As much as it has been Russia! Russia! Russia! in the headlines, justified or not, one can’t help but wonder if China is really going to be the domestic influence dark horse.
FBI Director Christopher Wray warns of broad Chinese infiltration and influence attempts in its efforts to replace the U.S. as the leading world power.
According to a Business Insider report, Wray warned at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that China is attempting to assert its influence in atypical and pervasive fashion from physically on college campuses to its presence and efforts in the cyber realm.
“One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat on their end,” Wray said. “And I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us.”
Recent reports have singled-out the dissemination of propaganda at China’s Confucius Institutes, language-learning centers at funding-hungry universities around the world, including in the U.S. POLITICO, for example, explained in a January report that the culture and language learning centers pitch themselves differently back in Beijing:
But the Confucius Institutes’ goals are a little less wholesome and edifying than they sound—and this is by the Chinese government’s own account. A 2011 speech by a standing member of the Politburo in Beijing laid out the case: “The Confucius Institute is an appealing brand for expanding our culture abroad,” Li Changchun said. “It has made an important contribution toward improving our soft power. The ‘Confucius’ brand has a natural attractiveness. Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.”
To review, or for those unfamiliar with the political science concept of “soft power,” it was put forth by international affairs scholar Joseph Nye in the late 1980s to describe the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion. It is also exercised “indirectly” through non-governmental institutions or organizations, such as businesses, non-profits, universities and even churches.
Lest we forget, China is no novice, especially when it comes to influencing, if not controlling, the social media conversation and putting innovative technology to work to do it. Last February, the Washington Post reported, China was responsible for roughly one in six of more than 450 million social media posts. Furthermore, it’s not just a happenstance hogging of a sixth of the social media dialogue.
Domestically, Beijing has honed its skills in mass surveillance not only to control the conversation, but “to leverage it for more effective governance, propaganda and political control.”
Domestically, Beijing has honed its skills in mass surveillance not only to control the conversation, but “to leverage it for more effective governance, propaganda and political control.” It takes little stretch or flex of the imagination, particularly in the wake of the Russia 2016 U.S. presidential election meddling and the ongoing fallout, to reflect on the viability for such methods in an open, uncensored and tech-savvy society.
Wray also warned of “collectors” having infiltrated universities as professors, scientists and students, “exploiting” the open and unsuspicious environment and then feeding that information back to China. At the same hearing, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats reinforced Wray’s warnings regarding China’s new broader approach to influence U.S. culture in its favor.
“There is no question that what you have just articulated is what’s happening with China,” Coats said following up on Wray’s testimony. “They’re doing it in a very smart way. They’re doing it in a very effective way. They are looking beyond their own region.”
Combine this “single grain” approach with “soft power”, a vast pool of well-placed academics and subject matter experts, as well as a canny ability to feed them into sensitive positions, and China has a distinct playing field advantage that the U.S. cannot reciprocate against the communist, comparatively closed state.
Though on-the-ground “operations” typically receive more fanfare and their share of film time in Hollywood, China’s more passive collection efforts are of particular concern; and it’s not just U.S. government secrets and informants’ identities. As James Mattis, The Jamestown Foundation’s Fellow in the China Program, reminds us, Chinese collectors are notorious for attempting to steal the secrets of U.S. companies, from big banks and defense tech to Silicon Valley; more notorious still is the number of them each responsible for collecting a “single grain of sand.” Combine this “single grain” approach with “soft power”, a vast pool of well-placed academics and subject matter experts, as well as a canny ability to feed them into sensitive positions, and China has a distinct playing field advantage that the U.S. cannot reciprocate against the communist, comparatively closed state.
As much as it has been Russia! Russia! Russia! in the headlines, justified or not, one can’t help but wonder if China is really going to be the domestic influence dark horse when it comes to exerting such “soft power” in person or on the Internet. Perhaps even less knowable is whether this is the moment in time when “the red lights are blinking” with Wray and Coats and others sounding the alarm to a very distracted Congress and society.