Fifth Column Fears: The Chinese Influence Campaign in the United States

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Fifth Column Fears: The Chinese Influence Campaign in the United States

The growing reach of PRC influence operations present a special challenge for Asian-Americans. 

Fifth Column Fears: The Chinese Influence Campaign in the United States

Staff members set up Chinese and U.S. flags for a meeting between Chinese Transport Minister Li Xiaopeng and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao at the Ministry of Transport of China in Beijing Friday, April 27, 2018.

Credit: Jason Lee/Pool Photo via AP

We were halfway through the lavish Chinese welcome banquet — the honey walnut prawns had just arrived — when the obligatory toasting for the USAF delegation began. I sighed regretfully but shot to my feet when I noticed the figure coming toward me, maotai glass in hand, was none other than our host and the head of the Chinese delegation, a high-ranking general in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.

He was already a bit unsteady, but he ordered his aide to bring over another glass, and to invite someone else to my table — a friend of mine, a fellow Asian-American officer. He then waved his aide aside to pour the three glasses of maotai himself. A signal honor, and rather puzzling as neither my friend nor myself were more than middling rank.

The toast started out in standard fashion. “To your health.” Drink. “To your families.” Drink. Then came the twist. “And to remembering that blood is thicker than water. Chinese blood runs through you. You understand us, and know that no matter what flag you wear on your shoulders, you are Chinese first and foremost.”

I lifted the glass to my lips but did not drink. That particular line was, and is, a common phrase in Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda specifically aimed at the Chinese diaspora. While that dinner was a number of years ago, the propaganda has not changed. In fact, Chinese influence operations in the United States have dramatically intensified and increased in sophistication over the last few years. This poses an unique and significant threat to Asian-Americans.

The Development of PRC Influence Operations 

External Chinese influence operations can be divided into two separate sets, one against “Overseas Chinese” (the Chinese diaspora, new and old) and “Non-Overseas Chinese” (specifically the non-ethnic Chinese public). In the past, CCP influence operations were mostly aimed at the PRC domestic audience; the few external efforts were largely focused on developing the ethnic Chinese overseas community as a source of intelligence and money. After 1989, the CCP recognized the need for external public relations to undo the crushing international sanctions that followed Tiananmen. The resulting growth of the Chinese influence apparatus has mirrored the rise of the post-1989 Chinese economy, first with massive growth in breadth, and then later in sophistication.

The fast expansion of PRC influence operations against non-overseas Chinese — from non-existent in the 1990s to hundreds of Confucius Institutes worldwide and billions spent in Hollywood today — has resulted in considerable media attention. However, there has been comparatively little attention in regard to operations targeting overseas Chinese. These operations are not as splashy, and have evolved from the previous existing efforts as opposed to rapid expansion. It is the quieter effort of the two, but the CCP has placed equal, if not greater, emphasis on what it calls “overseas Chinese united front work.” 

The importance that the CCP places on united front work (a historical term, dating from CCP cooperation and then infiltration of its Nationalist Party rivals during World War II and the Chinese Civil War) can be seen in how often the concept arises in CCP General Secretary (and President) Xi Jinping’s speeches. In May 2015, Xi stated that overseas Chinese should be one of the three main focuses of united front work; in February 2017, he issued a call for “closely uniting” with the Chinese diaspora; then, most prominently, tying in overseas Chinese to his grand national goal of the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” in his October 2017 speech at the 19th National Congress – the equivalent of a State of the Union speech. 

The quote is worth reading in full: “We will maintain extensive contacts with overseas Chinese nationals, returned Chinese and their relatives and unite them so that they can join our endeavors to revitalize the Chinese nation.” This speech represented a personal focus of Xi that he has espoused for a long time — he discussed the idea of “big overseas Chinese work” to domestically benefit the Party as the Party Secretary of Fuzhou Province in 1995

Xi has not contented himself with talk. He has centralized overseas Chinese influence efforts in one executive agency, the previously moribund United Front Work Department (UFWD), while non-overseas Chinese influence operations are still run by a veritable alphabet soup of CCP bureaucracies. The UFWD has seen its authority strengthened repeatedly, absorbing three other CCP bureaucracies, including the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office responsible for “people-to-people exchanges.” 

The result of the United Front being featured so prominently and given so many additional resources by Xi is a significantly more aggressive set of influence operations within the United States against ethnic Chinese and the Asian-American community.

Targeting Chinese in the United States

One of the earliest indications of the revitalization of the UFWD was the tightened controls on Chinese nationals going to the United States for study, starting in the early 2000s. China has faced a dual problem in its students going abroad: While the Party desperately wants to bring back home the scientific and technical knowledge of the overseas-educated graduates (known colloquially as “sea turtles”), the Party also does not want “ideological pollution” being brought back home. 

The dual problem has been met with a dual solution. To prevent brain drain to the West, a problem that became significantly worse following 1989, the CCP established the Thousand Talents Program in 2008, run by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (now a part of the UFWD). The program’s aim, explicitly stated on its website, is to “gather global wisdom” for China’s “great exploit.” It aims to do so via the targeting, recruitment, and funding of originally 2,000 professionals of ethnic Chinese background, and later expanded to include foreign professionals. These professionals receive roughly 1 million RMB (about $140,000) in initial funding, followed by an additional 3-5 million RMB to spend as they wish. Over 7,000 professionals have signed up as of 2018. Even professionals whom do not apply for this program have begun returning to China, largely due to significantly higher entry-level salaries offered by Chinese universities or firms as compared to the United States, as well as new U.S. visa restrictions. As a result, the Chinese brain drain has largely reversed, to the point where the formerly applauded “sea turtles” are now increasingly called “seaweed.” 

To remedy the problem of ideological pollution from these sea turtles, China has also fashioned tighter reins on students while they are in the United States for study. Chinese Students and Scholar Associations (CSSAs) on university campuses, traditionally meant to provide social/recreational/local community services for Chinese and Chinese-Americans alike, now face pervasive CCP pressure. This pressure exists as a combination of carrots (generous consular funding of the CSSAs) and sticks (direct reporting of “noncompliant” students or researchers to the Embassy/Ministry of State Security, or personal/familial harassment by internet doxing, “the human flesh search engine” of the Chinese internet). In doing so, the UFWD is able to not just ensure ideological conformity, but to turn the CSSAs into political work units themselves. 

The CSSA at my alma mater, the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), is an example of this co-option and its effects. In February 2017, UCSD invited the Dalai Lama as the commencement speaker. UCSD’s CSSA, which in 2015 billed itself as a “subordinate organization of the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles,” threatened “tough measures to resolutely resist the school’s unreasonable behavior” – measures that the CSSA said would be coordinated through the Chinese Consulate and the Consulate General. While the student-threatened “tough measures” turned out to be largely toothless — furious op-ed writing, CSSA campus protests, meetings with administrators telling them to disinvite the Dalai Lama — the Chinese Ministry of Education responded in a more concrete way by freezing funding for future Chinese students going to UCSD. Following a May 4, 2017 New York Times article — “On Campuses Far From China, Still Under Beijing’s Watchful Eye” — the UCSD CSSA, along with a number of CSSAs, deleted references to their ties to the Chinese Consulate or government. 

The success of the UFWD in this regard means a demonstrated ability to both “defend” Chinese students from ideological pollution, and to use them “offensively” as agents of influence. Moreover, the UFWD has been public about its next steps: UFWD Deputy Director Xu Yousheng stated his interest in developing long-term overseas Chinese groups to “fully utilize the advantages of being familiar with both China and the country they are in” to become “active promoters of mutual political trust and mutually beneficial relations between China and neighboring countries.” Australia and New Zealand, where CCP penetration has been more severe than in the United States, serves as a cautionary example of how the UFWD intends to further extend influence operations.

The New Template for Asian-American Targeting

Dr. Anne Marie Brady, an Australian professor of political science at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, is perhaps the foremost Western scholar on PRC influence operations. Her seminal 2017 paper, “Magic Weapons: China’s Political Influence Activities Under Xi Jinping”, describes the extent of PRC influence operations in New Zealand, which go significantly beyond CSSA co-option. She details how the United Front made large political donations via Chinese business associations. Active United Front members, including a CCP member with a 15-year career in PRC military intelligence, have been elected to New Zealand’s Parliament, starting in 2004-2005.  As first-generation Chinese-New Zealander immigrants, these members were given duties ranging from outreach to the New Zealand Chinese community to shaping New Zealand’s China strategy. 

Similarly, in Australia, the first Chinese-Australian woman to gain a seat in the Lower House – Liberal MP Gladys Liu, a first-generation immigrant – was recently discovered to have been a member of a known UFWD front organization (she later received an honorary chairmanship from that organization). To make matters worse, the Labor candidate that MP Liu ended up defeating for her seat, Jennifer Yang, also received an honorary chairmanship from the same organization.

In the United States, the process is not quite so far along; however, there are a number of Chinese-Americans whom openly serve in United Front organizations (for instance, “Peaceful Reunification Councils,” with over 30 chapters in the United States), and are even serving in the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference (a symbolic “upper house” for China, used to maintain the polite fiction of a united front multiparty democratic outlet). It is clear that Australia and New Zealand, with their proportionally greater level of Chinese penetration as compared to the larger United States, represents a test case for influence-peddling. 

There are multiple implications to this level of CCP influence. The first, of course, is the direct potential for the CCP to shape foreign policies of other nations. As Brady documented, China assesses its relationship with New Zealand as a “model to other Western countries.” The practical effects of this influence is demonstrated through Brady’s personal experiences following the publication of Magic Weapons: She was subjected to a year-long harassment campaign, ranging from home and office burglaries (nothing was taken except for her research on the Party), car sabotage, midnight calls, and calls that demonstrated physical surveillance. To this day, her request for government protection has gone unanswered, despite significant media/Parliamentary attention and a petition by more than 150 China-watchers urging the New Zealand government to take action on her behalf. On a broader scale, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s initial response to the recent Hong Kong extradition bill protests was essentially to repeat a CCP talking point: “What Hong Kong does is ultimately a matter for them.” 

The second, more pernicious effect is to raise fears of an ethnic Chinese fifth column in democratic countries. In both Australia and New Zealand, the revelations of UFWD influence in domestic political processes have resulted in a significant debate over immigration laws, immigrant integration, and accusations of racism/Sinophobia. This effectively weakens the social trust necessary for the democratic process; by raising the specter of racism and xenophobia, it promotes the CCP blood and soil argument — that only China and the CCP can protect ethnic Chinese. The CCP has certainly not forgotten how the racism and xenophobia of the McCarthy-era Second Red Scare led to the deportation of an ethnic Chinese professor and former U.S. Army Colonel Qian Xuesen, whom became in Mao’s China the “father of Chinese Rocketry.” 

“You Understand Us” 

The diversity of experience and understanding that Asian-Americans bring to the table represent one of the asymmetric advantages the United States holds over China in great power competition. The CCP has a distinct desire in neutralizing his advantage, either via attracting Chinese back to China before they acquire the “-American,” or by encouraging suspicion to isolate/chase out the new immigrants. Effective competition in this regards means breaking the influence chain, starting with academia and using the most effective weapon available: Transparency. The value of transparency in breaking influence operations has been seen over and over again, demonstrated with the Chinese backpedaling response over the New York Times articles on malign PRC influence in Sri Lanka and PRC Embassy coordination with CSSAs in the United States. In both cases, the Chinese were forced to end the most blatant operations, and pay a heavy reputational price. 

The U.S. government should invest more heavily in academia and begin outreach to academic organizations to increase understanding of CCP influence operations. PRC threats to U.S. university funding should be met with homegrown U.S. financial and informational support, to include diversification of the international student demographics and to publicly support Chinese students/researchers whom face PRC opprobrium/internet doxing for speaking their minds. Similarly, attempts by U.S. universities to self-censor for PRC financial gain – as North Carolina State University did in 2009 when they cancelled the Dalai Lama’s visit after the local Confucius Institute objected — should be met with very public U.S. Congressional questioning. Finally, the U.S. government should lend counterintelligence and Department of Justice support for countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, which face an even greater PRC influence threat against their polities. Just as China seeks to use Australia and New Zealand as a test case for influence operations, the United States can bolster its allies and simultaneously gain experience in working against PRC influence operations at home.

In the end, the final toast given by the Chinese general wasn’t completely untrue — “you understand us.” Asian-Americans, particularly those of the first or 1.5 generation, generally do have a bit more cultural/linguistic fluency when it comes to understanding and dealing with the CCP. One of the subtle satisfactions of working in the U.S. national security apparatus as an Asian-American is seeing the increasing diversity of the military, particularly over the last decade. This satisfaction is not simply representational, but also professional as well: One of the standard lines that the Chinese military likes to use during a disagreement is “you do not understand China!” — a line that has significantly less power when thrown into the faces of the Asian-American military officers or defense experts sitting on the other side of the table. If PRC influence operations are to be countered, then that understanding must be shared across all sectors of U.S. society. 

Eric Chan is a China/Korea strategist for the U.S. Air Force’s Checkmate office. Mr. Chan was previously the China, Korea, Philippines, and Vietnam Country Director at the U.S. Air Force’s International Affairs office, responsible for Foreign Military Sales to US allies and for engagement with the Chinese Air Force. 

The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or SecuriFense.