For several years, the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) has been monitoring and cataloging instances of authoritarian interference in the transatlantic space. In 2018, ASD launched the Authoritarian Interference Tracker, an online database that centralizes known occurrences of interference by the Russian state in democracies in North America and Europe. This database was always a living platform and was updated to include new interference incidents as they occurred.
Now, the Tracker is receiving its biggest update to date, with the addition of over 160 instances of Chinese state-backed interference spanning more than 20 countries. Bringing Chinese interference to light matters. Decision-makers in Brussels and, to a far lesser extent, in Washington, still see the methodical oppression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, the slow stifle of democratic forces in Hong Kong, the use of disinformation against Taiwan, and the retaliatory economic measures aimed at Australia, as events occurring far away, with transatlantic democracies remaining outside of the CCP’s grasp.
The cases included in this Tracker update shed light on Chinese interference—from China’s economic pressure to silence support for Hong Kong protesters within the NBA to the theft of 145 million Americans’ credit data—and provide a full picture of how the Chinese state has and continues to use mutually reinforcing asymmetric tools to constrain democracies’ ability to fight back and safeguard China’s values and autonomy. Like its Russian counterpart, the Chinese state uses five interconnected asymmetric tools to interfere in democracies in North America and Europe: information manipulation, cyber operations, malign finance, civil society subversion, and economic coercion.
For almost a decade, Xi Jinping has been encouraging Chinese state media to go out and “tell China’s story well.” Xi’s injunction has resulted in a global push for these state outlets to reach new audiences and expose them to the Chinese state’s messaging. However, these outlets’ overt propagandistic tone has already caused pushback. For instance, in 2020, the British broadcasting regulator sanctioned the China Global Television Network (CGTN) for its biased coverage of the Hong Kong protests, as well as for airing forced confessions of criminal offenses. Another, less visible, aspect of this effort to expand Chinese propaganda’s reach has been through the signing of agreements between Chinese state media and outlets in countries like Italy, Poland, or Germany.
These cooperation agreements have real consequences. In March 2019, Italy’s largest news agency, Ansa, reinforced its partnership with China’s largest news agency, Xinhua. The Chinese news agency is state-controlled and has been called “the world’s biggest propaganda agency” by pro-press freedom NGO Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders). By September 2020, Italian journalists anecdotally noted that as many as 10 out of 11 China-related articles posted on Ansa’s website that month were written by, or in collaboration with, Xinhua.
At the same time, China has also expanded its social media presence. In particular, Chinese diplomats and embassies flocked to Twitter in the second half of 2019 to defend their government’s handling of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. As soon as its officials hit the platform, China attempted to artificially boost its messaging’s reach by engaging in inauthentic behavior. In August 2019, Twitter announced that it had identified a state-backed “spammy network of approximately 200,000 accounts” originating from within China and set up “deliberately and specifically (…) to sow political discord in Hong Kong.”
Despite the pushback from social media platforms that are banned within its borders, China’s manipulative behavior continued and intensified as the coronavirus crisis developed. Remarkably, Chinese officials themselves started promoting outright false information. Starting in March 2020, a foreign ministry official shared conspiracy theories tying the virus to a U.S. military research facility in Maryland. Later that month, one of his colleagues shared a video purporting to show Italians singing “Thank you China!” from their balconies after receiving Chinese medical supplies. Italian fact-checkers determined that the video was at least partly doctored. Another takedown of over 30,000 Twitter accounts in June 2020 also showed that the Chinese state is still resorting to inauthentic behavior to amplify its propaganda.
Chinese information manipulation attempts in the context of a global pandemic have elicited very public responses on both sides of the Atlantic. In Washington, the Department of Homeland Security wrote in its October 2020 homeland threat assessment that Chinese operatives were “probably waging [coronavirus-related] disinformation campaigns using overt and covert tactics.” Meanwhile, the head of the European External Action Service (EEAS) warned in March 2020 that Europe was caught in a “global battle of narratives.” A few weeks later, EEAS released a report calling out China as one of the state-actors disseminating coronavirus-related disinformation in Europe.
While instances of Chinese information manipulation have only recently drawn attention in the transatlantic space, the Chinese state’s recourse to cyber operations has been in the headlines much longer. China is a longstanding cyber-threat, and several of the hacking campaigns that have been tied to Chinese state-affiliated hackers go back to the mid-2000s.
China has not, to this day, resorted to a “hack and leak” operation in the vein of what Russia did during the 2016 U.S. and 2017 French presidential elections within the transatlantic space. Russian cyber operations seek to erode confidence in the democratic institutions, processes, and civil society organizations that make up a healthy democracy. Meanwhile, China aims to export its authoritarian model around the world by progressively reshaping the global information space and by achieving dominance in several key economic sectors. This explains why the majority of Chinese state’s cyber operations prioritize targets that have clear economic or security value. Defense contractors, research organizations, or private companies were targeted in most of the hacks that have been publicly attributed to the Chinese state. Therefore, China’s cyber operations fall in line with traditional notions of cyber espionage—when a state steals intellectual property, classified information, or sensitive data to gain a competitive advantage.
However, Chinese state-affiliated hackers also conduct operations where the immediate benefit is less obvious. For instance, in 2017, Chinese military-sponsored hackers conducted a cyber-attack on one of the United States’ largest credit reporting agencies, scraping the personal data of around 150 million U.S. and U.K. customers. Press reports on the attack explained that the data could allow Chinese operatives to identify U.S. officials in a poor financial situation who might be more susceptible to bribery or blackmail.
The Chinese state’s emphasis on bulk information collection explains the concerns surrounding Huawei. While Huawei has asserted that it is independent of the CCP, Czech press reports claimed in 2019 that its employees had passed on sensitive client information to the Chinese embassy in Prague. And the company has aided and abetted Chinese espionage even more blatantly in Africa. Despite the company’s problematic track record, it now seems intent on building its first European factory in France, in a town located within a half-hour drive of a military unit specialized in human intelligence, another unit specialized in electronic warfare, and the headquarters for the French land forces’ intelligence.
Malign finance is an asymmetric tool that is the least covered and understood out of the five highlighted. This is particularly true given the fact that, unlike the recipients of Russian covert money who tend to be located at the far ends of the political spectrum, the Chinese state has mostly funneled money to mainstream parties, both center-left and center-right. For example, in Canada, Chinese state-affiliated persons have been tied to donations to the Conservative Party, as well as to the Trudeau Foundation. Indeed, China selects the targets of its financial support based solely on their ability to advance Chinese interests. In practice, this has meant focusing on political actors who are already in government or who have a high chance of being elected into office.
China derives a wide range of benefits from the recipients of its malign finance activities. For instance, in exchange for a consulting job at CEFC China Energy, a company that notably acted as a proxy for the Chinese state in the Czech Republic, former Serbian foreign minister Vuk Jeremić used his position as president of the UN General Assembly to facilitate several meetings between a CEFC officer and various African dignitaries. Said CEFC officer was convicted for international bribery in 2019 as a result of the arrangements that were negotiated in those meetings. Following his departure from the UN, Jeremić received even more financial support from CEFC to help him set up a pro-Chinese think-tank in Belgrade.
Jeremić’s consulting job also shows how difficult malign finance can be to detect. Like Russia, China uses oblique and non-transparent means to funnel money to its allies and their supporters. For instance, in April 2019, Hungary awarded the contract for the construction of part of a planned Belgrade-Budapest railway line to a holding company controlled by a close ally of Hungarian President Viktor Orban. A year later, the Hungarian government announced that a Chinese state bank would be financing roughly 85 percent of the project’s estimated $2 billion cost. Budapest also sealed the precise terms of the agreement as a state secret for ten years. Over the last year alone, Budapest has allowed Huawei to participate in its 5G infrastructure, agreed to open a campus for one of China’s most renowned universities, and signed a deal to buy Chinese coronavirus vaccines.
Civil Society Subversion
Through civil society subversion, the Chinese state can amplify political and social fissures, divide democratic societies, and promote extremist views that undermine the public’s confidence in democratic institutions. For example, China creates bodies and organizations, like Jeremić’s think-tank in Belgrade, that will hijack, co-opt, or take part in national public debates and try to orient them in China’s favor. These institutions then go on to laud the virtues of Chinese geopolitical projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative or the 17+1 format, often by overstating their potential benefits while omitting their downsides. Besides the Jeremić example, China or its proxies have notably funded research institutions in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland.
Aside from think tanks, Chinese-affiliated actors have also set up many “friendship groups,” notably in Germany and Italy. Under the guise of “friendship,” “cooperation,” and “cultural exchange,” the United Front, a bureaucracy dedicated to promoting the ideology of the CCP globally, uses these associations to build networks of like-minded politicians and businessmen. By emphasizing culture and trade over political and security concerns, these groups seek to soften perceptions of China and the CCP. Similarly, under the guise of language centers, Confucius Institutes have in many countries sought to eliminate conversations and topics perceived harmful to the CCP’s narratives. Reports from Latvia, Poland, and the United Kingdom all demonstrate why a former head of propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party called them “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”
Another way in which the Chinese state has subverted civil society in transatlantic democracies has been by going after perceived dissidents. Members of ethnic minorities such as Uighurs or Tibetans who have fled persecution at home frequently find themselves harassed by Chinese authorities abroad. An Irish press report describes how members of those ethnic groups living in Ireland fear that attending events critical of the CCP could negatively affect their family in China. Similarly, some Chinese student groups in Germany reportedly promote loyalty to the CCP, going as far as encouraging some of their members to act as spies.
The CCP’s efforts to control ethnic Chinese diaspora communities, even when they live in democracies, shows the CCP’s desire to export its values beyond its borders. Several countries are actively helping this effort by giving Chinese law enforcement agencies the latitude to operate abroad. For instance, Swiss authorities came under heavy fire from their constituents when a secret deal allowing Chinese operatives to investigate Chinese immigrants in Switzerland came to light in 2019. More insidiously, several press reports explained that the Chinese national security law that came into force in Hong Kong in June 2020 caused many major banks like Crédit Suisse and UBS to screen their client lists for potential ties to the democratic movement in the city. In other words, the prospect of losing the CCP’s favor is now enough to turn banks headquartered in Europe into enforcers for China’s repression of pro-democracy citizens.
China’s economic weight is at the heart of its capacity to sway key actors in democratic nations. The rapid growth of the Chinese economy has provided China with deep pockets to establish commercial, financial, and other dependencies to carry out its foreign policy objectives. This is not limited to Chinese state-owned-enterprises; China-registered private enterprises working closely with the CCP can also help further China’s interests. It is therefore unsurprising that the Chinese state is increasingly willing to use these economic tools and resources for foreign political purposes. In its bluntest expression, in Europe and North America alone, Chinese economic coercion has notably targeted Canadian pork exports, Estonian milk exports, and Norwegian salmon exports. All three industries were banned from entering the Chinese market after their host nations took one measure or another that displeased the CCP. The U.S.-based National Basketball Association had a similar experience when one of its managers’ support for the Hong Kong protests resulted in a Chinese state-driven backlash that resulted in substantial financial losses for the league.
In addition to these cases of actual retaliation, Chinese authorities have also publicly threatened governments or companies that have somehow displeased the CCP. Chinese authorities have issued threats against Denmark, Germany, and Sweden as part of its ongoing campaign to ensure Huawei stays included in European telecom infrastructure. In the corporate world, U.S. airline companies gave in to Chinese authorities’ threats and stopped listing Taipei as being located in Taiwan, despite indications that the U.S. government would have supported those who chose to resist. Their reaction is but one example of the effectiveness of mere threats out of the Chinese state.
Yet, China’s economic leverage over transatlantic democracies is not an accident. First of all, the Chinese state itself has worked hard to increase its clout in economies on both sides of the Atlantic. The attempted takeover of German semiconductor firm Aixtron reveals the strategic nature of some of China’s economic actions around the Atlantic. In 2016, a Chinese investment fund offered to acquire Aixtron in the wake of a canceled order from another Chinese company that had just made the German firm’s stock plummet. Both Chinese outfits shared a common investor: a national semiconductor fund controlled by Beijing. The acquisition of a Western semiconductor firm like Aixtron by a Chinese company would allow the country to reach its 14th five-year plan goal of “technology independence.” This is desirable given China’s dependence on Western firms for semiconductors.
Furthermore, even acquisitions in non-strategic sectors can create dependencies that take time to become fully apparent. For instance, in Slovenia, Chinese state-owned Hisense acquired Slovenian appliance giant Gorenje in 2018, seemingly with little strategic implications. In June 2020, the Chinese ambassador to Slovenia said in an interview that “cooperation with Hisense and Gorenje is strategic” and stressed China’s support for the state-owned company’s continued investment in the appliance giant. Later on, in the same interview, the Chinese official hoped that “Slovenia [would] take a decision on 5G based on its own [sic] interest and needs” and “not succumb to the US influence.”
Later on, as Slovenian officials considered Huawei’s participation in the country’s 5G rollout, a pro-Chinese interest group wrote a public letter expressing concern that excluding Huawei could harm Sino-Slovenian relations. According to the letter, good Sino-Slovenian relations have recently yielded “strategically important investments [such as] Gorenje.” What becomes apparent from these statements is that Hisense’s seemingly innocuous 2018 acquisition gave China a foothold in Slovenia’s economy and a means to retaliate against actions it would consider inimical to Chinese interests.
China’s interference in North America and Europe is not a distant or over-the-horizon prospect; it is already here and has been for some time. Chinese information manipulation, cyber operations, malign finance, civil society subversion, and economic coercion reinforce each other and are progressively constraining democracies’ ability to fight back and safeguard their values and autonomy.
To be sure, China’s relentless propaganda push has been met with accusations of “wolf warrior diplomacy” and has arguably generated more animosity than adhesion. Yet a recent survey shows that more than half of Europeans believe that China will be more powerful than the U.S. in ten years, so Chinese information manipulation should not be dismissed. The CCP’s financial support of pro-Chinese actors and systematic harassment of dissident voices are creating a political environment conducive to Chinese economic interests. European Union resolutions condemning Chinese actions and defending European interests have already been thwarted twice by member states whose economies are dependent on Chinese liquidity. Now, the two largest economies in the bloc are widely seen as champions for an investment treaty that is bound to deepen those dependencies.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the United States has embraced a more confrontational posture and is more willing to defend its economy from China’s authoritarian encroachment. U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken noted in his confirmation hearing that there is a strong foundation in Washington, D.C., for a bipartisan policy to compete with China. Furthermore, there now seems to be renewed impetus in Washington and Brussels to confront Chinese interference in their respective democracies together.
Both sides of the Atlantic face a common challenge and share a common interest in preserving their open and democratic societies. Together with partners in other parts of the world, and particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, Europe and North America must now work hand-in-hand to ensure that democratic institutions and processes are resilient enough to withstand the threat posed by the Chinese state’s authoritarian malign influence asymmetric toolset.