Evaluating China’s Influence in the U.S.

A 200-page report published by the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, titled, “Chinese Influence & American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance,” looks at the various methods of cultural and informational influence that it alleges the Chinese government is imposing on various sectors in the United States. The report, overseen by co-chairs Larry Diamond and and signed by several notable China scholars, former government officials, journalists, and others, takes an in-depth look at China’s policies which, “not only seek to redefine China’s place in the world as a global player, but they also have put forward the notion of a ‘China option’ that is claimed to be a more efficient developmental model than liberal democracy.” Such policies, in the words of the report, seek to “penetrate and sway…a range of groups and institutions, including the Chinese American community, Chinese students in the United States, and American civil society organizations, academic institutions, think tanks, and media.”

The asymmetry in the Chinese government’s strategy of exploiting social and political freedoms in the U.S. to spread their own influence comes in for special criticism in the report: “For at the same time that China’s authoritarian system takes advantage of the openness of American society to seek influence, it impedes legitimate efforts by American counterpart institutions to engage Chinese society on a reciprocal basis. This disparity lies at the heart of this project’s concerns.” The report includes sections in influence campaigns in various sectors including Congress, state and local governments, the Chinese American community, universities, think tanks, media, corporations, and technology and research. It also includes Appendices outlining the Chinese influence operations bureaucracy; memos on how influence activities are played out in countries including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom; and an overview of the US-based Chinese-language media landscape.

At the same time, the authors caution against using their findings to discriminate against Chinese citizens, immigrants, or Chinese Americans living in the U.S. A dissenting opinion from U.C. San Diego’s Susan Shirk encapsulated those concerns:

The report discusses a very broad range of Chinese activities, only some of which constitute coercive, covert, or corrupt interference in American society and none of which actually undermines our democratic political institutions. Not distinguishing the legitimate from the illegitimate activities detracts from the credibility of the report. The cumulative effect of this expansive inventory that blurs together legitimate with illegitimate activities is to overstate the threat that China today poses to the American way of life. […] Right now, I believe the harm we could cause our society by our own overreactions actually is greater than that caused by Chinese influence seeking. [Source]

In their afterword, Diamond and Schell write:

Just because the Chinese Communist Party presumes that all ethnic Chinese (wherever
they may reside) still owe some measure of loyalty ‘to the Chinese motherland,’ zuguo (祖国), does not mean that they are collectively in possession of compromised loyalty to their adopted home or place of study. Our Working Group’s findings do suggest that the leadership of the PRC has stepped up a new and well funded campaign of influence seeking in the United States. However, this should not be viewed as an invitation to a McCarthy era- like reaction against Chinese in America. Rather, it is a summons to greater awareness of the challenges our country faces and greater vigilance in defending our institutions. [Source]

In the Washington Post, Ellen Nakashima notes that the roster of authors of the report marks a turnaround among China watchers, as some view China’s ambitions with increasing skepticism since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012:

Most noteworthy is the roster of contributors to the report, many of whom have been leading advocates of engagement. It includes Winston Lord, a U.S. ambassador to China in the 1980s who accompanied Henry Kissinger on his secret 1971 trip to Beijing, which paved the way for China’s opening to the West; Orville Schell, an activist and journalist who has worked on U.S.-China relations over the past half-century; and Evan Medeiros, a senior director for Asia at the National Security Council in the Obama administration.

“It’s not as though this is a bunch of hostile, anti-Chinese people,” Lord said. “Yet all of us have become more pessimistic about the trends and feel that we’re at a crossroads in the relationship.”

The turnabout is profound, some working-group members said.

“It speaks to the disillusionment of an entire generation of China specialists who thought they were helping China emerge onto the world stage only to discover that the project had gone badly awry,” said contributor James Mulvenon, an expert on Chinese economic and general manager at the defense contractor SOS International. [Source]

The Chinese government has responded to the report by calling on the U.S. to increase, rather than cancel, opportunities for exchange between the countries. From Teddy Ng at the South China Morning Post:

“We hope and believe that the US will keep its confidence. In China, we have the ‘four confidences’, and we hope the US will also have that,” [Chinese foreign ministry spokesman] Geng [Sheng] said, referring to one of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s catchphrases that means confidence in choosing development paths, guiding theories, political systems and culture.

“Any attempts to block normal exchanges and cooperation with a zero-sum game mindset are taking a reverse trend of history and will not succeed.” [Source]

In an interview with NPR’s Rob Schmitz, Schell comments on the section of the report focusing on :

One section of the report examines the large amounts of money China’s government and Chinese individuals who are loyal to the Communist Party are investing into U.S. universities.

“[Very] often, that money will come not with any explicit prohibitions, but with implicit ones,” says Schell.

“[If] you want to get more (money), don’t say this, don’t say that. In other words,” he says. As a result, China aims for “modulating and controlling what people say about it and how they view it.” [Source]

While Chinese interference in academic freedom and free speech on U.S. campuses has become a rising concern, the U.S. government, notably FBI director Christopher Wray, has also been escalating its concern that Chinese students may pose an intelligence threat. White House officials recently floated a plan to subject incoming Chinese students to tighter screenings before being allowed to study at American universities. Patricia Zengerle and Matt Spetalnick report for Reuters:

But now the Trump administration is weighing whether to subject Chinese students to additional vetting before they attend a U.S. school. The ideas under consideration, previously unreported, include checks of student phone records and scouring of personal accounts on Chinese and U.S. social media platforms for anything that might raise concerns about students’ intentions in the United States, including affiliations with government organizations, a U.S. official and three congressional and university sources told Reuters.

U.S. law enforcement is also expected to provide training to academic officials on how to detect spying and cyber theft that it provides to people in government, a senior U.S. official said.

“Every Chinese student who China sends here has to go through a party and government approval process,” one senior U.S. official told Reuters. “You may not be here for espionage purposes as traditionally defined, but no Chinese student who’s coming here is untethered from the state.” [Source]

This idea immediately raised concerns that it misinterprets and oversimplifies the role of most Chinese students abroad:

Meanwhile, some U.S. universities are preparing for a drop in enrollment from Chinese students, whose tuition they increasingly rely on. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign recently insured itself against a 20% drop in Chinese enrollment due to visa restrictions, trade war, or a pandemic.

Read more about growing concerns over China’s global influence, via CDT.