, Eli Friedman of Cornell University tells Axios.
What's happening: After travel restrictions were put in place over the Lunar New Year holiday, migrant workers with jobs in cities under lockdown can’t get back to work.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government is taking some measures to help workers by requiring employers to continue to cover basic living expenses.
Another concern: There's a lack of access to affordable medical care.
The bottom line: Migrant workers are among China’s most vulnerable, and much of China’s manufacturing industry depends on them. If they can’t get back to their jobs soon, both they and the companies they work for will suffer.
Photo: Chukrut Budrul/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Worries are beginning to grow about China's stimulus efforts as the government pushes new measures to offset the impact of the coronavirus, Axios' Dion Rabouin reports.
The latest: Chinese regulators ordered banks to lower interest rates and allow late repayment of loans to help small and midsize companies, but there are worries the program may be ill-advised.
Of note: China’s fiscal revenues rose just 3.8% in 2019, the slowest growth pace since 1987, largely as a result of wide-ranging tax cuts in response to the country's economic slowdown. That followed 6.2% growth the year prior, according to South China Morning Post.
Why it matters: China has been working to reduce its debt for years as part of a “structural deleveraging” campaign, but had to reverse course as the trade war and now the coronavirus outbreak are pushing the government to increase spending.
Back door: U.S. officials say Huawei can covertly access telecom networks (Wall Street Journal)
CIA: ‘The intelligence coup of the century:” For decades, the U.S. read the encrypted communications of allies and adversaries (The Washington Post)
University scandal: China influence scandal rocks Berlin university (David Matthews, Times Higher Ed)
Overseas connections: China’s ‘overseas delegates’ connect Beijing to the Chinese diaspora (Australian Strategic Policy Institute)
Czech survey: What do you think of the New Silk Road? China secretly seeks the views of Czech politicians (Lukáš Valášek, Aktuálně.cz)
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
In this recurring feature, I'll interview an expert about a Chinese Communist Party phrase to explain the news.
The phrase: "Use the local to surround the center." (以地方包围中央）
What it means: Building up support for China at the state and local levels in a foreign country so that those leaders may then call upon the national government to adopt policies that are friendlier to Beijing.
The expert take: Anne-Marie Brady, a political scientist at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, tells me this strategy usually involves political funding of some kind via...
The bottom line: The Chinese Communist Party cares about cultivating mayors and state officials in countries thousands of miles away, Brady says, because...