Is America Overreacting to the Threat of Chinese Influence?

A ChinaFile Conversation

American civil and political discourse has seen a growing number of reports about worrying Chinese governmental influence in the United States. Most recently, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence decried the “malign influence” of China in the United States, via students, politicians, and corporations acting at Beijing’s direction, and sometimes with Beijing’s money. And the White House reportedly considered a blanket denial of visas for Chinese students in America, who currently number over 350,000.

Some believe it’s past time for greater vigilance, and maybe even alarm, at Chinese state-coordinated influence—particularly given reports of such campaigns in Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and elsewhere. Others believe the United States, as an open society, should easily be able to absorb or deflect such efforts. Some have cautioned that vigilance against Beijing specifically could easily morph into prejudice toward all Chinese nationals, or even Chinese- or Asian-Americans generally.

So are Americans—whether voters, politicians, or editors and reporters—overreacting? Under-reacting? Or is the United States’ collective response getting it just right, given the threat? What are the benefits and the dangers of bringing these issues front and center? —The Editors


Surprisingly for such a divisive administration, Trump has bipartisan support from many American policy wonks, officials, and journalists for his China policies. Over the last two years, people have started to realize that China will not become more like America. China will not, in the words of an often quoted 2005 speech by then Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, “become a responsible stakeholder” of the international system the United States built. China envisions a different global order—one that better serves its interests. “America had hoped that economic liberalization would bring China into a greater partnership with us and with the world,” Mike Pence said in his major October 4 China speech. “Instead, China has chosen economic aggression, which has in turn emboldened its growing military,” Pence said, only slightly hyperbolically.

Pence’s speech was astonishing because it presented a clear view of aspects of China’s pernicious influence in America: the “American businesses, movie studios, universities, think tanks, scholars, journalists, and local, state, and federal officials” that the Party is “rewarding or coercing.” (And he mentioned the horrific situation in the northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang, where roughly a million Muslims are imprisoned in camps—something top U.S. officials should get used to discussing in public events.)

Yes, the speech had flaws. Over the course of it, Pence mentioned Trump 20 times, praising him far more than was relevant to the material, and claiming that “China wants a different American president” because “Trump’s leadership is working.” In fact, Trump’s chaotic, undisciplined, and confusing rhetoric likely frustrates Beijing more than his leadership.

But the speech accomplished an important goal: it warned about China’s influence—that of the Communist Party, which rules China—without decrying the wonderful role Chinese and Chinese-Americans play as part of American society. Pence called for “faith in the enduring friendship between the American people and the Chinese people,” and praised the longstanding relationship between the two countries.

Pence ignored a policy idea that would have stained America’s reputation: the horrific proposal, discussed earlier this year and reportedly supported by the advisors Stephen Miller and Peter Navarro, that would have instituted a blanket ban on students from China. Want to win the battle of ideas against China? Then preserve the policies of openness, transparency, and tolerance that have served America well for generations, and which contrast our system with the Party’s.

Politically aware Chinese citizens will likely find Mike Pence’s furious condemnation of some vaguely defined “malign” Chinese influence in American politics eerily familiar. After all, one of the Chinese Communist Party’s (C.C.P.’s) standard tactics over the past few decades has been to accuse domestic socio-political opponents or dissidents of acting under the influence of undefined “hostile foreign forces.” Were the geopolitical circumstances not so nauseating otherwise, it might even be a point of national pride to see an American Vice President take a page out of the Chinese political playbook.

The C.C.P.’s fear-mongering use of “hostile foreign forces,” apart from being a Cold War relic, has always lent itself to the following interpretations: first, it belies a strong and fundamental insecurity about the Party’s soft power and ideological legitimacy, in that it fears that some vaguely defined foreign “other” can easily co-opt or sway the socio-political allegiances of domestic actors. In other words, it suggests perceived ideological vulnerability rather than strength. Second, and somewhat paradoxically, it suggests a domestic political atmosphere in which tribalism and hollow nationalism are ascendant—one in which the invocation of hostile foreign influence is considered an effective rhetorical device and rallying point. This is, in fact, fully compatible with the first observation, in that ideological insecurity often makes neurotic tribalism more attractive, rather than less. Third, it is, of course, a symptom of autocracy and oppression, of politics that do not involve reason-giving, but instead operate on the basis of vague and unfalsifiable accusations of being guilty by association.

How sad, then, that all these things are now increasingly true of American, and perhaps European, politics, and that Pence’s rant against the evil Chinese other is but the latest example.

The U.S. government and Americans have only begun to react to the issue of the Chinese Communist Party’s (C.C.P.’s) activities on U.S. soil and its interference in U.S. politics. To claim an overreaction is simply not credible.

Avoiding compromising our values of pluralism and openness requires being clear about the problem of C.C.P. interference. The problem is the activities of a hostile foreign government ideologically opposed to the values of democracy and individual rights. The problem is emphatically not the roughly 1.4 billion Chinese people, nor the millions in Chinese diaspora communities. Conflating the political activities of C.C.P. with “China” or “the Chinese” only furthers the Party’s own disingenuous messaging. Evaluating the problem must begin with the C.C.P. and work outward, not from Chinese people nor from those people and institutions engaging China.

Most Americans, including many government officials, do not fully comprehend the C.C.P.’s means and ends. The debate over the Confucius Institutes is a good example. At present, the debate focuses on whether the institutes are channels for propaganda but misses their real usefulness to the C.C.P.: fostering affiliation with U.S. universities that can be exploited and in some cases include a voice in the university administration.

Similar misunderstandings occur with regard to C.C.P. propaganda. The Party’s united front work and external propaganda are difficult to identify and counter because, rather than crudely crank propaganda through the United States, the C.C.P. prefers to control the medium through which information is disseminated. Messaging comes afterward. The more control over the medium, the more effective, efficient, and pervasive the C.C.P.’s messaging. Thus, Washington should encourage independent alternatives wherever possible and help ameliorate the pressure when Beijing leans on Chinese-language media outside the People’s Republic of China.

To respond effectively, the U.S. government and American public will need a systematic approach to evaluating the problem and developing measured solutions. We have not yet begun to do this.

A sufficient plan probably will include the following elements at a minimum:

  • U.S. agencies and NGOs must map the scope of the problem and educate the populace—it is not enough to have only a classified version. The public, especially those involved in China-related work, need to know how the Party cultivates relationships of dependency and then exploits them.
  • The executive branch needs to evaluate why U.S. laws and regulations, like the Foreign Agent Registration Act or civil rights statutes, have not been enforced to push back against C.C.P. interference.
  • The legislative branch must define the legal line between interference (which former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull defined as being covert, corrupting, or coercive) and influence, to patch the holes in existing legislation.
  • Researchers, journalists, and ordinary citizens will have to maintain a conversation about acceptable and unacceptable engagement with the C.C.P. organs and other outlets that the Party controls. A democracy cannot and should not legislate everything, and a robust civil society is a necessary defense. A public understanding about the scope of C.C.P. activities is a necessary component of this conversation.

The Trump administration appears determined to frame a China problem ahead of the midterm elections. But it is difficult to assess whether America is overreacting or underreacting without knowing more details about the alleged China “influence” in the United States.

At this stage, the allegations against Chinese “influence” are different from the allegations against Russia, which has been accused of subverting the U.S. political system. It is also worth noting that there is a long history of subversion between Russia and the West. President Trump’s conclusion seemed to have derived from the fact that China does not like him. “They do not want me, or us, to win,” he said on September 26.

What’s more, the evidence that President Trump revealed in a recent tweet was merely an insert from a little-circulated local newspaper. On its own, this is hardly the evidence of meddling. This personalized China message seems to be aimed at Trump’s domestic audience at a time when polls show that the Republicans might lose votes to Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections.

This does not suggest, however, that the White House’s frustration towards China is not justified. Beijing and Washington enjoyed a period of positive engagement during most of the Obama administration. But the U.S. administration felt that issues such as North Korea and market access continue to linger, and its patience eventually wore out. What we are seeing now is a process of disengagement between the two countries.

It is not uncommon these days to hear negative comments about China from both the American political establishment and the business elite. Even in a sharply divided Congress, anti-China sentiment appears to be shared by both Democrats and Republicans.

This is worrying, and China has sensed it. That’s why Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai pledged to well-educated (and mostly Democratic) NPR audiences that China is willing to make a deal with the Trump White House. But, he complained, the Trump administration keeps vacillating. “We don’t know exactly what the U.S. would want as priorities,” the Chinese envoy said.

Language matters. The U.S. and China have had a long and complex history of engagement, and a large part of that history was unpleasant. Consider, for example, the traumatizing 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which started with the perceived “threat” from people of Chinese origin and proved to be a disaster.

The U.S. administration needs to be careful in the way it frames policies toward China. The messages coming from the Trump administration, however, do not look positive. For instance, according to the Financial Times, the White House reportedly considered banning Chinese students studying in the U.S. This attracted enormous attention—some commentators called it a “Chinese Exclusion Act 2.0.”

Many historical empires practiced some kind of cultural propaganda as an important part of their trade relations and conquests. The Greeks used their custom of hosting foreign visitors as their model for placing their own ambassadors in neighboring states, making hospitality and amity the framework for state relations. And though the Romans might have been less cheerful, they nevertheless put culture at the vanguard of their negotiations, sending officials who specialized in the rituals of war to state their terms. The imperial traditions of cultural propagation ran as late as the Rhodes Scholarships, initiated in 1902. They all have their post-World War II descendants in instruments of cultural representation such as USAID, the Peace Corps, the Fulbright Fellowships, the American Academy in Rome, Alliance Française, the Goethe Institutes, the British Councils all over the world, and so on. Are the Confucius Institutes, the Yenching Academy, or the Schwarzman Scholars any different? Are they not repurposed yet familiar instruments long used by powerful nations to charm foreigners who would otherwise find them threatening?

In retrospect, some of the cultural initiatives of the Chinese government may indeed be found to be quite different, mainly because of the greater differences underlying them. In promoting the study of Chinese language and culture, Confucius institutes could be about the same as Alliance Française. But many American colleges and universities try to pad their own budgets by allowing the Confucius Institutes to do more—to provide teaching integrated into the curriculum, to influence decisions on hiring and promotion, to interfere in plans for outside speakers. Where American administrators and faculty do not exert themselves to protect values of free inquiry and expression, officers of the Confucius Institutes move to serve their actual purpose: to further the agenda of the authoritarian government of China, which uses culture in China itself as a weapon. They can be a threat both to American scholars and to Chinese students earnestly pursuing their studies in the United States. And regardless of the institutional facade, scholarly exchange programs with authoritarian governments—not exclusively China—always include informants and provocateurs. The answer is not exclusion, but recognition and containment.

The problem for American academics is that the commitment to protection of the values of liberal education and democratic culture have been gradually compromised by leading American institutions aspiring to “bring the liberal arts” to unbending authoritarian societies across the Middle East and Asia. These institutions have promoted a suspension of disbelief, rhetoricizing about liberal arts education when nothing much is exchanged apart from the profits of selling prestigious American degrees to students who have completed expurgated curricula with tightly utilitarian goals. This leaves some major American institutions unable to exert the sort of leadership necessary to protect U.S.-based scholars and scholarship from Chinese academic strategists. American institutions cannot blame the Chinese government, and far less Chinese visitors, for American failure to secure basic values in intellectual culture. Far more damage has been done by American self-delusion and financial opportunism.