Contrasting – and combatting – Russian and Chinese influence operations


China’s influence operations are “strategic and multifaceted”, The Guardian notes:

The National Endowment for Democracy recently described other aspects as “sharp power”: the effort by authoritarian states not just to attract support but to determine and control attitudes abroad. It seeks to “guide” the diaspora and enlist it for political activity. It embraces foreigners, appointing those with political influence to high-profile roles in Chinese companies. Chinese-language media overseas have been bought by entrepreneurs with ties to Beijing. Partnerships with universities shape research and limit debate.

U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) are leading a bipartisan group of senators in urging Attorney General Jeff Sessions to detail the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) efforts requiring Chinese state-controlled media outlets operating in the U.S. to register as foreign agents. China’s increasingly active foreign influence and perception-management operations were the focus of a December hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and have been the subject of debate globally, including among U.S. allies such as Australia, they write in a joint letter:

According to the National Endowment for Democracy[‘s recent report on ‘Sharp Power’], both China and Russia exploit a “glaring asymmetry”: a lack of reciprocity caused by raising “barriers to external political and cultural influence at home while simultaneously taking advantage of the openness of democratic systems abroad.”  A sensible step for the United States government to take is appropriately enforcing existing laws, such as FARA, designed to protect against just such concerns.

President Xi Jinping’s emphasis on a growing international role for China means the likely export of authoritarian ideology to other developing countries, according to the new Freedom House survey, RFA adds. “China and Russia … have seized the opportunity … to export their malign influence to other countries, which are increasingly copying their behavior and adopting their disdain for democracy,” Freedom House reported.

The recent Senate report on Russian disinformation strategy highlights some essential principles that must be advanced if we are to be a stronger, information resilient nation, the Atlantic Council’s Todd M. Rosenblum writes for The Hill:

  • First, government action highlighting the threat is essential for there being a climate conducive to solutions. We need our government to proactively speak to the threat and encourage all of us to be smart consumers of information.
  • Second, content providers are vital to making us more digitally discerning. Moving from click driven content determinations to models that better promote a range of reporting is necessary and, in the longer-term, good for the bottom line.
  • Third, more of us must be willing to invest in trusted information. If we want clean, vetted, trusted journalism than we are going to have to pay for it. Business models that rely on the commingling of sponsored content designed to fool us into believing it is the same as the news articles on the same site is dangerous. The bright line needs to be restored.
  • Finally, we must take ownership of our digital literacy and critical thinking. We will be suspect to Russian active measures designed to discredit our system of government and social cohesion only if we fail to recognize it as the dangerous threat it really is to our democracy. RTWT

Beijing is becoming increasing anxious about the Australian pushback against Chinese influence, an expert on relations between the two nations has said:

Clive Hamilton, Vice-Chancellor’s Chair and professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University, said the Australian response “reached a crescendo” with the introduction of the new Foreign Interference legislation in early December by the Turnbull Government….. “No country has ever interfered in Australian politics more than the People’s Republic of China,” Professor Hamilton said….China is seeking to establish a “powerful zone of influence” in the Pacific as a bulwark against US power.

“I think what we’re seeing in the last few months is, for the first time the world, kind of as a whole… are starting to see that there is definitely a downside with Chinese expansion through this huge outflow of funds being directed by the Chinese state,” he said, adding that globally this is being led by Australia.

The University of Texas in Austin last week rejected a proposal by the leader of its new China center to accept money from the China United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), which is closely linked to the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department that manages influence operations abroad, The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reports.

“The party’s united front activities are intended — still described in Maoist terms — to mobilize the party’s friends to strike at the party’s enemies,” said Peter Mattis, a China fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and former U.S. intelligence analyst. “That has no place on a university campus in America.”

A series of scandals from Russian meddling in elections to China’s influence over Western politicians, has brought attention back to the Cold War-style fight for influence and narratives, notes Mattis, drawing 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.

Beijing’s methods also appear to be evolving over the last year to incorporate Russian techniques, he writes for War On the Rocks:

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 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.

Technology has enabled these influence efforts to take place at a greater scale and lower risk to operatives than in the past, notes Jacob Shapiro, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University:

Back in 1980, if the Soviet Union wanted to push an idea that would be seen by large numbers of Americans, it needed to develop an asset who could push its content in a major national media platform. This was a long process that required skilled personnel to work under some kind of cover in the United States. Today, a group of skilled public relations professionals operating during the workday from offices in Moscow can achieve the same effect through targeted social media work, advertisement buys, and pushing content on state-owned media such as the RT television network that makes it into the U.S. media market. That is a much lower risk and vastly more scaleable model than in the past. More influence can be potentially exerted at lower cost and risk than ever before.

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