June 3, 2020 | Policy Brief

Exposing China’s Malign Influence Activities in the United States

June 3, 2020 | Policy Brief

Exposing China’s Malign Influence Activities in the United States

In its new “Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” the White House directly addresses the threat posed by Chinese media entities operating in the United States, along with other, less visible agents of Beijing’s influence. By recognizing that China, like Russia, seeks to intervene in U.S. domestic affairs, the White House is laying the foundation for comprehensive efforts to expose and counter Beijing’s efforts.

The White House report explains that Beijing’s “organizations and agents target businesses, universities, think tanks, scholars, journalists, and local, state, and Federal officials in the United States and around the world, attempting to influence discourse and restrict external influence inside the PRC.” To that end, the Chinese government’s well-funded propaganda machine operates across platforms including television, radio, print media, and social media. Some efforts are unambiguously linked to the Chinese government, while others are structured to hide Beijing’s hand. For example, the White House observes, “In 2015, China Radio International was revealed to control 33 radio stations in 14 countries via shell entities.”

Chinese influence operations also extend well beyond the distribution of favorable media content or sowing disinformation via Twitter. In an attempt to shape the broader public narrative around China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seeks to identify and co-opt prominent individuals to advance the Party’s objectives, often to the detriment of the host country. This tactic, known  as “elite capture,” is also a hallmark of China’s One Belt One Road initiative.

In the United States, companies close to the Party have hired former senior U.S. government officials to represent their interests in Washington. For example, Max Baucus, the former senator and U.S. Ambassador to China, has a consulting group whose clients include Chinese firms. Similarly, Huawei hired Andy Purdy, a former White House staff member, as its chief security officer.

Chinese consulates have also sought to insert pro-Beijing language into motions under consideration by state legislatures, although this can provoke a backlash against Beijing’s intervention, as it did in Wisconsin in April. China’s activities on U.S. college campuses have been more sweeping, including the CCP’s direct support to more than 100 cultural centers known as Confucius Institutes. Yet dozens of these institutes have closed, in part because of pressure from the Defense Department and other federal agencies. There is also growing attention to Chinese efforts to suppress campus protests calling out China’s gross human rights violations.

Fostering improved collaboration and information sharing between the federal and state governments will be a key ingredient to any successful campaign against Chinese influence. Potential efforts could take many forms, such as establishing state-level systems akin to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) to track Chinese agents; increasing federal intelligence sharing and defensive counterintelligence briefings for state leaders about malign Chinese activity; and ensuring that state-level entities working on monitoring Chinese activities are properly resourced.

The administration could also consider limiting the ability of Chinese diplomats to travel within the United States, mirroring the restrictions placed on U.S. diplomats inside China. The White House should also amplify the language in Executive Order 13770, and Congress may want to revisit 18 U.S.C. § 207 – both of which govern the ability of former senior U.S. government officials to accept employment with foreign state-owned enterprises or other companies deemed a national security risk.

Lastly, the administration and Congress should consider establishing public-private partnerships, especially with social media companies, to help understand China’s overt and covert attempts to influence U.S. public opinion in cyberspace and on college campuses.

The administration’s efforts to counter Chinese influence operations with the United States are commendable, but they are also just a start to what will almost certainly be a long, protracted fight to protect American interests both at home and abroad.

Craig Singleton, a former U.S. diplomat and national security expert, is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Craig and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


China Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy