China-US relations

How Washington’s allegations of ‘overseas influence’ shifted to China from Russia

After Donald Trump’s security strategy speech, another Asian country stood accused in the US capital of trying to impose its influence on America: China

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 January, 2018, 1:04pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 February, 2018, 4:09am

For much of the past year, accusations of overseas influence operations in Washington – spearheaded mainly by lawmakers from the Democratic Party – have been levelled at Russia over its alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election. But in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s national security strategy speech, another large Asian country clearly stands accused in the US capital of trying to impose its influence on America: China.

Underscoring the Republican Party’s domination of the US government at all levels and the Trump administration’s America-first mantra, allegations of overseas influence operations against China have moved to the centre of the US political stage.

In addition to Trump’s national security strategy, in which the president accused China of trying to “influence [US] operations, economic inducements and penalties”, such allegations have undergirded Trump-ordered governmental investigations, Congressional committee hearings, legislative recommendations on China’s soft power campaign through educational institutions, think tanks and state-run media.

The apparent goal: shaping a view of China as a powerful threat to US economic prosperity and global prestige.

The focus on China’s alleged influence operations comes as the US government targets mainland Chinese media outlets following similar moves against Russian state media.

Xinhua, Beijing’s official press agency, and state-run China Daily, the country’s largest English newspaper, both have come under heightened scrutiny as critics demand their US staff be registered under US legislation as foreign agents. Xinhua has not complied with the request. China Daily has been registered as a foreign outlet since the early 1980s.

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“Americans have a right to know who is acting in the United States to influence the US government or public on behalf of foreign principals,” acting assistant attorney general for national security Dana Boente has said.

Trump’s remarks in his first national security speech and a document released to media in advance of the address thrust the idea of China’s foreign influence into the spotlight.

China was using “implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda”, Trump said.

In doing so, “rival powers” China and Russia sought to “challenge American influence, values and wealth” while “attempting to erode American security and prosperity”, the president said.

Trump’s comments contrasted with accusations by Democrats and US law enforcement authorities that Russia wielded influence over the 2016 election by highlighting Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email system while secretary of state, a potential violation of federal law, in an attempt to hurt Clinton’s candidacy.

Critics have said that since taking power as US president, Trump has occasionally tried to divert attention from problems by using his bully pulpit to highlight controversy elsewhere.

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To the surprise of few, Trump’s allegations drew serious backlash from China.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said it was “futile” for the US to “distort the facts or hurl malicious slander”. In a statement, the Chinese embassy in Washington called the US’ implication that America’s interests were superior to China’s “completely selfish”.

The US’ attempts to raise alarm over China’s influence on American security, its economy and its way of life coincide with a heated row over alleged Chinese influence in local politics in Australia and New Zealand.

In mid-December, Australian Labor Party senator Sam Dastyari succumbed to pressure to resign after more than a year of media revelations over his dealings with China and Beijing-linked business figures and Sydney-based political donors.

Starting in August 2016, a stream of Australian media reports focused on allegations that Dastyari had allowed the parties to pay for a China trip, a lawsuit settlement and even afternoon tea.

The mounting pressure on Dastyari reached a peak in November when Australian broadcaster ABC released a recording of Dastyari addressing a June gathering of Chinese media in Sydney. He was heard on the recording offering a detailed defence of China’s policy in the South China Sea, contradicting his party’s official position.

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In another media-related event, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Dastyari had informed Huang Xiangmo, a Sydney-based Chinese businessman and political donor, that he was under surveillance by government agencies, including the US, and that Dastyari had given Huang counter-surveillance advice.

China angrily denied the reports that suggested it had tried to increase political influence through donations.

China’s embassy in Australia said “some Australian media have repeatedly fabricated news stories about the so-called Chinese influence and infiltration in Australia”.

The accusations were “made up out of thin air” and reflected not just “a cold war mentality and ideological bias”, but “typical anti-China hysteria and paranoia”, the embassy said.

In a countermeasure against foreign influence, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull early in December unveiled new legislation banning foreign political donations.

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Australia will “stand up” to “foreign interference in Australian politics”, Turnbull was quoted by ABC, switching between Mandarin and English as he spoke.

China strongly rejected Turnbull’s comment. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in early November that the Australian prime minister’s remarks lacked “principle” and simply pandered to “irresponsible reports by some Australian media”.

“Imbued with bias towards China, these groundless and unfounded remarks can sabotage China-Australia relations and are detrimental to the foundation of mutual trust and cooperation,” Geng said.

Geng said China lodged “stern representations with the Australian side”. On the same day, Australia’s ambassador to China, Jan Adams, was summoned to the Chinese foreign ministry.

People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, also protested the accusations in a commentary.

Calling the attacks on the Chinese government baseless, the newspaper accused the Australian media of maliciously slandering Chinese students and Chinese living in Australia.

“This type of hysterical paranoia had racist undertones and is a stain on Australia’s image as a multicultural society,” the commentary said.

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Meanwhile in New Zealand, Yang Jian, a member of the House of Representatives, was accused of teaching Chinese spies on behalf of the Chinese military, The New Zealand Herald reported. Yang denied the claim, condemning the “defamatory” accusation as a racist smear campaign.

Douglas Paal, vice-president for studies at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the South China Morning Post that “the emergence of the influence operation meme at this time and in this large a manner is a bit of a puzzle to me”.

“Evidence has been accumulating for years of China trying to market its soft power with increasing resources to back it up,” Paal said.

“Perhaps it is the revelations of Russian activity [of alleged interference in the US election] that caused journalists and others to look around and see who else might be active in this arena.”

Paal cited Johns Hopkins University professor David Lampton’s assertion in a paper published in 2015 that “a tipping point in US-China relations is upon us”.

Views in the community of China observers were shifting to a largely negative interpretation of events, and “we are seeing the results now”, Paal said.

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Since mid-November, the US government and US media have joined Australia in raising questions about the motives behind so-called Chinese influence operations in the US. The targets of a stream of articles and comments are Chinese state-owned media organisations and funds for US universities and think tanks allegedly tied to Beijing.

On November 15, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), a US Congress advisory body, recommended in its annual report that lawmakers should strengthen the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) to require all staff of Chinese state-run media entities to be registered in the US as “foreign agents”.

The act, first passed in 1938 to counter foreign influence in America, requires people who are hired by foreign governments and foreign political parties in the US to register with the Justice Department and regularly disclose their operations. In practice, it often is considered sufficient for senior leaders to register on behalf of an organisation.

A prominent recent FARA registrant is Russian broadcaster RT America. The US Justice Department demanded that the organisation, which is funded by the Russian government, be classified as a “foreign agent” by the US. After initially skipping its October deadline to register under FARA, RT registered on November 10 to prevent its employees from facing imprisonment and having their assets seized, CNN reported.

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The Justice Department’s enforcement of FARA in the RT America case originated from US intelligence agencies’ findings regarding Russia’s alleged interference in the US 2016 presidential election.

In a declassified report in January, the intelligence agencies concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an “influence campaign” targeting the US presidential election to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process”, discredit Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and win favour for the Republican Party’s nominee, Trump.

Investigators said RT conducted “strategic messaging for Russian government” in the presidential election, according to the report. Therefore, the Justice Department forced RT America to register under FARA to increase the transparency of its US operations.

USCC, the US congressional advisory body, expressed similar scepticism about China’s state-owned media. In its latest annual report, the commission accused staff members at Chinese state-run media organisations of being involved in “Chinese intelligence gathering and information warfare efforts”.

The report claimed that China’s official Xinhua news agency, for example, “serves some of the functions of an intelligence agency by gathering information and producing classified reports for the Chinese leadership on both domestic and international events”.

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Sarah Cook, senior research analyst at the US government-funded watchdog Freedom House, was quoted in the report as saying that “individuals working for agencies like Xinhua … who are likely collecting intelligence” have escaped scrutiny under FARA.

Some Chinese outlets have registered with the US Justice Department. China Daily, which has news bureaus in multiple US cities, filed under FARA in 1983, Foreign Policy magazine reported.

“The Department of Justice is committed to enforcing FARA and expects compliance with the law by all entities engaged in specified activities on behalf of any foreign principal, regardless of its nationality,” Boente, the acting assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement after RT America’s registration.

The Justice Department has said it has no plans to further require specific countries or media to register under FARA.

Adam Hickey, a deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department, said December 21 that “we will evaluate any entity as it comes to our attention if we think there is a registration obligation”.

China’s flagship TV network has not registered as a foreign agent in US

“We do not have a plan that identifies particular countries or particular entities,” he said.

US media have helped raise the idea of a Chinese influence operation in American academic institutions.

Foreign Policy recently reported that the China-United States Exchange Foundation, a Hong Kong-based non-profit, in August funded China studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), a top Washington-based international relations school in the US.

The report suggested that in exchange for funding from the “Beijing-linked” non-profit for a new professorship and a joint research project, Pacific Community Initiative, in SAIS’s China Studies department, China extended its overseas influence operations into the school, therefore endangering the institution’s academic independence.

David Lampton, director of the SAIS’s China Studies Programme, denied the claim.

“There are absolutely no conditions or limitations imposed upon the Pacific Community Initiative or our faculty members by reason of a gift or otherwise,” he was quoted as saying. “We have full confidence in the academic integrity and independence of these endeavours.”

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Commenting on academic funding from China, Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a blog on December 22 that the US should “beware Chinese influence, but be wary of a China Witch Hunt”.

“If Chinese money is utilised, institutions and scholars should be transparent and ensure that there is no opportunity for the Chinese funder to affect the research agenda or outcome,” Economy wrote.

“We [protest] against a witch hunt” which would allow American scholars and analysts to be attacked with “innuendo instead of real evidence”, she wrote.

Economy said the Confucius Institute, a Beijing-sponsored Chinese educational organisation that promotes Chinese language and culture overseas, was an obvious channel through which China could influence US political and social discourse.

Beijing had more than 100 Confucius Institutes throughout the US, Economy wrote, while the US had only three somewhat equivalent American Centres in China.

“Rectifying this imbalance will likely require adopting reciprocity – doing to China what China does to the United States,” Economy wrote.

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She recommended that the US consider prohibiting the establishment of more Confucius Institutes unless Beijing reciprocated by permitting more American Centres.

On December 13, the US Congress’ bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China also debated the Confucius Institute’s motives and impact during a hearing on China’s foreign influence operations.

The commission’s co-chair, US House Republican Representative Christopher Smith, said at the hearing that China conducted its “long arm” influence operations, including actions to “guide, buy or coerce political influence” globally.

With the US public and Congress focused on Russian influence operations, Smith said, Chinese efforts had received little scrutiny and were not well understood. “This must change,” he said.

“We must find ways to effectively and resolutely push back,” Smith said. “Doing so should be a critical national interest.”

A US government agency has been investigating China’s efforts to influence educational and cultural institutions in the US, according to Smith’s statement at the hearing.

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The Government Accountability Office (GAO), which provides auditing, evaluation and investigative services for Congress, concluded an investigation into academic partnerships between the Chinese government and US colleges.

Smith said the first report of the investigation came out last spring. The report has not yet been made public on the GAO’s website.

“The GAO is now in the process of conducting investigations of Confucius Institutes,” Smith told the hearing. Smith said he has written to all US colleges with Confucius Institutes, asking them to make their contracts public and available for inspection.