Chinese Military Engaged in Political Warfare Against the United States

Report shows use of semi-secret front groups, influence operations aimed at ‘disintegrating enemies’
Photo credit: Project 2049 Institute

Photo credit: Project 2049 Institute


China’s military is using covert political warfare operations to influence U.S. policies and opinions toward Beijing while working to defeat perceived enemies like the United States and Taiwan, according to a report on the sub-rosa activities.

The activities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Political Department (GPD) include funding pro-China activities abroad, recruiting intelligence sources, spreading propaganda, engaging in media activities, funding front groups that promote Chinese strategy and goals and supporting perceived “friends” of China.

The report is the first public study of Chinese military political warfare and was produced by the Project 2049 Institute, an Arlington, Va. think tank focused on bringing democracy to China and other Asian countries by 2049.

The report identifies one of the PLA political operations as the Sanya Initiative. That initiative brought together retired senior Chinese and U.S. military officers, including former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff retired Adm. Bill Owens, that have lobbied the Pentagon and Congress using the propaganda theme that China poses no threat to the United States.

The Free Beacon first disclosed last year that a draft report by the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission had identified the Sanya Initiative as linked to the China Association for International Friendly Contact, described in the draft as “a front organization for the International Liaison Department of the PLA General Political Department.”

China’s military also calls its political warfare operations “liaison work.”

“The PLA General Political Department—managed exchanges with foreign senior retired military officers, such as the Sanya Initiative, are only one part of a much broader campaign to manipulate perceptions and policies of foreign governments, particularly regarding Taiwan,” said Mark Stokes, Project 2049 director and co-author of the report.

Stokes said that “for decades, the GPD has effectively conditioned foreign audiences to accept Beijing’s narrow interpretation of One China,” which asserts Taiwan is part of Beijing-ruled China.

“The objective reality is that Taiwan, under its current Republic of China constitution, exists as an independent, sovereign state,” he said. “Two legitimate governments—authoritarian [People’s Republic of China] and democratic [Republic of China]—exist on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.”

The report urges U.S. policymakers to develop countermeasures to Chinese political warfare.

“U.S. policy makers may find value in a reinvigorated capacity to counter those who promote visions for an international order that are contrary to American interests and ideals,” the report said.

“Citing the stagnation of U.S. political warfare skills since the end of the Cold War, prominent opinion leaders have indeed advocated in favor of enhancing our ability to win hearts and minds in the Middle East context. China’s experience in political warfare may be instructive as well.”

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the FBI had as one of its missions the countering of such political influence operations. However, as successive administrations adopted pro-China trade-dominated policies toward Beijing, U.S. counterintelligence against China diminished significantly.

Frequent cases of prosecutions of Chinese nationals or sympathizers for illegal exports to China are uncovered regularly. However, the FBI has not arrested or uncovered a single Chinese spy during the Obama administration.

The report states that while all governments seek to shape international opinion, China’s political warfare operations go far beyond traditional public diplomacy.

“Chinese political warfare seeks to shore up legitimacy domestically, reframe international rules of the road, and promote alternatives to widely accepted universal values,” the report said.

Unlike public diplomacy, Chinese political warfare involves both intelligence and influence operations under the strategy of “aligning with friends and disintegrating enemies,” according to the report.

Operations to disintegrate enemies differentiate Chinese political warfare from other propaganda and publicity programs, the report said.

“Leveraging propaganda and other means, disintegration work seeks to undermine an opponent’s national will through targeting of ideology, psychology, and morale,” the report said.

“Contemporary political warfare augments people-to-people, government-to-government, and party-to-party relations to promote [the Chinese Communist Party’s] political legitimacy and defend against perceived threats to state security,” the report said.

Among the targets are “international elites” who are used to undermine the integrity of groups and people Beijing views as anti-China.

“At the strategic level, a core PLA political warfare mission is countering perceived political challenges that liberal democratic systems, universal values, and Western culture pose to the [Chinese Communist Party’s] legitimacy within China itself and the broader international community.”

China’s communist rulers are engaged in a war of ideas against liberal democracies. For example, in January 2012, then-Chinese President Hu Jintao said in state-controlled press that “hostile forces” were engaged in ideological and cultural war aimed at westernizing and dividing China.

“The United States in particular is singled out as an ideological adversary,” the report said.

Chinese political warriors operate internationally to market the “China model” of authoritarian, anti-democratic rule as an alternative to Western democracy.

A recent example appeared recently in Chinese officials’ assertions that a new international order is needed to “de-Americanize” the world, as a result of the recent U.S. government shutdown and debt ceiling debate.

In addition to targeting the United States in its political warfare activities, Taiwan is a major target of PLA political warfare.

The goal of the campaign is to undermine the legitimacy of democratic Taiwan whose system poses “an existential challenge” to communist rule, the report said.

The main function of the PLA unit is to serve as a clearinghouse for coordinating party organs, state bureaucracies, military communities, commercial enterprises, and informal networks of prominent elites.

Several Chinese non-government organizations play important roles in PLA political warfare, according to the report.

One stridently anti-American group identified in the report is the Dongfang Yi Cultural Expansion Association that advances China’s notion of “three warfares”: psychological warfare; overt and covert media manipulation; and use of law in political warfare.

Other PLA political warfare front groups identified in the report include the China Energy Fund Committee and Nishan Forum on World Civilizations. The groups seek to seek to play down China’s Soviet and Marxist-Leninist roots, structure and strategies around the world.

The PLA political department also works with prominent opinion leaders to promote China’s political-military interests.

“Operating at a nexus of politics, finance, military operations, and intelligence, [the GPD] amplifies or attenuates the political effects of the military instrument of national power,” the report said.

Another element of the political warfare is China’s establishment of Confucius Institutes, the report said.

Several institutes have been established around the world, including in the United States and U.S. officials have said the institutes have ties to Chinese intelligence and military agencies.

The report said gauging the effectiveness of the political warfare program is difficult because the Chinese use of front groups, pseudonyms for senior members.

Chinese political warfare also shares roots with the Soviet Union’s use of so-called “active measures” during the Cold War. Those KGB-run operations included spreading lies to undermine the United States, like an operation claiming AIDS was a U.S. biological warfare program.

Soviet active measures also used forged documents to undermine U.S. political figures.

“By contrast, no single [Chinese] authority, with the exception of the Politburo Standing Committee, appears to enjoy an exclusive monopoly over political warfare,” the report said.


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