Chinese Influence and Intelligence Activities: A Few Notes

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The most important thing you will read this week—likely the most important thing you will read this month—is Anne-Marie Brady’s report “Magic Weapons: China’s political influence activities under Xi Jinping.” In this report Dr. Brady describes in detail what is known about Chinese influence and intelligence operations inside New Zealand. In many ways this is the Kiwi version of the Four Corners/Fairfax Media series published earlier this summer about Chinese influence operations in Australia. Brady’s report is more academic; it is thoroughly sourced and footnoted. The report is also long (56 pages in total). What it reveals is important enough that later this week I will do another post consisting of quotations from the report with a few of my comments interspersed between them, in hope that those readers who don’t have the time to read through 56 pages of the full report will have the time to read that.

But for those with the time, make this report a priority. A reader recently remarked that I seem to be taking a harder line against the Party than I did two or three years back. More than anything else it is knowledge of operations like these that have informed this shift in my thinking. It is vitally important that we understand what the Party’s agents are doing in our own countries. This story is not a side note to the main tale. It is a core part of the story of China’s rise. It is at the center of the kind of world the architects of that rise are trying to create. We do not have to guess what that world will look like. They are carving that world out of the heart of the West right now.

One of the neat things about Brady’s report is that she opens up with a general discussion of influence operations and their purpose. One of her strongest points in this discussion is her treatment of the term “soft power.” We take a terribly limited view of what the term should mean, associating it with the sorts of warm and fuzzy feelings that create (in the words of one ex-President) a “passionate attachment of one nation for another,” emphasis on passion. Washington feared that these sorts of attachments would:

“[give] to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.” [1]

Washington was right to fear these things. Yet rapturous bands of brotherly affection are not a prerequisite for them. This is particularly true in the case of the Party. Soft-power influence has not come to the Party by convincing the world to love them. Influence has come by convincing the world that they are the future. The more buzzwords like “Chinese century” move from catch-phrase to zeitgeist the stronger their hand will be. They do not ask you to love the future, just to accept the futility in resisting it. China ascendant, China as the key node of the international order, China the responsible stake holder of world affairs. There is no love in these terms, but there is great power in them. With notions like these the Party weaves visions of a world where we have no choice but to be dependent on them and the stability they bring. 

You will hear that compromising the integrity of international law, betraying long-held alliances, or refusing to hold the Party to the same moral standard we hold other tyrannies to referred to as the “adult” or “responsible” thing to do. This is the voice of Chinese soft power. Most Westerners who say these things do so honestly (if naively). My intent is not to question their integrity. But we must recognize that this is exactly the path the Party prefers our thoughts to tread. They do not need anything else. The outcome Party’s assault on Taiwanese democracy, for example, depends so little on warm feelings for China. The Party’s victory, if it comes, will depend very much on how reasonable and inevitable this victory is perceived to be.

Ground zero in this fight for global influence is the Chinese diaspora. This is not a new development. For Chinese communists it really is old hat. This heritage is only referenced in passing in Brady’s report, and is absent entirely from most discussions of the issue. This is one of the frustrations I had with a Sinica podcast discussion recorded a year or so back with Committee of 100 director Holly Chang. [2] Witch hunts are terrifying. We must not unleash one. But the members of that discussion did not acknowledge how the history of Chinese influence and intelligence activities shape Party operations within the Chinese diaspora today, nor the kind of counterintelligence response that history might merit. For the curious, a wonderful book on this topic is John Garver’s China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China. This sprawling, magnificent book narrates how, starting immediately after the revolution and extending right up until Mao’s death, Chinese agents founded parties, messed with elections, instigated insurgencies, and kick-started Maoist movements across the world. Their biggest successes—though in most cases, only temporary—were in Southeast Asia. These attempts to export revolution in wider Asia began with attempts to radicalize the Chinese diaspora. [3] This is how Chinese communists operate. It is still how Chinese communist operate. All that has changed are the goals of the operations.

If your take-away from all of this is that we can’t trust the Chinese among us, you are thinking about it wrong. Chinese Americans, Chinese Australians, Chinese Kiwis, et. al, are not the enemy. They are the victims. The Party has made clear that it believes any man or woman of Chinese blood, no matter their citizenship or locale, is their ward. The Party devotes an incredible amount of resources trying to shape the beliefs and behaviors of this diaspora. This includes extending its system of surveillance, censorship, and coercion into the heart of foreign countries. We ignore this because most of the threats and propaganda the Party spreads about are all spread about in the Chinese language. In the mind of most Westerners, what happens in Chinatown only matters in Chinatown. 

This is foolishness. We rightly fret over Russian influence operations in the United States, worried by Russian funded twitter bots and Russian curated Facebook pages. These Russian operations are superficial, surface affairs when placed next to the Party’s ops. The difference is that the Party conducts most of its business in Chinese. Yet a Chinese speaking citizen is still a citizen. Think about what these reports mean: a foreign power surveils, strong-arms, and censors citizens of Western countries inside their own borders. The failure to take the violation of our citizens’ liberties and manipulation of our own citizens’ livelihood seriously is inexcusable. It is a moral failure. And as the New Zealanders are discovering, it is a moral failure with geopolitical consequences.

The Kiwis will not be the last to make unsettling discoveries. I am extremely grateful for people like Dr. Brady or the Four Corners team who has been placing these things in the public eye. But the stories are not new. Most of the Four Corner ‘reveals’ had been in the public domain for one or more years before their report hit the airwaves. Other pieces of evidence were traded about on list-servs or exchanged as bar-room anecdotes long before they appeared on newsstands. What both Four Corners and the “Magic Weapons” reports have done is systematize this information and present it in a fashion the average politico can grasp and understand. This is long overdue. These same steps are taken in other parts of the world. I have heard and read and seen enough to know that these same operations are happening in Taiwan, in the island nations of the South Pacific, in Canada, and in the United States. Of the European situation I know less, but suspect the story is much the same. It is time for reports on these places to be researched and written. We cannot allow this to be ignored any longer. [4]


Anne-Marie Brady, Magic Weapons: China’s political influence activities under Xi Jinping,” Wilson Center report (18 September 2017).

Four Corners, Power and Influence: How China’s Communist Party is Infiltrating Australia,”  film, 47 min (5 June 2017)

Nick McKenzie, Richard Baker, Sashka Koloff and Chris Uhlmann, “China’s Operation Australia: the Party Line,” Sydney Morning Herald (5 June 2017)

Nick McKenzie, et. al “China’s Operation Austrailia: Payments, Power, and Our Politicians,” Sydney Morning Herald (5 June 2017) 

Nick McKenzie, et. al. China’s Operation Australia: The Go-betweeners,” Sydney Morning Herald (5 June 2017)

John Fitzgerald, “Beijing’s Guoqing vs. the Australian Way of Life,” Inside Story (September 2016)


[1] George Washington, “Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796“, Avalon Project, or. posted June 2008.

[2] Jeremy Goldkorn and Kaiser Kuo,  “Allegiance,” Sinica Podcast episode, SupChina (18 Feb 2016).

[3] John Garver, China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 463-787.

[4] For any intrepid researchers reading this, and wondering where they should focus their efforts next, let me give one suggestion: the state of California

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"If your take-away from all of this is that we can’t trust the Chinese among us, you are thinking about it wrong."


How 2 neocon.

I am Chinese and the idea that the Party has any significant influence in a community where Epoch Times is popular is hilarious. And traditionally we avoid politics completely.

Perhaps though it should be asked why Chinese descendants should not feel frustrated in a society that wants to teach their kids to be gay or alternatively, deport them for being nonwhite.

In the Left's rooting for the black and the Right's rooting for the white, its getting increasingly hard just to be a sane apolitical person.

Shocking, so shocking, that China would seek to influence foreign politics the way Israel does in the US and the US does all over the world.

The above commenter is wrong in their dismissal of CCP influence in the Chinese community. It's obviously not going to be conspiratorial but subtle: a large number of first generation Chinese Americans rely on CCTV as their source of news, and there are obviously certain points of view that you will never hear on CCTV, and CCTV's coverage also tends to further political goals of the CCP (e.g. coverage on Taiwan might turn more negative when the party they don't like is in power). Many first-generation and even second-generation Chinese Americans also use WeChat as their primary social network, and not only is self-censorship on WeChat is a real thing, it means a lot of the sources of news and opinion still originate in China. And, in my experience, Chinese Americans do vote and do not avoid politics especially when they think their company will agree with them (but do like to claim to be apolitical — mostly I think because their views don't fit neatly into today's American political schism — the above commenter in particular makes three political statements while claiming to be apolitical).

Like the author, I also want to emphasize that these people are not tools of the CCP. They might criticize the CCP openly in person, and they are American citizens and they will mostly not go back to China. Their attraction to CCTV and WeChat is social and cultural rather than overtly political. Their children are Americans. However, I've found it difficult to reach this group on certain topics (of first generation Chinese Americans), since traditional Chinese culture is very hierarchical and does not encourage elders to pay any heed to the opinion of the young. Americans should feel reassured that this traditional culture is very much diluted if not completely absent in the second generation.

Also like the author points out, witch hunts are not the answer, as they will inevitably create victims and a sense of alienation. I'm not sure what the right thing to do is, especially in the American context. Tentatively, I would say it would be best if there was greater (media?) attention and scrutiny paid to the relationships between top U.S. officials and representatives and CCP officials, and more questions to representatives for their positions on China-related issues. This is tricky too, because just because someone is friendly with China does not mean they are beholden to them. More than anything, I think we need a media that is smart enough on China issues to make these distinctions. Unfortunately, we are a long way from that.