Innocent engagement with China over, warns US think-tank

American entities should follow the money and the power, studying exactly who is behind or authorises the actions of Chinese entities, the report recommends.
American entities should follow the money and the power, studying exactly who is behind or authorises the actions of Chinese entities, the report recommends.PHOTO: AFP

Beijing intervening more forcefully across a wider range of sectors than Russia, it says

The age of "innocent engagement" with China is over, warns a new 213-page report outlining its increasingly assertive "sharp power" activity in the United States.

The report by a notable think-tank also said that China's influence-seeking activities in the US are mirrored in different forms in many other countries. It includes summaries of the experiences of eight other countries, including Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Canada, France, Germany, and Britain.

Powered by a new wave of Chinese money and through penetrating educational institutions, politics, Chinese American community organisations and the media ecosystem, China seeks to exploit the openness of America's democratic society to "challenge, and sometimes even undermine, core American freedoms, norms and laws", the report said.

A key goal is to cut off criticism of China, and support for Taiwan, which Beijing considers illegitimate.

Thirty-two scholars and analysts participated over the past 1½ years in the extensively sourced Report of the Working Group on Chinese Influence Activities of the Hoover Institution in Sunnylands, California, and George Washington University in the nation's capital.

The report is titled Chinese Influence And American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance.

It was released as President Donald Trump headed to Argentina for a Group of 20 meeting, where he is expected - though as yet not scheduled - to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in an encounter closely watched for signs of the direction of US-China relations amid a deepening trade war and wider strategic rivalry.

 
 
 
 

The report acknowledged that normal public diplomacy, such as visitor programmes, cultural and educational exchanges, paid media inserts, and government lobbying are accepted methods used by many governments to project soft power.

But the ambition of Chinese activity in terms of the breadth, depth of investment of financial resources and intensity requires far greater scrutiny because China is intervening more resourcefully and forcefully across a wider range of sectors than Russia, it stated.

"By undertaking activities that have become more organically embedded in the pluralistic fabric of American life, it has gained a far wider and potentially longer-term impact," it warned.

Most of the apparently innocent activity is ultimately backed by the Chinese government, it said.

Due to the pervasiveness of the party-state, many nominally independent actors - including Chinese civil society, academia, corporations and even religious institutions - are ultimately beholden to the government and frequently pressured into service to advance state interests, the report added.

The main agencies responsible for foreign influence operations include the Communist Party's United Front Work Department, the Central Propaganda Department, the International Liaison Department, the State Council Information Office, the All-China Federation of Overseas Chinese and the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries.

These and others are bolstered by state agencies such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council, which in March was merged into the United Front Work Department.

In China, all of the organisations involved in outreach to the overseas Chinese community are led by senior members of the Chinese Communist Party.

American entities should follow the money and the power, studying exactly who is behind or who au-thorises the actions of Chinese entities, the report recommended.

"Because most PRC (People's Republic of China) attempts to influence American opinion and practices occur at the local level, and because local media, universities, companies and advocacy agencies are often involved in these efforts, knowingly and unknowingly, local leaders, just as much as national leaders, need an understanding of PRC goals and strategies," the report said.

Also, among the Chinese American community, China has long sought to influence and even silence voices critical of China or supportive of Taiwan by dispatching personnel to the United States to pressure these individuals while also pressuring their relatives in China, the report said.

But the report emphasised that "it is essential that we not allow overseas Chinese as an ethnic group to fall under any kind of indiscriminate cloud of suspicion".

Given the asymmetrical nature of US-China exchanges, it recommended that the US federal and state governments should insist on reciprocity. For instance, citing "severe asymmetry in Sino-American scholarly exchange", it suggested that Chinese scholars in the US should be subjected to the same tight restrictions - or even have visas denied - as Americans in China.

"As a democratic society, we should tolerate no infringements - overt or covert - on our freedom of speech and freedom of analysis concerning China," the report said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2018, with the headline 'Innocent engagement with China over, warns US think-tank'. Print Edition | Subscribe