China is proving to be the biggest threat to American families and businesses, and they thrive when we are destroying ourselves from within.
They like it when we tear each other down, undermine our own confidence, and paralyze our sense of national pride. They like it because we are doing their job for them; allowing them latitude to attack us online, discredit our institutions, strategize for the future, and vie to replace our global leadership. Xi Jinping has made it clear he wants to knock the United States into second place. He and the Chinese Communist Party are actively working to undermine freedom by dismantling the integrity of our election systems. With the FBI opening a new espionage investigation into China every 10 hours, it’s clear: China doesn’t want you to vote.
Just this week, Mandiant, a cybersecurity company, reported that the Chinese Communist Party is waging an influence campaign online to attack our democracy from the inside out. Dragonbridge, a pro-People’s Republic of China group, is attempting to “discourage Americans from voting in the 2022 U.S. midterm elections,” which “shows a willingness to use increasingly aggressive rhetoric.”
Among the actions Mandiant uncovered, Dragonbridge circulated a video suggesting that “the solution to America’s ills is not to vote for someone,” but rather to “root out this ineffective and incapacitated system.” The group spread narratives about the ineffectiveness of the legislative process and “posted content asserting that political infighting, partisanship, polarization, and division had become fundamental aspects of American democracy.” The group is criticizing American society “via narratives regarding racial strife and social injustice.”
Think about that. As Americans prepare to head to the polls, our greatest strategic threat and adversary, China, is working to sow discord in our democracy, undermine citizens’ confidence in their electoral system, and prevent people from casting their vote. That Beijing would do this isn’t surprising. China sees America as its greatest obstacle to its regional and global ambitions, but knows that it can only outcompete us if we are divided and distracted at home, so we can’t act abroad. President Abraham Lincoln said “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” but Beijing took that not as a warning, but as a marching order on how to defeat the United States.
The messages spread by Dragonbridge and groups like it, sadly, find a receptive audience with an increasingly concerning number of our fellow citizens, and that is what makes it especially dangerous. Many Americans’ belief in our democracy and its institutions has been shaken to the core with a partisan separation that makes even basic governing contentious. Partisan and social divide is now literally financially incentivized by social media giants that make more money when we are upset with one another and discouraged with the direction of our country. Foreign adversaries gain power globally through this division-driven weakness — Beijing, Moscow and Tehran are all too happy to exploit our discord for their own benefit.
This is a trend that’s been ongoing and is only going to get worse. As the partisan rancor at home worsens, adversaries will increase their own campaigns and their own rhetoric. Between now and the midterms, we will see more Dragonbridges. Ahead of the 2024 presidential election, we will see more actors trying to sow more division and more discord, not to benefit one party or the other, but to ensure that we are so divided at home that we cannot act abroad. That we are so at each other’s throats that we forget that which united us. That we no longer believe in ourselves, our government or our country.
So much attention is given to fixing social media or closing off the avenues adversaries exploit and leverage to spread their message. The thinking is that if we can merely close the pipelines of dis- and misinformation, then the threat will go away. While preventing malicious actors from exploiting social media — “coordinated inauthentic behavior” — is part of the solution, it’s not sufficient alone to fix the problem. We need to change the political, partisan, and financial incentives that encourage the spread of malicious dis- and misinformation.
We also need political leaders to stand up and stop demonizing their opponents. We can and should disagree — that is the heart of our democracy — but we must stop vilifying those across the aisle. It may surprise you in this day and age and this environment, but we can be friends with people who have different opinions, and, in fact, much more unites us than divides us. It sounds simple and even a touch trite, but it is a fact that Beijing would hope you would forget.
We need to start thinking “What would Beijing want?” — and do the opposite. Would Beijing want you to vote? No. Then you should. Would Beijing want you to hate your neighbor because she has a different view than you? Then you should go and talk to your neighbor. Would Beijing want you to post that story that doesn’t sound quite true? Then you shouldn’t share what could be Dragonbridge propaganda.
We won’t ever stop adversaries from trying to divide us, just as we will never be a perfect country. We will always have flaws and always work to “form a more perfect Union.” We can, however, work to make adversaries — like China — have to work that much harder to divide us, undermine us and weaken us. Making us stronger at home will make us bolder abroad, and that is the best way to counter the threat from China.
• Mike Rogers is the former chair of the House Intelligence Committee.