China’s glass house: Beijing is interfering in our 2020 election. What are we going to do about it?

by J Michael Waller / Center for Security Policy / April 7, 2020 –

The Chinese regime’s secret sponsorship of a paid Facebook campaign to attack President Donald Trump during an election campaign gives the US the right to respond in-kind.

Communist China has no elections except to ratify the Party, of course, but its interference in the US political process – one of a larger strategy of manipulating the American political system at all levels – obliges the US to defend itself in a similar manner.

London’s Sunday Telegraph published a report that three Chinese state and Communist Party propaganda outlets has run “millions” of paid promotions to attack the US and President Trump. The three outlets are:

  • Xinhua, a wire service founded by the Chinese Communist Party and now run by the state;
  • China Central TV, a state-run unit of the China Media Group; and
  • Global Times, an English-language unit of the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily (the analogue of the Soviet Communist Party’s Pravda, versus the Soviet government’s companion Izvestia).

“The ads, viewed millions of times, touted China’s efforts against Covid-19, downplayed its national epidemic, portrayed Mr. Trump as erroneous and racist, and suggested that the virus could have originated in the United States,” according to the Telegraph.

“However, all of them initially ran without political warning, which allowed them to hide information about who they were targeting and sometimes to allow them to circumvent Facebook’s strict rules on political advertising,” the Telegraph said.

Chinese Communist Party wants Pompeo out, hints it wants Trump out, too

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the bad cop to Trump’s good cop toward China, is Enemy Number One on Beijing’s political hit list. The Chinese regime has made it clear that it wants Pompeo out and replaced by someone more pliable. Xi Jinping’s messaging outlets have vilified Trump and make it clear that the Communist Party would like to see him replaced, too.

Global Times hinted on April 4 that unless Trump becomes more accommodationist to Beijing, the Chinese regime might take measures to help defeat him for re-election: “If the US maintains the mentality of geopolitical competition with China instead of seeking help from China, the Americans would suffer ultimately and Trump’s reelection would be seriously affected. . . .”

Coincides with partisan attacks on Trump over handling of pandemic

The Chinese government-sponsored social media attacks on Trump coincides with strategy development on behalf of his lead campaign rival, Joseph Biden, to use the pandemic as a domestic political weapon.

It borrows rhetoric from Trump’s leading opponents, including Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who have portrayed Trump’s response to the deadly outbreak as xenophobic and racist.

When Trump announced tough restrictions on travel from China and other countries to contain the Wuhan Virus spread, his opponents pounced.

Pelosi issued a press release savaging the restrictions as “outrageous, un-American,” a threat to “our security, our values, and the rule of law,” “callous,” “cruel,” “dangerous,” “bigoted,” hateful, and more. “We will never allow hatred or bigotry to define our nation or destroy our values,” Pelosi said.

The next day, Biden said on Twitter, “We are in the midst of a crisis with the coronavirus. We need to lead the way with science — not Donald Trump’s record of hysteria, xenophobia, and fear-mongering.”

Chinese government repeats the themes

The Chinese government-sponsored messaging on Facebook and Instagram often repeated these themes. According to the Telegraph, “They often cited Western experts and media sources who supported their story.” The report provided no details.

Beijing has mapped out and targeted American politicians, Democrat and Republican, liberal, moderate, and conservative.

In a historic speech to the bipartisan National Governors Association, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described in detail how the Chinese government had mapped out America’s political system and elected officials, down to the state and local levels, for the purpose of manipulating them to adopt policies and statements beneficial to the Chinese regime.

So far only one senior elected Democrat has blamed the Chinese Communist Party for being responsible for the pandemic. That Democrat, Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, didn’t last long. Two days after being the sole Democrat cosponsor of a resolution to hold the Chinese Communist Party liable for the deadly outbreak, Moulton abruptly withdrew his support, citing that “the resolution has caused division” and calling Trump a xenophobe.

The political interests of Trump’s domestic opponents and the geopolitical interests of the Chinese Communist Party have thus converged. As our daily Chinese pandemic propaganda tracker shows, Trump’s opponents and the Chinese Communists have adapted one another’s themes.

What the Center proposed for Russia’s election meddling applies to China

Any foreign interference in America’s democratic process is intolerable. The Center for Security Policy made recommendations to President Obama in August, 2016 about stopping Russia from interfering and deterring further interference through an aggressive “glass house” strategy.

That strategy was to cause Vladimir Putin personal political pain and play on divisions within his inner circle. “For the sake of America’s democratic society,” we wrote in Forbes, “Obama must strike back hard at Putin and his inner circle. Now.”

The Obama administration ignored the recommendation, and did nothing to retaliate or deter, and we all know the aftermath.

In Putin’s Reset, edited by Fred Fleitz and published shortly before the 2016 election, the Center made this recommendation:

Putin’s unnecessarily aggressive info-centric actions give the U.S. and its partners the pretext to exploit the potentially profound vulnerabilities of the secret-police regime, and the fragilities that, if exploited, could widen many existing splits within the Putin leadership itself and the Russian Federation at large.

All this, of course, lowers the threshold of conflict to the level of classical espionage, propaganda, and subversion, at which the Kremlin has excelled for the past century, with a modern digital twist. The U.S. and its allies generally have opted not to engage, out of the quaint “gentlemen don’t read other people’s mail” principle, or more likely, simple ignorance about what to do or how. After a long period of not wanting to see, the West finds itself surprised and alarmed at being on the receiving end of what historically is a simple and manageable method of statecraft.

We advised the incoming Trump team, shortly before the inauguration in January, 2017, to “up the ante on Russian subversion in America.”

“The real scandal about Russian subversion of the American political process is that the nation’s leadership has known about it for years and done nothing,” the January 4, 2017, Forbes article said. “Now is the time to put an end to it.” Here are the recommendations from that time:

As part of making America great again, the Trump administration must smack down foreign covert political warfare once and for all.It should instruct the entire intelligence community to prepare a definitive annual National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, to reach the most accurate professional consensus on the scope and cumulative effects of foreign subversion of the United States and its allies. The NIE timeframe should begin at least as far back as the longest-serving federal official has been in office. Separately, Trump should assemble an interagency task force to develop a strategy to identify, monitor and neutralize foreign propaganda, political warfare and subversion from any source. A special hybridized team should provide the president with effective strategies and methods of deterrence and retaliation.

The same should apply to China then – and especially now:

Trump should handle America’s foreign adversaries the way he treats some of his personal opponents: through the specter or acts of exposure, humiliation and destruction. This is where Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and others are especially vulnerable. An easy, off-the-shelf tool is the Magnitsky Act, which the U.S. has used to put the financial squeeze on individual figures close to the Kremlin. The best way to check against foreign misbehavior is to squeeze the ruling inner circles financially. That will make powerful oligarchs pay high personal prices for their regimes’ meddling in American internal affairs, and incentivize them to pressure their leaders to become more accommodating to the new American leadership.

The Trump Administration ended up creating an interagency team in 2018 to deal specifically with Chinese government espionage and subversion against the United States. We have seen the fruits of that team in recent months.

Now is the time to turn up the volume and go after the Chinese Communist Party as an institution. The Party’s behavior is so egregious that the time has come to take it on and help China’s corrupt Communist kleptocracy collapse. This is a historic window of opportunity to implement a decisive strategy of peaceful power. The Trump Administration shows signs that it agrees.

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