Scholars Warn of Chinese Influence Operations in U.S.
By Kate O’Keeffe (Wall Street Journal)
Nov. 28, 2018 6:58 p.m. ET
Group proposes limiting visas for Chinese media and scholars unless Americans can operate more freely in China
WASHINGTON—An influential group of China experts called for Americans to acknowledge what it described as a growing threat of Beijing-sponsored influence operations in the U.S. The cohort also proposed restricting visas for Chinese media and scholars unless their American counterparts are allowed to operate more freely in China.
In a new report, 32 longtime China watchers warned that the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to influence U.S. universities, media, think tanks and companies—but haven't included attempted election-meddling—have become so pervasive that they are undermining democratic processes, all while many Americans remain unaware.
“The ambition of Chinese activity in terms of the breadth, depth of investment of financial resources, and intensity requires far greater scrutiny than it has been getting, because China is intervening more resourcefully and forcefully across a wider range of sectors than Russia,” said the report, titled “Chinese Influence & American Interests.” In a lone dissent, one of its authors said the report exaggerated those threats.
The group that produced the report was led by Larry Diamond of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and Orville Schell of the Asia Society in New York, and received financial support from the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, an independent nonprofit.
Many of the people who contributed to the report are prominent scholars with a deep affection for China who held out hope that its government would liberalize. Their disillusionment represents a shift in the debate over the trajectory of U.S.-China relations. More hawkish administration officials and advisers said they saw the report as evidence the U.S. China-policy establishment is coming around to their thinking.
According to the report, China hasn’t sought to interfere in a national election the way that U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement say Russia has and that Moscow has denied. Both President Trump and Vice President Pence have said, without providing evidence, that China tried to interfere in the U.S. midterm elections earlier this month to hurt their administration and the Republican Party.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said there was no indication of any foreign attempts to disrupt election infrastructure specifically, and described Beijing’s efforts to affect U.S. politics as “the more traditional, holistic state-influence campaigns.”
The Chinese government has long denied interfering in other countries’ affairs.
The goal of the Chinese Communist Party’s influence operations, the report says, is to promote views sympathetic to China’s authoritarian government while suppressing alternative perspectives. Beijing is also preventing U.S. organizations from engaging with Chinese society, it adds.
For example, the scholars found that China has increased its state-owned media companies’ English-language presence in the U.S. while all but eliminating the many independent Chinese-language outlets that once catered to Chinese Americans, by allegedly co-opting existing outlets and creating its own—ranging from print and digital publications to television and radio programming. The Chinese government has also severely restricted Western media outlets from operating in China, including The Wall Street Journal.
Additionally, Beijing has retaliated against U.S. universities that hosted events the Chinese Communist Party didn’t like; threatened companies that didn’t conform to its views on Taiwan and Tibet; and restricted U.S. think tanks’ operations in China, all while expanding its own network of think tanks in the U.S., the researchers found.
In response, the report’s authors recommend creating a federal government office that state and local governments as well as nongovernmental groups could consult on how to respond to Chinese requests for partnerships. The office could provide information on the affiliations of the Chinese organizations approaching U.S. groups.
The report also says the U.S. government should restrict visas for Chinese journalists as well as think-tank and university scholars unless reciprocal access is given to their American counterparts.
Beijing targets the Chinese-American community in particular, the report says, viewing them as members of a Chinese diaspora with an “allegiance to the so-called Motherland.” Not only does this impede Chinese Americans’ freedom of speech, it also creates the risk that they will be viewed suspiciously within the U.S. even though few may accept Beijing’s directives, the report says. The report urges against demonizing any group of Americans or visitors to the country.
Susan Shirk, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, and one of the report’s 32 authors, said she took no issue with the evidence gathered but felt the report’s conclusions overstated the threats.
“Especially during this moment in American political history, overstating the threat of subversion from China risks causing overreactions reminiscent of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, including an anti-Chinese version of the Red Scare that would put all ethnic Chinese under a cloud of suspicion,” she said.
The report adds to a body of studies on Chinese influence operations, including those by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission and the Hudson Institute, both known for advocating a harder line against Beijing.
—Bob Davis contributed to this article.
Write to Kate O’Keeffe at firstname.lastname@example.org