Contrasting China’s and Russia’s Influence Operations


Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in “Ministry of Truth,” a special series on state-sponsored influence operations.

A series of scandals from Russian meddling in the U.S. elections to China’s influence over Western politicians, like Australian Sen. Sam Dastyari and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, has brought American attention back to the Cold War-style fight for influence and narratives. Congress has started to act, incorporating counter-propaganda funding into the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act and proposing reforms to the Foreign Agent Registration Act and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. The United States finally may be waking up to the challenge that its NATO allies and Taiwan have been facing for years. As Americans try to make sense of modern political warfare, the struggle to polish the rust off of the Cold War toolkit for countering foreign influence has run into the problem of insufficient to explain the challenges now faced by the United States and its allies.

In a series of presentations, conferences, and phone calls over the last year the discussion of Chinese intelligence and information operations invariably raises the question: “How do the Chinese compare to the Russians?” I have attempted to describe the differences with three distinctions between Russian and Chinese influence operations: set-piece operations vs. playing the man; service-led operations vs. service-facilitated operations; and agents of influence vs. influenced agents. These are not perfect distinctions, and both systems can and do draw on a wide variety of means. Beijing’s methods also appear to be evolving over the last year to incorporate Russian techniques, if its operations on Taiwan can be viewed as the leading edge.

The operational differences, for all their practical implications, may be less important than the simple recognition that Beijing and Moscow both approach influence operations and active measures as a normal way of doing business. The United States approaches covert action as something distinct from the routine business of foreign policy, requiring special authorities and oversight or legal arguments over whether Title 10 or Title 50 applies. This is simply not the case for the contemporary Chinese or Russian states.* They still bear the hallmarks of their totalitarian and Leninist pasts.

Set-Piece Operations vs. Playing the Man

The strength of the Russian disinformation system has been executing set-piece operations of varying degrees of sophistication. These have ranged from forged or otherwise manipulated documents being used to discredit a target to planting rumors that the United States unleashed the AIDS virus as a biological weapons program. The objective may be as specific as an individual or as broad as poisoning the environment. These are discreet operational acts to achieve those objectives.

As Kevin McCauley noted in his book, Russian Influence Campaigns against the West, the Soviets developed what they believed was an objective, scientific framework for evaluating information operations: reflexive control theory. This theory developed out of research into psychology and cybernetics as the Soviet Ministry of Defense sought to incorporate the techniques of operations research into decision-making. By mapping how an adversary’s system framed problems and processed information, Russian planners could design operations to shift that adversary’s decisions in an advantageous direction.

The Chinese, however, seem to focus on individuals rather than effects, on shaping the personal context rather than operational tricks. It is person-to-person relationships that carry the weight of Chinese information operations. Many of China’s first-generation diplomats and negotiators — including Zhou Enlai, Wu Xiuquan, Li Kenong, Xiong Xianghui, Liao Chengzhi, and many others — worked for some time as intelligence officers. For example, Li Kenong was Beijing’s chief negotiator at the Panmunjom talks with the United Nations during the Korean War and a vice foreign minister. His party career, however, began in intelligence where he was one of the “Three Heroes of the Dragon’s Lair” and rose to become a deputy director of the party’s intelligence service. The evidence of this training also can be found in available transcripts. For example, in Zhou’s conversations with Henry Kissinger in 1971, the techniques of a case officer are on display: playing to the ego, elicitation, switching between dominance and deference, and controlling the tone and tempo of the conversations.

The history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) provides important examples of how the party manipulated an adversary into assisting it. If anything proves the value of playing the man, the Xi’an Incident of 1936 provides the clearest proof according to party accounts — even if historians justifiably can dispute the CCP version. In December 1936, as the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek closed around the CCP, two of Chiang’s generals, Zhang Xueliang and Yang Hucheng, kidnapped him and forced him to agree to the second CCP-Kuomintang united front to fight the Japanese. The public story for many years was that Zhang and Yang were motivated by patriotism and a desire to unite the Chinese people against the foreign threat. Earlier that year, the CCP had dispatched future premier Zhou Enlai and espionage specialist Li Kenong to open a channel and negotiate with Zhang, whose forces posed a more immediate danger and was the senior of the two. Thanks to a long-time friend and former aide of Yang, Nan Hanchen, Zhou and Li possessed inside information on both generals’ motivations that helped them exert pressure internally without revealing the CCP’s hand. As a result of these efforts, Zhang and Yang slowly turned against Chiang as the year went on. Then, in December, without communist prompting or knowledge, they decided to kidnap him to a force a CCP-Kuomintang truce that Zhou then negotiated. The lesson? By building the relationships, unexpected opportunities will arise.

Service-Led Operations vs. Service-Facilitated Operations

Another key difference between the Chinese and the Russians is the role of their respective intelligence services. For Moscow, intelligence services play a leading role, in part because they possess the skills to operate clandestinely. For the Chinese, intelligence services seem to facilitate meetings and contacts rather than handling the dirty work of influencing foreign targets themselves.

The KGB’s First Chief Directorate for foreign intelligence operations included “Service A,” an operational unit of 50 to 70 officers responsible for active measures. This was one of the three key units, according to Soviet Bloc defectors and Western observers, managing Moscow’s program to influence foreign governments, societies, and events. Much of the Soviet Union’s capacity for grey and covert propaganda operated under the KGB’s direct hand, while the overt side resided in the party’s International Department and International Information Department. Even though resources like clandestine radio stations and international front organizations might be under the International Department’s authority, the KGB still played a role in the handling and management of the Soviet front organizations abroad.

The Chinese intelligence services, however, seem to play a secondary role in influencing external actors and events. The principle organizations — the Liaison Department of the PLA’s Political Work Department and the United Front Work Department — report to the Politburo through a completely separate chain of command that deals mostly with party affairs. In the past, the Central Committee’s International Department (previously the International Liaison Department) may have played in important role, not dissimilar from its Russian counterpart. However, the International Department slowly evolved through the 1960s away from Soviet-style active measures and toward being primarily the party’s diplomatic arm.

The services and influence organizations — particularly the Liaison Department and the United Front Work Department — do play a role in setting up and facilitating the activities of a multitude of friendship and cultural associations. These range from the vast China Association for International Friendly Contact that has provincial and municipal affiliates to smaller veterans affairs group like the Huangpu (Whampoa) Alumni Association. The Chinese participants in exchanges organized in these groups are rarely intelligence officers themselves, but rather party elite who understand the party’s international objectives and have been trained in managing foreigners. One contemporary example is Xu Jialu, formerly a vice chairman of the National People’s Congress and a leader in the promotion of Chinese culture. Xu was enmeshed in a web of ties to the Liaison Department and its Taiwan-focused operations, and he also played a role in establishing the Confucius Institutes — still another set of institutions closely connected to China’s influence apparatus.

Agents of Influence vs. Influenced Agents

In keeping with the differences in the roles of intelligence services, Russia relies heavily on intelligence officers, their ability to pound the pavement and socialize, and their recruited agents. The Russian services appear perfectly willing to recruit agents simply for active measures, and they also cultivate collaborators who may not understand with whom they dealing or why.

Ladislav Bittman and Gen. Ion Mihai Paceba describe two notable Soviet approaches to putting out disinformation. The first was simply to hire or recruit individuals to produce manipulative cultural products to discredit political figures and hostile institutions. The second was ever-more sophisticated ways of producing doctored or forged documents that could then be passed discretely to newspapers or researchers. One of the public examples Bittman highlighted was the case of Pierre Charles Pathé, a French journalist sentenced to five years in prison in 1980 for his distribution of Soviet disinformation through his newsletter. Pathé’s subscribers included roughly 400 French parliamentarians, 50 foreign embassies, and another 50 journalists and publications. On at least one occasion, the Soviets handed Pathé an entire draft that he went on to publish in his own name. The recruitment of journalists and writers is echoed from other sources, such as KGB defector Stanislav Levchenko. He claimed to have handled four journalists among the ten agents he handled during his tour in Tokyo in the late 1970s. Sergei Tretyakov also described handling a Canadian environmental lawyer to agitate U.S.-Canadian relations in the 1990s as well as the continuing Russian efforts to sow mischief through other agents and propaganda materials unattributed to Russian intelligence.

Gen. Paceba describes the use of both approaches to undermine the moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church by attempting to discredit Pope Pius XII (1939–1958). In 1963, a long-time Soviet disinformation agent Erwin Piscator edited the manuscript and directed the play The Deputy: A Christian Tragedy. The play told a fairytale about the pope’s silence during the Holocaust, insinuating the pope could have acted to end or mitigate the worst abuses of the Nazi regime. The tragedy relates to a young Jesuit attaché’s efforts to alert the pope to German atrocities, not the pope’s silence. Pope Pius XII, however, was emphatically not silent or inactive during the war, but, because The Deputy was not a history, Piscator and the playwright Rolf Hochhuth dodged this inaccuracy by claiming to have produced a fictional work. Soviet disinformation agents and collaborators in France and the United States also translated, produced, and publicized the play. Doctored and forged documents produced by the Yugoslavian secret police also were used against the Church, first in a trial of Croatian Archbishop (later Cardinal) Alojzije Stepinac who had refused to subordinate his diocese to Tito’s communists and subsequently provided to Italian writer Carlo Falconi. Falconi’s book, The Silence of Pius XII, informed many later attempts to smear Pope Pius XII.

The CCP approach generally appears much softer, perhaps because the formal intelligence organizations play a less visible role. Gatekeepers who facilitate inroads and make connections to open the door for foreigners in China are more common than intelligence officers. People like Sheri Yan (now jailed for bribery) and Chau Chok-wing of Australia or Chinese-American Katrina Leung fulfilled this kind of role. Leung also reportedly served as a conduit for the Chinese leadership to feed information through the FBI to the White House. The kind of elite relationship-building that these individuals demonstrate and seem to be the hallmarks of Chinese influence are what make flirtations with ethics violations difficult to dismiss out of hand. From then-ambassador to China Gary Locke’s rushed sale of his Maryland home to Chinese businesspeople to the trademark grants to Ivanka Trump or her husband’s backchanneling to Beijing, the activity may be completely innocent or routine. Or it may be something more devious. The surface-level indicators are the same.

Mao Zedong and the party exploited foreign contacts from the very beginning to shape the story of China’s revolution, gain support, and discredit their adversaries. Journalists Edgar Snow and Theodore White presented the CCP of the 1930s and 1940s to Americans as charismatic, peasant-focused revolutionaries who brought self-government and genuine resistance against the Japanese. If, as White wrote, they could be brutal, it was because “men who sacrificed themselves so cruelly to an ideal were equally cruel to opposition.” They were not the only ones duped by the communists’ selective openness. As Yu Maochun chronicled, U.S. officials in China erred in exaggerating the Kuomintang’s faults and corruption — Chiang and the Kuomintang sacrificed the cream of their army in 1937 in an attempt to unify China and rally the warlords — as surely as they misjudged the CCP’s noble resistance. The reality was far different. The transcripts of Snow’s interviews with Mao were edited by the CCP. Rather than fighting an all-out war against the Japanese, the CCP often collaborated, providing intelligence to the Japanese army on the Kuomintang while husbanding their own strength. To the best of our knowledge, none of those who misjudged the CCP based on their managed contact with communist leaders, including controversial or sympathetic figures like John Service, was a spy or did so under CCP direction.

Concluding Thoughts

Undoubtedly, more can be said about how to understand the distinctions between Chinese and Russian influence operations and political warfare. Perhaps the best way to describe the differences between the two approaches is that the Chinese are human- or relationship-centric while the Russians are operation- or effects-centric. The points outlined above, however, should be treated at best as hypotheses to explored rather than definitive judgments.

The importance of explicit comparisons cannot be understated. Today, more than 25 years after the end of the Cold War, the default position for most Western security officials when discussing an unnamed or potential adversary is to use the Soviet Union or Russia as an implicit proxy. Those of us engaging in these discussions should be able to do better. If these judgments of Chinese and Russian information operations are accurate, the necessary policy responses vary quite dramatically. Comparisons will help cross-fertilize ideas on how to respond as well as show what has worked (or not) in the past.

* I will confess no special expertise on Russian disinformation techniques, but only a perspective informed by reading through some of the classics on Soviet intelligence operations, accounts by Warsaw Pact defectors, and more recent analyses. Among these sources are:


Peter Mattis is a Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation and a contributing editor at War on the Rocks. He also is the author of Analyzing the Chinese Military: A Review Essay and Resource Guide on the People’s Liberation Army.

Image: Photo by Timshi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons