The Long Arm of China’s Overseas Influence Operations

Foreign Policy, 27.04.2023
Danielle Pletka, académica del American Enterprise Institute.

Illegal police stations are just the tip of the iceberg

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 millions 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.)

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