China’s Communist Party is intensifying covert influence operations in the United States that include funding Washington think tanks and coercing Chinese Americans, according to a congressional commission report.
The influence operations are conducted by the United Front Work Department, a Central Committee organ that employs tens of thousands of operatives who seek to use both overt and covert operations to promote Communist Party policies.
The Party’s United Front strategy includes paying several Washington think tanks with the goal influencing their actions and adopting positions that support Beijing’s policies.
“The [Chinese Communist Party] has sought to influence academic discourse on China and in certain instances has infringed upon—and potentially criminally violated—rights to freedoms of speech and association that are guaranteed to Americans and those protected by U.S. laws,” the report says.
“Despite the CCP’s candid discussion of its United Front strategy, the breadth and depth of this issue remain relatively unknown to U.S. policymakers.”
The report said the Johns Hopkins School of Advance International Studies, a major foreign policy education and analysis institute, has received funding from Tung Chee-hwa, a vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the party group that directs the United Front Work Department and includes a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the collective dictatorship that rules China.
The funding for Johns Hopkins came from Tung’s non-profit group in Hong Kong, the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation, which is a registered Chinese agent.
In addition to Johns Hopkins, other think tanks linked to China and influential in American policy circles include the Brookings Institution, Atlantic Council, Center for American Progress, EastWest Institute, Carter Center, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The Exchange Foundation is tied to Chinese government influence operations and uses the same public relations firm as the Chinese embassy.
A spokesman for the Center for American Progress (CAP) said the center has received no money from China. CAP cooperated with the U.S.-China Exchange Foundation in producing a joint report in 2014 but received no financial contribution from CUSEF.
According to the commission report, CUSEF “spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying for ‘China-U.S. relations’ as a registered foreign agent.”
China’s goal in funding think tanks is to attempt to change debates on China without Beijing having to use its own voice.
China Commission member Larry Wortzel, a former military intelligence officer once posted to China, said the report is important for exposing the activities of the United Front Work Department and the China People’s Political Consultative Conference.
“Most Americans and many members of Congress have no idea of the range of activities undertaken by this Chinese Communist Party web,” Wortzel said. “It is a form of activity by Communist parties that dates back to the days of Lenin.”
Wortzel said now that Congress has been alerted to the Chinese influence operations, “Congress should consider legislation requiring anyone associated with the China People’s Political Consultative Conference, CUSEF, or the United Front Work Department to register as a foreign agent,” he said.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) has said the collusion between American groups and United Front Work Department operatives is the Chinese party using Americans to “unwittingly promote CCP ideology” in a “countering voice” in debates over China.
“Beijing seeks to outsource its messaging in part because it believes foreigners are more likely to accept propaganda if it appears to come from non-Chinese sources,” the report said.
Chinese intelligence agents also work with the United Front Work Department to recruit students who are then called on to curtail universities’ discussion of China.
China targets students through 142 Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSA) in the United States.
The associations “routinely coordinate with the Chinese government and … have been involved in the suppression of free speech and the harassment, intimidation, and surveillance of Chinese student activists,” the report said, noting “Chinese intelligence officers posted in diplomatic facilities are the primary point of contact for CSSA members.”
United Front operations also are active in the Confucius Institutes—Chinese government-funded centers that are used for influence and intelligence activities.
Confucius Institutes are located on hundreds of American campuses and are used to “advance Beijing’s preferred narrative and subvert important academic principles such as institutional autonomy and academic freedom.”
“Significantly, Confucius Institutes are funded by the CCP Propaganda Department—formally affiliated with the [United Front Work Department] —and are also overseen by personnel based in Chinese embassies and consulates,” the report said.
According to the report, Chinese President Xi Jinping has elevated the role of the communist influence organs to promote Chinese communism worldwide.
Xi regards United Front work as a “magic weapon” for use in what he has called the rejuvenation of China.
Since becoming Party general secretary in 2012, Xi has added 40,000 more people to the ranks of the United Front Work Department, and added new departments.
“The goal of ‘overseas Chinese work’ is to use ethnic, cultural, economic, or political ties to mobilize sympathetic overseas Chinese communities—ideally of their own accord—to advocate for the interests of the CCP and marginalize its opponents,” the report said.
“Chinese intelligence services have been known to coerce overseas Chinese to function as operatives targeting other overseas Chinese in both the United States and other countries, indicating that these agencies actively participate in overseas Chinese work that seeks to hide official connections.”
Former Chinese diplomat Chen Yonglin, who defected to Australia in 2005, said China uses both coercion and incentives to recruit Chinese students as informants.
In addition to the United Front Work Department, the report identified a Chinese military organization, the Liaison Department, that is engaged in propaganda operations, perception management activities, and intelligence collection.
“For example, the China Association for International Friendly Contact (CAIFC), a front organization for the former General Political Department, performs dual roles of intelligence collection and conducting propaganda and perception management campaigns, such as its work through the Sanya Initiative, a series of track two dialogues between retired senior flag officers of the U.S. and Chinese armed forces,” the report said.
The Sanya Initiative is led by retired Adm. Bill Owens, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has used the Sanya group to lobby Congress and the Pentagon against annual publication of the China Military Power report.
Another Communist Party front is the China Association for International Friendly Contact that is part of the Chinese military’s Central Military Commission’s Political Work Department.
The report concluded that the threat to the United States from United Front operations is “significant” but “the extent of its organization and influence is still relatively unknown among policymakers.”
“To effectively counter CCP influence operations, continued research and investigation is needed to further bring to light the activities of the United Front, its role in the CCP, how it operates, and its links to other important CCP organs,” the report said.
Chinese influence operations in the United States have been less visible and garnered less government scrutiny than Beijing’s political interference in Australia.
Congress is considering legislation that would require all organizations that promote the political agendas of foreign governments to register as foreign agents, and would require universities to disclose certain donations and gifts from foreign sources.
The report said the Australian Security Intelligence Organization estimated that at least 10 recent Australian state and local government political candidates were connected to Chinese intelligence agencies.
Chen, the Chinese defector in Australia, said this week that he is being threatened by Chinese agents since Australia passed a law restricting Beijing influence operations.
“China’s options to silence me most likely: 1. Kill me in an ‘accident’ hoping no evidences left behind. 2. Kidnap first, interrogate, execute and disappear. 3. Poison or shoot me. Then defame me if the kill exposed. Fake evidences could be given in details though I’m clean,” Chen tweeted.
Against Taiwan, the Chinese Communist Party is engaged in aggressive influence operations against the rival island.
“The CCP is active in waging information warfare against Taiwan to suppress independence movements, undermine Taiwan’s government, and recruit politicians in Taiwan and third countries to advocate for China’s preferred cross-Strait outcome: unification of Taiwan with the Mainland,” the report said.
The White House this week denounced China’s interference in El Salvador, which switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
“The United States will continue to oppose China’s destabilization of the cross-strait relationship and political interference in the Western Hemisphere,” Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said.
The commission report was produced by Alexander Bowe, a policy analyst specializing in security and foreign affairs.