Many of China’s spying and influence operations are much more pervasive, stealthy, and insidious than commonly understood. While there is a growing recognition that apps such as TikTok are potential Chinese government tools of influence and espionage, there’s less awareness of the other tools at the regime’s disposal. Beijing is also establishing cultural associations, dominating Chinese language instruction programs, buying private secondary education institutions, purchasing land near military installations, taking over Chinese community organizations, and eating up local Chinese-language media.
BY Danielle Pletka for Foreign Policy
On April 17, the FBI arrested two men, Lu Jianwang and Chen Jinping, on federal criminal charges associated with the operation of a Chinese police outpost in Brooklyn, New York. These are the some of the first such charges against the more than a hundred overseas Chinese “police stations” operating internationally, many of them without the permission of the host country. “Today’s charges are a crystal clear response to the PRC [People’s Republic of China] that we are onto you, we know what you’re doing and we will stop it from happening in the United States of America,” Breon Peace, the U.S. attorney, said.
The two men were allegedly operating a police outpost for the Fuzhou Municipal Public Security Bureau, a branch of China’s Ministry of Public Security. Other such outposts—in Australia, France, Italy, and dozens more from Angola to Uzbekistan—have been engaged in intelligence collection, rendition of dissidents, and organizing protests against regime opponents. But the long arm of Chinese law is only one of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s increasingly brazen efforts to collect critical information, influence global public opinion, and shape the direction of foreign political systems.
Everyone recalls, of course, the infamous Chinese spy balloon that collected critical military intelligence as it drifted across the United States, to the consternation of the Biden administration. Chinese cyberattacks have also been responsible for some of the most intrusive breaches of U.S. government websites, including a hack into the personnel files of millions of government employees in the Office of Personnel Management.
Yet even these well-publicized incidents are only the tip of the iceberg. Many of China’s spying and influence operations are much more pervasive, stealthy, and insidious than commonly understood. While there is a growing recognition that apps such as TikTok are potential Chinese government tools of influence and espionage—with the ability to track keystrokes, use your phone as a surveillance device, and collect biometric data including faceprints and voiceprints—there’s less awareness of the other tools at the regime’s disposal. Beijing is also establishing cultural associations, dominating Chinese language instruction programs, buying private secondary education institutions, purchasing land near military installations, taking over Chinese community organizations, and eating up local Chinese-language media.
China’s focus on stealthy soft power is nothing new; intelligence agencies, specialized groups like the congressionally mandated U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission, and think tanks have been documenting Beijing’s efforts for years. But for the most part, Chinese soft-power programs have been tolerated; few were interested in reviving the “red scares”—the fears of Soviet infiltration—for a new era of cold war. And even if they were, the web of jurisdictions and the complexity of Chinese efforts were such that no one knew where to begin.
A good place to start is with the numerous overseas influence organizations that are controlled or sponsored by the Chinese Communist Party. Influence agencies active in the United States include the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation, the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, the New York-based China Institute, and the U.S. branch of the China General Chamber of Commerce. A Newsweek investigation found 600 such organizations in the United States alone:
…at least 83 Chinese hometown associations for immigrants from the same place in China; 10 “Chinese Aid Centers;” 32 Chambers of Commerce; 13 Chinese-language media brands; about half of the 70 associations for Chinese professionals in the U.S.; 38 organizations promoting the “peaceful reunification” of China and Taiwan; five “friendship organizations” and 129 other groups engaged in a range of activities such as education and culture.
In some instances, these organizations perform both their ostensible role and a more nefarious one in the service of their taskmasters in Beijing. Such roles have included identifying potential sources of technological information—commercial spying, in short—as well as pinpointing and threatening dissidents perceived by Beijing as dangerous to their overall mission.
Another nexus is with China’s talent recruitment effort—a reverse brain drain program that seeks to encourage, lure, or pressgang both Chinese nationals and foreigners to the mainland to work in critical tech areas. Unsurprisingly, much of this talent recruitment is aimed at attracting tech transfer to People’s Liberation Army-affiliated companies. The Thousand Talents Think Tank, for instance, “claims to hold data on 12 million overseas scientists, including 2.2 million ethnic Chinese scientists and engineers,” according to an Australian Strategic Policy Institute report.
And then there’s old-school media. Chinese state media has grown like Topsy in recent years. Your hotel TV almost certainly carries CGTN your Google search is almost certainly coughing up results from Xinhua; few have not received a China Daily insert in their hometown paper. Indeed, the list of Chinese state-affiliated media is too long for an article, but covers radio, print, TV, cable, satellite, and more.
And where there is competition—as from, for example, opposition Falun Gong media such as the Epoch Times and others—Chinese media and its partners have gone to extraordinary lengths to compete. In one instance, when frozen out of the critical California market by the Obama administration, Beijing’s friends sought to take over a Mexican radio station whose broadcast range covered much of California. (The FCC ultimately shut them down.)
Once-independent Chinese language media around the world is also now largely dominated by pro-Beijing propagandists. Former Taiwanese and Hong Kong-based Chinese language newspapers abroad have fallen like dominos across the globe. Sing Tao newspaper group, once independent, is now pro-Beijing; Taiwan-owned World Journal now tows the communist Chinese line, though its editors deny shading coverage to Beijing’s advantage; and among the multitude of online Chinese news sources, many are dominated by or answer to affiliates of the Chinese government.
In Australia and Canada, much the same has happened, with all the consequent impact on the breadth of views offered to large and growing Chinese language populations. (There are an estimated 3.5 million Mandarin or Cantonese speakers in the United States, about a million in Australia and 1.3 million in Canada.) Nor is Beijing-dominated Chinese language media simply about sanitizing views of the mainland. From pushing for a more positive foreign and economic policy towards China to pumping up pro-Beijing politicians, Beijing-dominated Chinese language media is doing its best to shape the views of millions.
And then there’s the Chinese language itself. Much has been written about the once-ubiquitous Confucius Institutes (CI) around the world, though many have been closed down in the wake of revelations about interference with academic freedom, efforts to exert political influence, and shady personnel practices. But just as quickly as they closed, the CIs have rebranded and restarted operations. The day after the College of William & Mary closed its CI in 2021, it “established the W&M-BNU Collaborative Partnership with Beijing Normal University”—its original CI partner—and business went on as usual. And the Biden administration is working to clear the way for such rebranding.
A Defense Department-sponsored report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and authored by the organization’s Committee on Confucius Institutes at U.S. Institutions of Higher Education, noted problems with academic integrity and security at CIs, but proposed a series of conditions that would allow renewed funding. (The Trump administration issued rules that precluded Defense Department funding to universities with CIs.) Eager to facilitate the continued cash infusions that the CIs afforded them, universities appear enthused by the workaround. Critics are doubtful that Chinese money can come without strings attached.
Universities are not the only educational institutions where Beijing has sought soft influence. Around the country, public school systems have introduced Mandarin language classes that few parents are aware are being underwritten by the Chinese Communist Party. Funded at least in part by the Chinese government’s Hanban (affiliated with the PRC Ministry of Education) and its pseudo-nongovernmental organization, the Center for Language Education and Cooperation (CLEC), the New York-based Asia Society channeled money to multiple school systems for Chinese language classes. (The Asia Society ended its work with Hanban and the CLEC in 2022 following a review.)
Few would suggest that learning Mandarin—even if funded by the Chinese Communist Party—is a bad thing. And school systems have been more than eager for the free labor and the expanded curriculum, even if the teachers are imported from the mainland. That, however, is the magic of such efforts: Not all have an immediate pay off. Instead, China is gradually building its soft power and influence.
What should the United States and other Western nations do? Some have argued that China is merely engaging in the kind of “hearts and minds” efforts the United States has tried, and often failed, to execute. Others have labeled the growing bipartisan focus on Chinese influence operations as xenophobia. At the very least, the immediate imperative is sunshine.
Aware of this, the U.S. Congress is eyeing a slew of Chinese activities. Reps. Mike Waltz and Chrissy Houlahan have introduced legislation barring Chinese Communist Party- and People’s Liberation Army-owned private schools (including military academies) from receiving U.S. government funding to stand up or sustain Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps education. Chinese company purchases of U.S. military academies is far from widespread—there are only two such instances—but the pattern is clear. (One Chinese company-owned school is former U.S. President Donald Trump’s alma mater, the New York Military Academy.) And there’s little doubt that Chinese buyers are focused on purchasing available private (nonmilitary) schools: 17 have been bought in the United Kingdom and dozens in the United States.
The U.S. Congress is also looking at massive Chinese-government affiliated company land purchases in the United States. Alarm bells went off in Australia after the government granted a 99-year lease to a government-adjacent Chinese company for the port of Darwin, where the United States has a 2,500-strong contingent of Marines and plans to expand. And it looks like similar efforts are happening in the United States.
The Wall Street Journal reported that, according to U.S. Agriculture Department data, “Chinese ownership of U.S. farmland leapt more than 20-fold in a decade, from $81 million in 2010 to $1.8 billion in 2020.” Are the Chinese buying out America? No. Canadians own far more U.S. land than Chinese companies and nationals. But there are concerns about the proximity of the land being bought to U.S. military bases, and state legislatures as well as the U.S. Congress are looking to limit such purchases in the future.
(The Texas legislature, in its enthusiasm to limit Chinese and other hostile governments’ influence, initially banned even dual nationals and private citizens from these countries from making such purchases. That bill has been revised to target “the purchase or acquisition of property by a ‘governmental entity’ of [China, Iran, North Korea or Russia], by a company headquartered in the four countries, and by a company ‘directly or indirectly controlled’ by a government of the four countries.”)
Many of Beijing’s efforts focus on the Chinese diaspora—as both potential recruits for spying and influence operations and as targets of those same operations. Chinese leaders have long pushed the notion that ethnic Chinese—whether long ago expatriated or not, and whether they like it or not—are part of the broader Chinese nation. According to Chinese President Xi Jinping, the tens of millions of ethnic Chinese in the diaspora are all “members of the great Chinese family” who would “never forget their homeland China” and “never deny the blood of the Chinese nation in their bodies.”
Far from an appeal, this should be read as a double-edged threat: Xi is looking to label ethnic Chinese as a fifth column, whether or not they share his aims for China. And even more sinisterly, there is the subtle threat that family still in China could be at risk unless Chinese expats cooperate. The U.S government—and every other country with a substantial Chinese community—should do more to identify such dangerous influence operations, provide outreach to groups at risk, and otherwise specify that support exists to combat Beijing’s influence operations.
But are all Chinese soft power efforts nefarious? Is every Chinese company or national investing in the United States doing so on behalf of the Beijing government? Perhaps not. But as Xi tightens his grip over all aspects of the Chinese government, people, and economy, it is increasingly difficult to afford even the most benign-seeming efforts the benefit of the doubt. And Chinese law is explicit in saying that all individuals and companies are obligated to share information with the government. Experts explain that every PRC company or offshore investment or organization can be tapped at any time to do Beijing’s bidding. In the meantime, the Chinese Communist Party is building leverage, and often building relationships of dependency, that can be used to inflict harm down the track.
Who is doing the investing? What are their ties to the Chinese government? Who is calling the shots? Are they working to subvert open debate about the threat from Beijing? Are China’s soft power programs around the world transparent and open? Eternal vigilance is, after all, the price of liberty.
Danielle Pletka is a distinguished senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-host of the podcast What the Hell is Going On? Twitter: @dpletka