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Report highlights growing funding, scope of China’s overseas influence tactics

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech opening the sixth U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew listening in Beijing, China on July 9, 2014. (U.S. State Department)
December 03, 2018

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A group of top international scholars has called on the U.S. government to put measures in place to counter and limit growing Chinese interference in American government and society.

“In light of growing evidence of China’s interference in various sectors of American government and society, we propose three broad principles that should serve as the basis for protecting the integrity of American institutions [and] core American values, norms, and laws,” a report authored by dozens of scholars under the aegis of the Hoover Institution said.

“We are less aware of the myriad ways Beijing has more recently been seeking cultural and informational influence, some of which could undermine our democratic processes,” according to a statement accompanying the report on the think-tank’s website.

“These include efforts 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 statement said.

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While China hasn’t sought to interfere in a national election in the United States or to sow confusion or inflame polarization in U.S. democratic discourse the way Russia has done, there is “a growing body of evidence” that the ruling Chinese Communist Party views democratic values including freedom of speech, assembly, religion and association as a threat, it said.

It said the Communist Party’s international outreach activities, under the United Front Work Department, now target areas from “think tanks, universities, and media to state, local, and national government institutions.”

In doing so, Beijing seeks to promote views sympathetic to its own, suppress alternative views; and win U.S.-based supporters for its political and economic goals, the report found.

“In recent years, it has significantly accelerated both its investment and the intensity of these efforts,” it said, adding that China also uses its companies to advance its economic interests overseas.

One of the report’s authors, Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College said that while China has sought to boost its overseas influence for decades, the scale of the latest effort is unprecedented.

“The difference now is that China has more funds to invest in these behaviors, and China’s overseas influence activities have become a top priority for the Chinese government,” Pei told a news conference as the report was published.

“The turning point was around 2008. Prior to that, there may have been activities in some sectors, but they weren’t as active, nor did they have so much money,” he said. “Since 2008, we have seen more organized and coordinated activities.”

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Transparency and reciprocity

Senior Hoover Institution researcher and report co-author Larry Diamond cited non-disclosure agreements and secrecy surrounding contracts signed with organizations that are directly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.

“A U.S. university professor studying China told us that his university only allowed him to view in secret the contract signed by the university with the Confucius Institute,” Diamond said, in a reference to the official Chinese language and cultural teaching institutions now embedded on campuses around the world.

“Just like the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), you have to enter a room and can’t take notes, only read,” he said, calling on U.S. universities and think-tanks to stick to total transparency in their dealings with Confucius Institutes.

The report called for greater transparency in dealings with Beijing-backed initiatives, integrity in maintaining the independence of American institutions, and reciprocity, suggesting Washington should push to be allowed to act similarly within China’s own borders.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said globalization has meant that all countries now inhabit a “global village.”

He said the U.S. should aim to strengthen its own “self-confidence” in a world of closely integrated interests.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is considering new background checks and other restrictions on Chinese students in the United States over growing espionage concerns, following visa restrictions on Chinese graduates in aviation, robotics and advanced manufacturing earlier this year, Reuters reported on Friday.

Sources told the news agency that Washington is mulling additional vetting for Chinese students, including student phone records and social media accounts, before allowing them to attend a school or college in the U.S.

The move comes amid growing official concern at the use of illicit methods such as hacking and cyberattacks to acquire new technology and industrial secrets, although China has repeatedly dismissed such concerns as fabrication.

Reported by Lin Ping for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.