What We Talk About When We Talk About Chinese Communist Party Interference in the Public Square


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

Late last year, Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull announced at a press conference that the government would be introducing new legislation to reshape how his country grapples with foreign interference. Australia’s problems were exemplified by Sen. Sam Dastyari’s resignation one week later over allegations that he used Chinese Communist Party (CCP) talking points at odds with government policy and that he tipped off Chinese-Australian businessman Huang Xiangmo to government surveillance. At that press conference and his speech later that week, Turnbull addressed this challenge appropriately as a defense of Australian sovereignty irrespective of any other power: “[Australia] will not tolerate foreign influence activities that are in any way covert, coercive or corrupt. That is the line that separates legitimate influence from unacceptable interference.”

The prime minister provided a calm example in how to address the subject of CCP interference without hysteria or hyperbole. Turnbull’s courageous turn to face reality stands in stark contrast to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s statement that she sees no signs of similar CCP-related problems, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Turnbull’s clear statement about drawing the line against “covert, coercive, and corrupt” activities also contrasts with the Chinese embassy’s charges of racism and hysteria.

The overzealous, if not destructive, response to Soviet infiltration in the years after World War II should guide us toward a better, more measured response. The pendulum swung from the blind eye of the 1930s and the World War II alliance to McCarthyite witch hunts. Today, after years of blindness, sight is returning to capitals across the West and gazes are fixed on the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to shape perceptions at home and abroad. As this happens, it behooves us to think of a few guidelines for how to speak about this issue.

First, the entity about which Western governments should be concerned is the Chinese Communist Party, not China, and not the Chinese people. The party claims to represent all Chinese people everywhere all the time, but this is not true. Many can speak for themselves as citizens and long-time residents of other countries. Chinese people should not be caught between our governments and the CCP. They should have choice. Western governments also should ensure the party respects the choices Chinese people have made to become Americans, Canadians, or whatever else.

Second, the concern is about “interference” rather than “influence.” Influence is one of those loose words that describes everything from the lure of China’s market to the intimidation generated by arresting the family members of U.S. journalists. “Interference” better addresses the scope of CCP activity, because it describes crossing boundaries established by law and disrupting the normal flow of political or social activity. It also has the benefit of being an activity in which Beijing claims it does not engage and does not condone.

The lines between “interference” and “influence” may not always be clear. The distinction, however, enables discussion about what personal and institutional activities as well as what engagements with the CCP are acceptable. Most of the laws in democratic countries leave wide open gray areas where political discretion plays an outsized role in deciding whether a case will be prosecuted. Moreover, government investigative resources will always be focused more on the truly illegal rather than these gray areas. Nor is there a legal remedy to every problematic situation. A discussion about what constitutes illegitimate interference versus legitimate influence can provide societal cues for politicians and prosecutors to what ought to be addressed and how. Public debate also serves to bring new information to light and, ideally, encourage the victims of CCP interference to speak up about what is happening.

Third, China’s interference is not soft power. Joseph Nye, who formulated the concept, described soft power as the innate attractiveness of a country’s cultural and ideational products. Soft power is a passive concept. The primary concerns that have been expressed by myself and others deal with active policy, such as united front and propaganda work, seeking to exert pressure on foreign government entities and individuals, both legally and otherwise, to shape those government’s policies favorably towards the CCP. Even though united front work is often cloaked in euphemism, the United Front Work Department is sometimes quite obvious about its purpose. That department describes some of its responsibilities as “conducting propaganda work at home and abroad” and emphasizes the importance of support to external work mobilizing overseas Chinese to support national reunification. The difference between the United Front Work Department conducting propaganda and organizations like Voice of America or even China’s China Global Television Network is the degree of openness and transparency about who is delivering the message. These are not passive activities, but rather involve active shaping of the world beyond the party’s core.

Those who downplay concerns about CCP united front work and interference should be equally cautious. They too need to deal in facts rather than invective. Disagreement with the material presented in Australia’s Four Corners program “Power and Influence” in June came dangerously close to accusing those who see a problem as being racist and ignorant. Apart from the fact that these are CCP talking points — with exemplars from the Global Times and China’s embassy in Australia — these ad hominem attacks transform what could be a reasonable debate into a political struggle that will probably degenerate into witch hunts.

Historically, racism played an important role in shaping how countries like Australia and the United States treated Chinese immigrants. But the ill-treatment is not limited to exclusionary racial laws and fears of a “Yellow Peril” or an inscrutable other. Equally important — perhaps more so in the modern context — is the Chinatown mentality. As long as nothing spilled over, Western governments were content to leave their ethnically-Chinese citizens to the depredations of criminal gangs, the Kuomintang, and now the CCP. There was no need to understand; there was no need to protect their citizens. What Turnbull called the coercive element of interference is, in most simple terms, a foreign government committing criminal or violent acts against our citizens on our soil.

We should be looking to cast the debate beyond variations of what China is really like or the appropriately adult view of China. Charges of ignorance can go both ways. In many respects, the natural fragmentation of the China-watching field as a wealth of materials became available means that most specialists only ever deal with a small portion of the CCP. We too often are still the group of blind people feeling the elephant. The evidence is incontrovertible that the party has manipulated the Chinese people and the outside world’s understanding of how the party has ruled China.

Nothing about the debate over CCP interference and the terms of engagement between democratic and CCP institutions will be easy to resolve. The law establishes firm boundaries of acceptable behavior, but the rest will necessarily be decided through public discussion. Academics and journalists will play an important role in providing transparency, establishing the facts of the matter, and generating reasonable responses.

Critics and skeptics alike have a stake in keeping the conversation civil. As Australia, New Zealand, and the United States have demonstrated in the past and the present, no political party can scapegoat the others without risk to themselves. Moreover, the “Who lost China?” debate and the purges of communist infiltration in Western governments in the 1940s and 1950s cost our societies dearly in the form of trust, political comity, and how we understand the Cold War. We have good reasons to see problems with Chinese interference, but we should be able to address the challenge without a witch hunt.


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: Dong Fang , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons