The Debate | Opinion

China’s Influence Operations Hurt Chances for Real Engagement

Can any organization, regardless of how transparent they are, fully dispel the doubts caused by the actions of the United Front Work Department?

By Chi Wang for
China’s Influence Operations Hurt Chances for Real Engagement
Credit: Flickr/ Remko Tanis

Newsweek recently published a report about Chinese propaganda activities in the United States. The report discusses fake social media accounts run from China that have been posting about the 2020 election – not to support a particular candidate but seemingly to “denigrate the standing of the U.S.” by sowing discord and painting American democracy in a negative light.

Concerns about foreign actors attempting to influence U.S. elections are not new. Neither is Chinese propaganda exaggerating apparent failures in the United States in order to bolster the Chinese Communist Party’s own legitimacy. While these messages likely work well for China’s own domestic audience, the report shows the social media accounts were not nearly as successful in the U.S. China’s attempted influence campaigns, however, will not simply stop now, only hibernate until the next major election cycle.

What is more concerning from the report was the investigation identifying 600 U.S. organizations with ties to the Chinese Communist Party. More specifically, the groups were linked with the CCP’s United Front Work Department, which aims to influence foreign groups through various seemingly unaffiliated organizations. The concern is that those who engage with these organizations might be unaware of their links to the Chinese Communist Party.

Every China watcher knows that Chinese news outlets, for example, answer to the Chinese government and do not have the same standards of free press we rely on in the United States. We did not need the State Department to categorize them as Chinese government entities to keep this bias in mind. With the United Front Work Department, however, the influence is not as clear. Some of the supposed ties U.S. organizations have to the Chinese Communist Party seem to be inconsequential or in name only. With others, these ties might actively influence the content, actions, and programs the think tank, association, business, or other entity engages in. It is this ambiguity and uncertainty that breeds mistrust.

Where does this mistrust leave truly independent organizations which are dedicated to promoting mutual understanding and engagement? Can any organization, regardless of how transparent they are, fully dispel the doubts caused by the actions of the United Front Work Department?

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My very real worry is that this mistrust will only grow and cast a shadow over authentic and necessary efforts to promote engagement. I have personally been involved in fostering U.S.-China exchanges and ties for over 70 years. In my experience, the value of true open dialogue and people-to-people engagement cannot be understated.

When I first began working at the U.S. Library of Congress researching and cataloging reports on China, the United States and China were in the midst of the Cold War. Any information we received came from Hong Kong – mainland China was closed off. That lack of contact led to gaps in our knowledge about China and misunderstandings about the Chinese Communist Party’s priorities and goals.

In 1972, President Richard Nixon went to China and the U.S.-China relationship drastically changed. In addition to opening liaison offices in each country’s capital and discussing plans for future normalization, the leaders recognized the need to open unofficial avenues of engagement as well. They explicitly stated in their joint communique that “the two sides agreed that it is desirable to broaden the understanding between the two peoples. To this end, they discussed specific areas in such fields as science, technology, culture, sports and journalism, in which people-to-people contacts and exchange would be mutually beneficial.”

Shortly after Nixon’s trip, I was sent to China by Dr. Henry Kissinger, the State Department, and the Library of Congress to help put that pledge into action. I met with professors, library heads, and government officials to initiate educational, book, and cultural exchanges. Everyone I spoke with was eager to once again have access to Western expertise and a sharing of knowledge. Soon, Chinese students were enrolling in U.S. universities, while American analysts had access to Chinese newspapers, reports, and other primary sources, and more.

Increased engagement led to deeper understanding. For the United States and China, such understanding is especially important. Formerly on opposite sides of an ideological conflict, key differences in philosophy, governance, culture, and worldview had the potential to derail normalization efforts. The leaderships in both countries were able to get past such seemingly insurmountable hurdles by building a deeper understanding of each other’s key priorities and concerns.

True progress between opposing parties requires an understanding of where each side can bend and compromise versus where they must stay firm. Leaders in the United States and China in the years leading up to normalization understood this need and made sincere efforts to talk, listen, and learn from each other while also acknowledging and respecting key differences.

Diplomacy is already lacking in the official U.S.-China relationship. The two sides have chosen nationalistic rhetoric and escalation over dialogue and engagement. Twitter politics and wolf warriors are magnifying conflicts and differences instead of searching for understanding or common ground. In a more literal sign of the diplomatic rift, consulates in the United States and China have even been shuttered.

Unofficial avenues of engagement are under attack as well. China threatens and boycotts U.S. organizations like the NBA, attempting to control statements and actions by foreign entities. Concerns over Communist Party influence and potential spying have led to all Chinese students studying in the United States being placed under scrutiny. These and other policies continue to constrict the available avenues of engagement. Not knowing what restrictive policies might come next, or what organizations might have ties to the Chinese Communist Party, increases the risk and challenges for those organizations still hoping to engage.

Instead of trying to build bridges and improve understanding, China and the United States seem to be increasingly shouting at each other over an ever growing chasm. During times of bilateral tension, businesses, track II engagement, and other unofficial channels have traditionally kept the relationship afloat. Now, however, even those avenues are coming under question.

Looking forward, regardless of who is in the White House, the United States and China have many struggles ahead for their bilateral relationship. The U.S.-China relationship is too important, and has too big an impact on the entire world, for us to give up on it. We must find a way to continue engagement, increase mutual understanding, and rebuild some semblance of trust. Engagement builds understanding and understanding is necessary for any true cooperation, compromise, or progress on key policy areas.

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Dr. Chi Wang is president of the U.S.-China Policy Foundation and previously served as the head of the Chinese section at the Library of Congress.