The Rise of China’s Political Influence in the United States

The University of Texas at Austin recently rejected its China Public Policy Center’s proposal to receive funds from the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), a research foundation chaired by C. H. Tung, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s first Chief Executive after the British handover in 1997. In response, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas — who has been a critic in the US Congress against China’s human rights violations — labeled the CUSEF as “a pseudo-philanthropic foundation” in a letter written to the President of UT Austin Greg Fenves, accusing China of “[establishing] influence in policy debates abroad”.

The People’s Republic of China’s agenda of overseas political infiltration has already sparked nationwide debates in Australia and New Zealand. While Anne-Marie Brady from the University of Canterbury argues that smaller countries — with less political power such as New Zealand — are more vulnerable to China’s tactics to promote the Chinese authority’s ideological influence both domestically and internationally, it has become increasingly evident that the United States is not only not exempt from, but perceived as a major target in China’s blueprint of both reshaping international judgments on Chinese political affairs, as well as building its soft power influence on the global stage.

Robert Hutchings — an expert on national security and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin — describes the funding of the university’s China Public Policy Center as “a source that might be trying to use the center for its own agenda”, and fears that it would interfere the academic independence and integrity. C. H. Tung is not only the former Chief Executive of the Central Government of Hong Kong and the Foundation Chairman of the CUSEF. In Beijing, Tung serves as the Vice President of China’s People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which self-identifies as a “United Front” organization under the direct control of the Communist Party of China. The United Front Work Department, as described by former U.S. intelligence analyst Peter Mattis, is an organization that “[mobilizes] the party’s friends to strike at the party’s enemies.” The primary goals of the United Front Work Department include promoting political ideologies in accordance with the stance of the Communist Party — particularly its views on Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet, territorial disputes, as well as ethnic minorities — by uniting Party members and liaising with its supporters both within China and the Chinese communities abroad.

Another example of China’s establishment of its influence in the American academia took place at the University of California, San Diego. In 2017, the university invited the Dalai Lama — the Tibetan Buddhist leader perceived as a territorial separatist in China — as the commencement speaker. The decision was decried by the university’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), which urged the administration to reconsider their resolution and claimed to have reported the incident to the Chinese Consulate General in Los Angeles. According to an investigation from the New York Times, leaderships of Chinese student groups in American universities, including the 155-odd chapters of the CSSA nationwide, maintain unofficial links with the local Chinese consulates.

In a similar case, the Ministry of Education of China removed the University of Calgary — the Canadian university that bestowed an honorary degree upon the Dalai Lama in 2009 — from its list of accredited institutions, affecting nearly 600 students whose degrees would not be recognized upon their return to China. It is evident that many Chinese students at UC San Diego were also worried that the Chinese authority would react similarly to the incident.

“Chinese students have pumped billions of dollars into the US economy through tuition, fees, and consumption,” said Hu Xijin, the Editor-in-Chief of China’s state-owned nationalist media Global Times, on Twitter, “This revenue stream alone impacts many levels of US society, and China controls it.” In the US, students admitted internationally — who often pay full tuition — have been financing the cost of public universities and financially subsidizing local students. There are 329,000 Chinese students studying in the US, making Chinese students the largest group of foreign-born students nationally. From this aspect, China possesses the leverage to influence many layers of the American society, and could use it to force American educational institutes to step back from certain sensitive political issues.

Occurrences in other countries have demonstrated China’s goal of promoting its own stance on domestic political affairs to the global audience. In Australia, a Chinese-born businessman named Xiangmo Huang sparked a national contention on foreign political donations, as Huang made generous donations to major Australian political parties while he served as the chairman of the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China (ACPPRC), a “non-government, non-profit” political council linked to the Communist Party of China. The ACPPRC has been accused of collaborating with the United Front Work Department to infiltrate the Communist Party’s political viewpoints into the Australian parliament through monetary contributions. In response to the concerns over the Chinese meddling in Australia, Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull made the remarks that the Australian people will “stand up” against any attempt of Chinese political infiltration, making a reference to Mao Zedong’s speech in 1949.

Photo credit: Mark Schiefelbein/Associate Press

American enterprises with businesses in mainland China are also forced to go through political self-censorship in accordance with the demands of the Chinese government. In a recent event, Marriott International — an American hospitality company based in Maryland — was accused by the Chinese regulators of listing Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet as countries on their online survey, and “liking” a tweet from a “separatist group” on Twitter. After the Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged the company to respect China’s sovereignty and territorial claims, the President and CEO of Marriott International, Arne Sorenson, issued an apology stating that the company had un-”liked” the tweet and shut down its Chinese websites and mobile apps for further investigation “at the request of the [Chinese] Government”. In the meantime, the American employee who “liked” the controversial post on Twitter was fired by the company. According to Bill Bishop from Axios China and Sinocism, the Chinese government had “punished a U.S. firm for activities for the activities of a U.S.-based employee on a U.S.-based social media platform that is blocked in China, and that U.S. firm acquiesced without a fight.” The message from the Chinese authorities has been clear: American (or all foreign) companies in China must comply with the Communist Party’s political agenda, even if the occurrence takes place in their home country.

On the flip side, the US government would have less power to dictate the political inclination of a Chinese company in America. Imagine if a Chinese company reposts an ultra-nationalistic article from the Chinese Communist Youth League on Weibo, the US government would have no authority over its American branch to force a deletion.

Similarly in academia, the Chinese government imposes significantly more regulations on foreign-sponsored academic institutions in China vis-à-vis its American counterpart. Even in local universities, professors have become unemployed for spreading “Western values” — often referring to democratic and capitalist ideologies — in classrooms. Some institutions have replaced English textbooks imported from overseas with Chinese ones that had been approved by the authorities.

China Daily found outside the MIT Sloan building. Photo credit: Tianyu M. Fang,

While China’s state-owned media outlets, including the China Daily and China Central Television — rebranded as China Global Television Network (CGTN) in the USA — provide news service to the American audience through their US divisions, American media companies have little freedom in China. The Chinese-language online versions of multiple American publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, have been blocked in mainland China as they refused to self-censor sensitive contents related to Chinese politics.

Aside from altering judgments on China’s national affairs from the international watchdogs and governments, China’s political influence in the US has a more sophisticated objective: to spread and extend its soft power influence to the rest of the world.

During China’s 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Chairman Xi Jinping described the “United Front” campaign as the Party’s fa bao — meaning magic weapon — and instructed the Party to maintain extensive contacts with Chinese people abroad. Heretofore, the Chinese government primarily spoke in a manner that is protective inwards, such as defending its authoritarian system and human rights records from external criticism. While this standpoint is still evident within China’s political agenda, China has become more aggressive outwards. Xi Jinping’s instruction is to develop more strategies to establish its influence abroad, starting with countries with significant Chinese diaspora communities.

The United States, however, begins to progress towards the opposite direction. While the Obama administration attempted to build and stabilize its influence in the Asia Pacific region by “rebalance to Asia”, President Donald Trump’s proposal to the American diplomacy and foreign affairs puts more focus on internal affairs, under his “America First” campaign promise. The withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — originally led by the US itself to increase its Trans-Pacific involvement — created a vacuum for China to develop its own version of TPP, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). This vacuum would further support China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which aims to develop its transregional influence in through economic strategies.

Politically, the Trump administration neglects to defend America’s fundamental values of democracy and human rights. After the death of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Liu Xiaobo — the political dissent who had been imprisoned in China since 2009 — in July 2017, the White House — calling Liu a “political prisoner” and “a courageous activist” — failed to address any condemnation to China’s human rights violations. A contrast could be drawn between the statements from the Trump administration vis-à-vis the Obama administration in 2010 — which urged China to release Liu “as soon as possible” — shortly after the Nobel Prize ceremony. The reactions from the Trump administration were, however, not surprising. In 1990, Donald Trump publicly praised the Chinese government’s “firm hand” against the student protesters on Tiananmen Square, which took place the year before.

Such policies from Donald Trump’s administration have created opportunities for the Chinese government to advance its agenda of both continuing to silence political dissents within, and establishing its soft powers — and its political ideologies — internationally.

Be that as it may, China’s attempt of building soft power influence overseas might not easily overtake the existing global US influence. Although China is an important player in many aspects, it is not yet qualified to be actively involved in global leadership. Politically, the country has almost no involvement in the Middle East and the refugee crises; diplomatically, it has demonstrated aggressions towards countries with territorial disputes; and internally, the nation needs more time to mitigate its multifaceted urban-rural imbalance.

While the United States is the world’s emblem of liberalization and hegemony, it is in the need of taking actions to consolidate its values both domestically and globally. It is equally important for the US to realize that the American political mechanism is more vulnerable to foreign political influence than China under the Communist Party’s authoritarian control. If the two countries were to fight over their political influence, the battlegrounds would not be the same. For American institutions like the University of Texas at Austin, a scrutiny and evaluation of potential political ties should be taken into account to uphold the fundamental values of their own.

This article was also published on the blog of The Asia Lab, a student-run research project on Asian politics and economics at The Governor’s Academy in Byfield, MA.

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Author: Tianyu Fang

Tian Fang is a freelance writer and traveler. Follow on Twitter: @tianyuf.