China’s Influence Operations in the United States

By: Ryan Neuhard, Columnist

Photo by: Getty Images

The exposure of Russia’s political influence campaign in the United States has raised deeply uncomfortable questions about the US political system’s vulnerability to foreign manipulation. [[i]] However, Russia is not the only foreign power attempting to manipulate US politics. China’s government has a subtle, but robust approach to influencing the United States. [[ii]] It straddles the boundary between legitimate efforts to promote China’s perspective and illegitimate efforts to manipulate US civil discourse. Though China’s government uses a softer touch, the United States should be wary and respond proactively.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses several party-state departments to coordinate influence operations. The key departments include the United Front Work Department, the Central Propaganda Department, the military’s Liaison Department, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. [[iii]] These departments are supported by state-controlled media organizations and quasi-government organizations, like the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese and the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. [[iv]]

Categories of Influence Operations

CCP influence operations generally fall into three categories of activity: controlling information, guiding the Chinese diaspora, and coopting foreigners. [[v]]

Overseas information control involves both promoting CCP narratives and censoring undesirable viewpoints. To conduct these operations, the CCP uses a mix of proxies with varying degrees of separation from the government. The first set of proxies consist of the overseas offices for state-run media companies, like the Xinhua News Agency, China Central Television network (CCTV), and China Radio International (CRI). [[vi]] These proxies deliver news coverage and commentary that reinforces CCP narratives and uses multiple languages to target different foreign audiences — Mandarin for the Chinese diaspora and local languages for the non-Chinese population. State media companies also pass content through a second set of proxies: trusted local outlets. [[vii]] These proxies include local outlets that accept partnerships with Chinese media companies in exchange for free content on China-related news, as well as local outlets that Chinese media companies simply absorb through mergers and acquisitions. [[viii]] The CCP cultivates a third set of proxies by working with local academic institutions, like universities, research centers, and publishers. [[ix]] The CCP typically uses state universities, state-funded Confucius Institutes, or other intermediaries to set up these relationships. Such funding may give rise to concerns about academic impartiality. [[x]]

Outreach to the Chinese diaspora focuses on unifying these communities around a Chinese identity and then using this identity to cultivate patriotism and loyalty to the CCP. In an effort to guide the overseas Chinese communities, Chinese officials arrange meetings with community groups and high-profile individuals (e.g. politicians, student leaders). Officials then develop these relationships by sponsoring Chinese language, media, and cultural activities. [[xi]] As the relationship develops, these groups and individuals are encouraged to become politically active and to build relationships with pro-CCP foreigners. [[xii]]

The CCP targets foreign academics, entrepreneurs, and politicians with the intent of developing advocates for the CCP’s perspective in positions of influence. In order to coopt these individuals, China’s government may offer them high-profile roles in overseas Chinese companies, invitations to all-expenses-paid conferences, or other benefits. [[xiii]] The CCP also nurtures direct relationships with foreign cities through sister city relations and with foreign political parties through conferences and campaign donations. [[xiv]]

US Response Options

When considering US response options, it is helpful to consider the nodes in these networks. Most of these operations connect a state organization (node #1) with an intermediary (node #2) before engaging the public, politicians, or business leaders (node #3) who make the decisions that the CCP seeks to influence. US responses can combat these operations at all three of these nodes.

The United States can persuade the CCP (node #1) to voluntarily refrain from illegitimate influence operations by clarifying norms, mitigating China’s influence, threatening proportional retaliation, and negotiating. The first step is to cut through the ambiguity surrounding influence operations. By clarifying the distinction between manipulative influence operations and legitimate forms of government engagement with foreign populations, the United States can ensure China’s leadership understands what activity is considered fair play and what activity will provoke retaliation. Mitigating the effectiveness of China’s operations by combating node #2 and node #3 can discourage the CCP from continuing their behavior, since their efforts will start paying decreasing dividends. Meanwhile, the US can also raise the costs of influence activity by threatening a proportional response (e.g. a concerted effort to disrupt China’s domestic censorship system, material support for pro-democracy groups in China). As the cost-benefit analysis for China shifts, the CCP may become willing to negotiate an agreement on legitimate and illegitimate types of influence.

To combat the CCP’s use of intermediaries (node #2), the United States can use a combination of community outreach, foreign funding regulations, and counterintelligence. Community outreach should focus on two groups: the ethnic Chinese community in the United States and the private sector (especially media and academic institutions). This would involve government or NGO programs that help new immigrants settle into the United States and feel welcome. By preventing ethnic Chinese communities from feeling isolated or excluded, the United States can make it harder for the CCP to coopt and exploit them. [[xv]] The CCP’s interests do not entirely align with the best interests of the Chinese people (at home or abroad). If US outreach also highlights the distinction between supporting the CCP and supporting China, ethnic Chinese communities may feel less of a duty to serve the party. Outreach to the private sector could include encouraging institutions to share information and develop standards for interacting with known CCP proxies. If necessary, the U.S. could increase restrictions or transparency requirements for foreign funding and acquisitions. [[xvi]] The United States can also consider shifting the Intelligence Community’s focus more toward China-oriented counterintelligence.

Exposing the CCP’s linkages to proxy groups and encouraging the public to think critically when consuming information can help reduce the effectiveness of influence efforts that reach the public or influential individuals (node #3). Transparency requirements for campaign funding and foreign direct investment, as well as standard counterintelligence work can also help expose influential individuals that the CCP may be exploiting.

China’s influence operations may be subtle, but that is exactly why they are concerning. These operations can be easy to overlook and difficult to separate from legitimate forms of engagement. The good news is we have solutions that can meet this challenge. We must simply implement them.






[[i]] “Read the Indictment of 13 Russian Nationals for Election Meddling.” CNN. 16 February 2018.

[[ii]] For a comparison of Russian and Chinese approaches to influence operations, see:

Peter Mattis. “Contrasting China’s and Russia’s Influence Operations.” War on the Rocks. 16 January 2018.

[[iii]] For a summary of the United Front’s organization and functions, see:

Marcel Angliviel de la Beaumelle. “The United Front Work Department: ‘Magic Weapon’ at Home and Abroad.” Jamestown Foundation. 6 July 2017.

For a summary of the Propaganda Department’s functions, see:

Anne-Marie Brady. “China’s Foreign Propaganda Machine.” Wilson Center. 26 October 2015.

For a summary of the PLA GPD/LD’s organization and functions, see:

Michael Raska. “China and the ‘Three Warfares.’” The Diplomat. 18 December 2015.

[[iv]] Anne-Marie Brady. “Magic Weapons: China’s Political Influence Activities under Xi Jinping.” Wilson Center. 18 September 2017. 35.

[[v]] Ibid.

[[vi]] Anne-Marie Brady. “China’s Foreign Propaganda Machine.” Wilson Center. 26 October 2015.

Anne-Marie Brady. “Magic Weapons: China’s Political Influence Activities under Xi Jinping.” Wilson Center. 18 September 2017. 8-9.

[[vii]] Ibid.

[[viii]] Ibid.

Possible U.S. Examples:

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian. “Beijing Builds Its Influence in the American Media.” Foreign Policy. 21 December 2017.

Isaac Stone Fish. “Chinese Ownership is Raising Questions about the Editorial Independence of a Major U.S. Magazine.” The Washington Post. 14 December 2017.

[[ix]] Anne-Marie Brady. “Magic Weapons: China’s Political Influence Activities under Xi Jinping.” Wilson Center. 18 September 2017. 35.

[[x]] For example, in 2010, the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF) paid a public relations firm for services that included engaging with textbook editors and publishers, in an effort to change textbook content on China’s relationship with Tibet. CUSEF’s connection to the Chinese government is relatively overt, since CUSEF’s chairman, C.H. Tung, also serves as Vice-Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. This activity shows two layers of intermediaries — the CUSEF organization (intermediary #1) and the public relations firm (intermediary #2) — working with an academic institution (the textbook publisher) to control information (education on China’s policies in Tibet) and alter U.S. public opinion (via the school children who read the textbooks).

United States Department of Justice, National Security Division, Foreign Agents Registration Unit. Exhibit AB To Registration Statement Pursuant to the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, as amended, by Brown Loyd James (Registration #5875), OMB No. 1124-0006, Washington, D.C.: 3 August 2010,,200:P200_REG_NUMBER:5875, accessed 13 March 2018.

[[xi]] Anne-Marie Brady. “Magic Weapons: China’s Political Influence Activities under Xi Jinping.” Wilson Center. 18 September 2017. 35.

[[xii]] Ibid.

[[xiii]] Ibid.

[[xiv]] “Sister Cities International and The Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries sign Memorandum of Understanding.” Sister Cities International. 13 September 2012.

Charlotte Gao. “For the First Time Chinese Communist Party to Hold a World Political Parties Dialogue.” The Diplomat. 29 November 2017.

Su Yuting. “The CPC Hosts World’s Political Parties in Beijing.” CGTN. 1 December 2017.

Ed Kennedy. “Foreign Donations, Local Politics: China’s Australia Influence.” The Diplomat. 18 July 2017.

[[xv]] Anne-Marie Brady notes that, “China’s propaganda efforts have been remarkably successful in fostering positive public opinion among Overseas Chinese, especially new migrants, and marginalizing opposition groups within Chinese expatriate communities,” (emphasis added) which suggests that these factions are especially susceptible to CCP influence and reducing their sense of marginalization might reduce their susceptibility.

Anne-Marie Brady. “China’s Foreign Propaganda Machine.” Wilson Center. 26 October 2015.

[[xvi]] The proposed “Disclosing Foreign Influence Act,” and “Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act of 2017” provide examples of steps that could increase the transparency and limitations imposed on dubious foreign entities that attempt to fund or acquire US entities.

“Disclosing Foreign Influence Act.” S.2039. 115th Congress (2017-2018).

“Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act of 2017.” H.R.4311. 115th Congress (2017-2018).

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