NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
China is engaged in influence operations targeting U.S. society aimed at building support for the communist nation’s policies and strategies, according to the Pentagon‘s latest annual report on the Chinese military.
“The PRC conducts influence operations, which target cultural institutions, media organizations, business, academic, and policy communities in the United States, other countries, and international institutions, to achieve outcomes favorable to its strategic objectives,” the report said.
Little academic research has been done in the United States to track the influence operations, which have been successful in shaping Americans’ understanding of China. Many media organizations and think tanks often reflect Chinese government propaganda and messages, such as the theme that China poses no threat to the U.S.
Beijing uses its funding and access to travel in China as means of influencing American institutions to avoid criticizing threatening activities such as human rights violations and China‘s spread of nuclear arms and equipment around the world.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “seeks to condition domestic, foreign, and multilateral political establishments and public opinion to accept Beijing‘s narratives and remove obstacles preventing attainment of goals,” the 192-page report contends. Beijing‘s communist leaders believe open democratic societies are more susceptible to its influence operations.
According to the report, the People’s Liberation Army is using the “three warfares concept” to guide its activities: psychological warfare, public opinion warfare and legal warfare. All have been in the military‘s playbook since at least 2003.
The report notes that the PLA is developing advanced “digital influence capabilities” in its information warfare campaigns by incorporating artificial intelligence, which it hopes will improve the quality and deniability of its messaging.
The Chinese military has even created a special service for information and influence campaigns, called the Strategic Support Force. Within the force, the network systems department is in charge of information warfare using cyberwarfare, technical reconnaissance, electronic warfare (EW) and psychological warfare.
“By placing these missions under the same organizational umbrella, the PRC seeks to remedy the operational coordination challenges that hindered information sharing under the PLA’s pre-reform organizational structure,” the report said.
The network system department is in charge of the three warfares operations.
The information warfare component seeks to “demoralize adversaries [and] influence foreign and domestic public opinion,” the report said.
“Psychological warfare uses propaganda, deception, threats and coercion to affect the adversary’s decision-making, while also countering adversary psychological operations,” according to the report.
Public opinion warfare involves spreading information for public consumption that will guide and influence public opinion and build support from domestic and international audiences. And legal warfare is the exploitation of laws to gain international support, limit political repercussions and sway target audiences.
Increasingly, the Chinese are using digital influence operations as well, including efforts to support China‘s interpretation of the “one-China policy” regarding Taiwan; to back the economic expansionist development scheme called the Belt and Road Initiative; to gain support for China‘s takeover of democratic Hong Kong; and to back Chinese disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea.
“PRC influence operations are coordinated at a high level and executed by a range of actors, such as the United Front Work Department, the Propaganda Department and the Ministry of State Security (MSS),” the report said.
The operations often target overseas Chinese or ethnic Chinese living abroad through what the report called “soft-power engagements.” Blackmail and coercion to manipulate overseas Chinese also are used, such as threatening ethnic Uyghurs living in the United States with imprisonment of family members in China.
The operations also are used to support the acquisition of American technology, such as the “Thousand Talents Program,” which has recruited several U.S. researchers who were paid covertly by China. Some of the more than 200,000 Chinese students in the United States also are ordered to spread the official Chinese government line, such as opposing Tibetan human rights activists and the Dalai Lama.
The main vehicles are Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSA) and Confucius Institutes, which seek to support Chinese policies and lodge protests on college campuses over activities that “fail to comport with Beijing‘s narrative,” the report said.
“The PRC’s foreign influence activities are predominantly focused on establishing and maintaining influence with power brokers within foreign governments to promote policies that the PRC views will facilitate its rise, despite Beijing‘s stated position of not interfering in foreign countries’ internal affairs,” the report says.
Chinese diplomats also seek to influence well-connected Americans by providing assistance and calling for “win-win cooperation” through trade and diplomacy.
Some nations are fighting back. The European Union, Australia and New Zealand are seeking ways to curb the influence operations.
The report said the PLA has voiced concern that the United States is using the internet and social media to undermine the Chinese Communist Party’s hold on power domestically. The PLA, in response, is researching digital influence operations by sending teams to Russia, Israel, Belarus and Germany to study operations there.
The PLA may set up its own Twitter account and other accounts on Western social media. The military also is using covert social media accounts for its political influence operations.
PLA Strategic Support Force personnel “may have conducted a covert social media campaign to support pro-PRC candidates and try to sway the outcome of the 2018 Taiwan election,” the report said.
The PLA also is preparing to use “deep fakes” — high-quality doctored videos designed to smear public figures.
“In 2019, PLA personnel also suggested training [artificial intelligence] algorithms to autonomously create content and coordinate influence activity between different fake accounts,” the report said.
BEIJING NOW WANTS MILITARY SUPERIORITY OVER U.S.
As part of its drive to develop a world-class military by 2049, China‘s leaders are seeking to achieve superiority over the United States, according to the Pentagon‘s latest report on China‘s military power.
“It is likely that [China] will seek to develop a military by mid-century that is equal to — or in some cases superior to — the U.S. military, and that of any other great power that Beijing views as a threat to its sovereignty, security and development interests,” the report said.
As part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s drive for national rejuvenation, “it is unlikely that the [Chinese Communist Party] would aim for an end state in which China would remain in a position of military inferiority vis-a-vis the United States or any other potential rival,” the report states.
The report was produced in part by the Defense Intelligence Agency and reverses judgments some 25 years ago in earlier annual reports that said China had few global ambitions and sought mainly to limit its military buildup to forces that could retake Taiwan. The Pentagon now believes China will not settle for less than being the world’s most powerful nation.
However, the People’s Liberation Army is not likely to mirror the U.S. military in terms of capabilities and power.
“The PRC will likely seek to develop its ‘world-class’ military in a manner that it believes best suits the needs of its armed forces to defend and advance the country’s interests and how the PLA — guided by the Party — adapts to the changing character of warfare.”
The report notes that the Chinese military is not a national army like those of other nations.
“The PLA is the principal armed wing of the CCP and, as a party-army, does not directly serve the state,” the report says.
“As a party-army, the PLA is a political actor. As a constituency within the Party, it participates in the PRC’s political and governance systems. As the ultimate guarantor of the Party’s rule and political and governance systems, the PLA’s missions include formal and informal domestic security missions in addition to its national defense missions.”
Visible differences between the party and PLA leaders are extremely rare, and official propaganda in recent years has emphasized absolute party control over the PLA — despite the fact that the officer corps is almost exclusively made up of Communist Party members.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter @BillGertz.