No bilateral relationship in the world is more important than that between the United States and China, and it is now undergoing an epochal transformation. For three and half decades after Deng Xiaoping put an end to the Maoist nightmare and opened up China to markets and modernization in the late 1970s, American policymakers and scholars believed that engagement with China would lead that system to become at least a little more like us. Economically, China would become more of an open, market economy. Politically, China would become more of an open and pluralistic (if not democratic) society. Internationally, China would become what Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick urged it to be in a famous 2005 speech: a “responsible stakeholder” in international affairs.
However, as China has continued its inexorable rise to global superpower status, none of this has come about. State-owned enterprises, in the words of the Tokyo-based online magazine, The Diplomat, continue to “dominate China’s strategic sectors and pillar industries.” Despite the high-profile anti-corruption campaign of Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, banking, commerce, construction and other key sectors of the economy remain riddled with bribery and graft. A “predatory, pervasive, and entrenched” form of what the Claremont McKenna political scientist Minxin Pei calls (in his 2016 book) “China’s crony capitalism” continues to eat away at property rights, social justice, and the rule of law. And the political system has become more, not less, authoritarian, as Xi has erased the two-term limit on his presidency while the party has raced toward the construction of what it hopes will be the world’s first comprehensive, total surveillance state. In this dystopian vision, the endless digital clouds and high-speed supercomputers of the Chinese Communist Party-State will store and access everything there is to know about Chinese citizens (and eventually many of the rest of us)—from our digital footprints in commerce, social media, and politics to our genetic structures.
As if this were not worrisome enough, China is now more and more boldly emerging from the long period of patient global restraint that attended its miraculous economic rise. Now, China means to be a global player, and it may fairly be asked—though few have the temerity to do so—whether its real aim is not just regional but global hegemony. Rolling out across the globe with astonishing speed, scope, and audacity, its Belt and Road Initiative has become the most important engine of global infrastructure construction in the world, while leaving many developing countries in a quagmire of debt (at commercial rates) that they can only repay by handing over strategically important facilities (like Sri Lanka’s port of Hanbantota) or bartering away much of their natural resource wealth deep into the future. In Asia, China has been forcefully backing up its unilateral claims to control of the South China Sea by going on a “military building spree,” creating artificial islands out of former reefs, atop which they are building air bases and other military facilities. In countless international forums, defining the rules of everything from internet infrastructure to trade and development, China is challenging pluralistic norms with the aim, in Pei’s more recent words, of “undermining the Western liberal order.”
A crucial instrument of China’s superpower ascent has been the massive, rapidly expanding, lavishly funded nexus of Leninist institutions through which it projects its propaganda, cultivates “friendships”, forges influence, and penetrates deeply into the politics and civil society of democratic societies. As the Working Group on Chinese Influence Activities in the United States, which I co-chaired, recently documented in a new report released by the Hoover Institution, this vast “influence operations bureaucracy” is controlled by the highest levels of the party and state, with the aim of controlling the global narrative about China and preempting criticism of its domestic practices and international policies.
A good portion of what China is doing today to win friends and influence people is within the range of what other countries do to exert “soft power,” through such transparent efforts at persuasion and cooperation as cultural exchanges, conferences, speeches, and paid advertisements that are (more or less) identified as such. But no small share of its activities takes a more disturbing form, exploiting the openness of democratic societies to, in the words of our report, “challenge, and sometimes even undermine, core American freedoms, norms, and laws.” These are not legitimate expressions of soft power. They constitute “sharp power” in that they seek to burrow into and compromise the integrity of key institutions in a democratic society, such as universities and the mass media. They do not meet democratic institutions on an open level and reciprocal playing field. Rather they are, as Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull characterized them in his speech one year ago introducing new national security legislation to meet the challenge, “covert, coercive, or corrupting.”
As we document in the appendix to our working group report, these activities have gone much further in compromising politics and society in Australia and New Zealand than they have in the United States. But we find in the United States mounting signs of inappropriate influence-seeking by China’s Communist party-state, and these require a more informed, coordinated, and vigorous response from American institutions. For example:
- Through both cooptation and new investment, “China has all but eliminated the plethora of independent Chinese-language media outlets that once served Chinese American communities.” These days in America, if you get your news in the Chinese language (whether from cable TV, radio, or print), it is likely to echo China’s official media and therefore (literally) the party line.
- On more than 100 U.S. university campuses, Chinese state-funded Confucius Institutes import Chinese language curricula and instructors from Chinese universities under contract terms that are not generally known to or vetted by the recipient university faculty. At a minimum, we argue, transparency and full faculty review are essential. Chinese Students and Scholars Associations on American college campuses have been known to take funding and instruction from the Chinese embassy and consulates. And Chinese overseas students are subject to monitoring and reporting by other students, and to intimidation if they criticize China’s authoritarian practices or its stances on sensitive issues like the status of Tibet, Xinjiang Province, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Many American state universities have become so dependent on the revenue from Chinese students (who pay the prized full, out-of-state tuition fees) that they are hard-pressed to defend—not to mention promote—the intellectual freedom of their foreign students. For example, about one in eight of the roughly 44,000 students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is from China. The roughly 5,600 Chinese students there represent a fivefold increase since 2008, account for half of all foreign students on the campus, and contribute several hundred million dollars to the local economy.
- Think tanks, we find, “report regular attempts by Chinese diplomats and other intermediaries to influence their activities” in the United States and to vet who is an acceptable participant for a joint conference or workshop. Moreover, the lure of Chinese funding (both from official and unofficial sources) is causing some American think tanks to weigh carefully what they say, host, and endorse with respect to China.
- Chinese American voices critical of the PRC or supportive of Taiwan are sometimes subject to pressure and intimidation, including where they are most vulnerable—via pressure on their family members in China. We warn strongly—and with deep conviction—against any reflex that would question the loyalty of or cast generalized suspicion on the Chinese American community in the United States. What we do not need is a new era of McCarthyism or ethnic stereotyping. But as some of my colleagues who are longtime China experts have noted, it is the Chinese Communist Party that has put a target on the backs of these community members, expecting them to maintain “a loosely defined cultural, and even political, allegiance to the so-called Motherland.”
- American businesses find themselves caught in the crosshairs of the increasingly fraught bilateral relationship, with Beijing pressing them not only to comply with its rhetorical stances on issues like Taiwan and Tibet but to convey China’s policy concerns back to Washington, DC as well. Meanwhile, China has supported the formation of dozens of local Chinese chambers of commerce in the United States that appear to have ties to the Chinese government, with the potential to serve as vectors of foreign influence. Then there is the rapidly growing role of Chinese investment and market power in the American film industry, which now largely portrays China in a positive light rather than depicting, for example, the rising levels of repression or the historical atrocities of the Chinese Communist Party.
- Among U.S. state and local governments, China is actively cultivating current friendly ties and future national leaders, often without disclosing the linkages to the Chinese Communist Party of host and partnership groups.
- And most alarmingly, China continues to wage an aggressive campaign to steal, hack into, coerce the corporate transfer of, and otherwise misappropriate American cutting-edge technologies. Many of these technologies—such as supercomputing, artificial intelligence, robotics, semiconductors, drones, hypersonics, and 3D printing—will determine not only global economic leadership but military supremacy as well. As we observe in our report, “the economic and strategic losses for the United States are increasingly unsustainable,” threatening “to undermine America’s commercial and military advantages.”
We need to get smarter and tougher in the face of this offensive. What we call “the era of engagement”—when we believed that deepening ties would bring a more open, pluralistic, and law-based society in China—is over. What we need now is engagement without illusions: engagement that demands greater transparency, fairness and reciprocity in the relationship; and engagement with a resolve to defend the integrity of our democratic institutions. We call this approach “constructive vigilance.”
This is now a historic juncture not only in the U.S.-China relationship but also in the domestic politics of how to think about the relationship. While there remain many advocates of the old unconditional approach, an emerging bipartisan consensus now sees this stance as dangerously naïve. This opens the possibility that, even amid our sad levels of polarization, Left and Right can work together on some of the key policy steps that will be needed. These include demanding more reciprocal and fair treatment for our journalists and scholars who wish to visit, research, and report in China; toughening export controls on (and therefore access to research labs developing) critical dual-use technologies, as the Department of Commerce has recently proposed to do; enhancing government resources that can track Chinese influence operations and help provide information to American civil society; and launching a new, innovative generation of public diplomacy efforts to level the information playing field by getting more independent news and information to the Chinese public.
Congress and the American public must recognize the scope of what is at stake and what is needed. We face a critical shortage of people in law enforcement, public diplomacy, and national security with the requisite command of Chinese language. Six decades after we passed the National Defense Education Act to rise to the Soviet’s global challenge, we need a new Act for the 21st century that will raise federal government investment in research and development back to the peak levels of 2 percent of GDP from the 1960s, while also massively supporting the teaching of critical languages—especially Chinese, but also Russia, Arabic, and Farsi. We need much better coordination across U.S. government departments and agencies of efforts to monitor Chinese influence and technology capture activities in the United States. We need an office that American organizations can voluntarily approach for advice when they seek to become informed about the Chinese actors who are offering partnerships, exchanges, investments, gifts, and grants.
But we also need a transformation in how American societal actors—from universities and think tanks to corporations and media enterprises—think about their own roles and responsibilities. Much of what they need to learn about potential Chinese partners is waiting to be discovered—even in English, on Google—if they make the minimal effort to inform themselves and practice due diligence. We urge in our report that institutional sectors—especially think tanks and universities—draw together to develop shared codes of conduct and best practices so that they cannot be played off one against another, and so that they can guard in common against having their integrity unwittingly compromised.
In any free society, the first line of defense of democratic liberties and values must be the people and their associations, not the government. In the end, it is we, the American people, who will determine whether our freedom and national security will be preserved in the face of China’s muscular rise, or whether that ascendance will also mean the eclipse of what remains, to paraphrase Lincoln, the “last best hope” of freedom on this earth.