China's Communist Party is engaged in sophisticated global influence operations using money to buy supporters and deceive foreign audiences about Beijing's rights abuses, experts told a congressional China commission on Wednesday.
"Attempts by the Chinese government to guide, buy, or coerce political influence and control discussion of ‘sensitive' topics are pervasive, and pose serious challenges in the United States and our like-minded allies," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), co-chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
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Rubio identified one party organ known as the United Front Work Department that is a key agency engaged in influence operations in China and abroad.
The party bolstered the department in 2014, calling it China's "magic weapon" charged with promoting a positive view of China abroad and exporting its authoritarian model.
Three specialists on Chinese information operations testified at the commission hearing that China is buying influence around the world using its extensive financial resources, while silencing critics of the Communist Party of China and its dictatorial system.
The experts said that unlike Russia during the last election there were no signs Beijing sought to influence the 2016 presidential election.
China, however, did seek to buy a New York City building last year owned by the family of President Trump's son-in-law and key adviser Jared Kushner.
The proposed deal would have netted the Kushner family some $400 million from China's Anbang insurance company for the purchase of an office tower at 666 Fifth Ave. The deal fell through but was widely viewed as a bid by China to buy influence with a relative of Trump.
Shanthi Kalathil, of the National Endowment for Democracy, said China is cracking down internally on internet freedom and free speech through a security technology that has created a "walled garden."
Authorities in China are now capable of using facial recognition technology to find and arrest people for social media or other online statements considered critical of the Communist Party or the government.
The censorship and repression rely on what is called the Great Firewall of internet controls.
One Chinese man was recently arrested after making a wisecrack on a private online chat that was monitored by police.
Now China under supreme leader Xi Jinping has begun exporting the anti-democratic system.
"It is becoming evident that the CCP under Xi Jinping is intent on encompassing the rest of the world within its walled garden," Kalathil said.
Another expert, Glenn Tiffert, said Chinese influence activities include the use of government-controlled Confucius Institutes on American college campuses to control and influence debates on China.
Chinese information operations involve what Tiffert called "a potent mixture of carrots and sticks."
Tiffert, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, said China under Xi Jinping has stepped up exporting its Leninist, one-party state that controls society through controlling resources and information and aggressively suppressing dissent.
"For some time, China has been working diligently to revise existing international institutions, and to create new ones of its own design in order to facilitate that vision and to exercise influence commensurate with its new ambitions," he said.
Tiffert said China views domestic and international public opinion as a battleground on which political struggle must be waged and won.
"Since its origins as a hunted, underground revolutionary organization almost a century ago, the [Chinese Communist Party] has repeatedly proven adept at the art of turning unfavorable circumstances to its advantage by strategically coopting influential partners, nurturing relationships of dependency, and isolating and neutralizing potential opposition," he said.
China "plays a long game," like the former Soviet bloc states did, and "coordinates its influence operations across a variety of fronts, many of them seemingly innocent and on the surface unconnected to national strategy."
Chinese agents were recently uncovered attempting to penetrate the governments of Australia and New Zealand, prompting both countries to consider new laws designed to blunt the influence activities.
China also has been active in influencing the government of Canada through business with Chinese state-linked companies.
Tiffert said the disclosures in the South Pacific "must serve as a wake up call for the United States."
China has used its ties to American business and former official for its influence operations, such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and other former officials who have been paid millions of dollars in consulting fees from Beijing.
"Lenin once said that ‘capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them,' and the Chinese Communist Party has taken this lesson to heart," Tiffert said.
China also is targeting media and universities for influence activities.
On campuses, China has sought to foster positive views on China through 110 Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes in the United States.
The institutes are under control of a government organ called Hanban that is using the academic centers to promote Chinese policies and ideology.
"By outsourcing academic services to the Hanban, participating schools have traded away some of their autonomy to an organ of the Chinese state that is obliged, in the final analysis, to promote the ideological program and policy goals of the Chinese Communist Party," Tiffert said.
Censorship and employment problems have prompted some schools to expel the institutes.
China also is using some of the estimated 350,000 Chinese students studying in the United States to influence universities to accept Chinese policies and positions.
American scholars of Chinese affairs also have been pressured by China into self-censorship by denying them visas to travel to China, or threatening to deny visas.
China also has pressured foreign publishers into censoring journal articles at the request of Beijing censors.
"The long-arm of the Chinese state surveils foreign academics from afar," Tiffert said. "We are routinely targeted by malware, phishing schemes, and fake social media profiles designed to compromise our information security, and our Chinese informants."
Kalathil said China does not want to impose its exact model of governance everywhere.
"But it is increasingly true that Beijing's technology ambitions, combined with its attempts to determine on a global scale the parameters of ‘acceptable' speech and opinion with respect to China, pose clear threats to freedom of expression and democratic discourse outside its borders," she said.
China is building key elements of internet and telecommunications infrastructure in many part of the world that is raising concerns about covert Chinese information controls.
China also has sought influence by mergers with U.S. companies. Chinese government-linked tech companies recently announced deals with the digital U.S. music company Spotify, and China's internet company Tencent bought a stake in Snap, which owns Snapchat.
"The Chinese government has spent tens of billions of dollars to shape norms, narratives, and attitudes in other countries, relying on the cultivation of relationships with individuals, educational and cultural institutions, and centers of policy influence," Kalathil said, adding that the influence activities represent "sharp power" rather than soft power.
Kalathil urged democratic governments to push back against Chinese information hegemony.
To that end, she urged the exposing of Chinese government media and technology programs that impinge on democratic institutions outside China.
Also, Kalathil called for more to be done to promote facts about China's non-democratic system.
More transparency is needed by institutions that deal with Chinese state-affiliated institutions, such as Confucius Institutes.
"Civil society should insist on its right to understand whether fundamental issues such as freedom of expression are placed at risk," Kalathil said.
Informal norms and best practices should be set for industries such as publishing, academia, media, film, and technology to prevent being pressured by the Chinese government or its surrogates.
"For instance, academic publishers in democratic settings might collectively agree to resist censoring materials that pertain to China," she testified. "In the absence of such norms defending key democratic values, China will continue to set standards based on the CCP’s restrictive understanding of these values."
Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.), a commission co-chairman, said all countries pursue soft power to advance their interests, but the Chinese government's programs threaten international freedoms.
"The Chinese government’s use of technology, coercion, pressure, and the promise of market access is unprecedented and poses clear challenges to the freedoms of democratic societies," Smith said.
Smith has asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate China's use of Confucius Institutes, and he criticized Apple's recent decision to eliminate apps in its products in China that facilitate penetrating the Great Firewall.
Smith also criticized China for what he termed "egregious" information attacks against dissident Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui.
"High-ranking Chinese security ministry officials, in the U.S. on transit visas no less, met with Mr. Guo multiple times in order to threaten and convince him to leave the U.S.," Smith said, adding that Chinese agents repeatedly violated U.S. sovereignty and law in pursuing dissidents.
Sophie Richardson, China director at the group Human Rights Watch, said China has used its influence at the United Nations to block non-governmental organizations it regards as anti-China from gaining U.N. accreditation.
"Behind the scenes, Chinese diplomats in violation of U.N. rules, have contacted U.N. staff and experts on treaty bodies and special procedures including behavior that has a times amounted to harassment and intimidation," Richardson said.
China also has sought to block U.N. resolutions on human rights and civil society initiatives.