A subtle opponent: China’s influence operations

By on 28/01/2024 | Updated on 12/02/2024
Photo by Lara Jameson via Pexels

China’s attempts to influence electorates in the democratic world are far more targeted and less destructive than the tactics deployed by Russia – but that doesn’t make them any less potent. In this third part of our investigation into electoral interference, Matt Ross explains both China’s tactics, and the vulnerabilities that make democracies susceptible to such operations

Mention electoral interference, and most people think of Russia – but it’s not the only country using covert operations to influence election results in the democratic world. “The other state actor that is investing quite a lot, and is also more and more visible, is China,” explains Lutz Güllner, head of strategic communications (foreign information manipulation and interference) at the EU’s European External Action Service.

Lutz Güllner

Compared to Russia, China’s approach is less aggressive and more nuanced. “The Russian tactics often seem to come down to just sowing chaos and stirring things up, without any very specific goal other than causing trouble and dividing Canadians from each other,” comments Michael Wernick, a former secretary to the Cabinet of Canada. But China takes a different line – in part because it has access to levers that Russia cannot use.

In this third installment of our five-part report on electoral interference – which follows chapters explaining Russia’s motives and goals, and techniques – we’ll cover China’s operations overseas, and highlight the structural weaknesses and policy errors that have left democratic nations vulnerable to foreign actors’ attempts to poison national debates and influence elections. Our final two reports will consider how civil servants and elected leaders can best respond, combating these assaults and bolstering their democracies.

Fight from the inside

While many Russians living overseas have little sympathy with the Putin regime, the Chinese diaspora – which, in many places, has been settled in western communities for a century or more – tends to hold warmer feelings about the motherland. Communities are typically also larger and more cohesive than their Russian counterparts, sometimes to the point of forming ‘Chinatown’ neighbourhoods in major cities.

So ethnic Chinese people form a significant voting block in countries such as the US and Canada, and are served by dedicated local media such as Chinese-language websites and radio stations. This gives China an opportunity denied Russia: by influencing the thinking and decisions of diaspora communities, China can exert leverage on national politics through relatively discrete operations at the local level.

Read more: Organised chaos: how Russia weaponised the culture wars

China’s leaders have sought to use this influence to support the election campaigns of sympathetic politicians, and to turn local Chinese communities against those who attack the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Unlike Russia’s operatives, China’s are not simply working to stoke division: they seek to “cultivate an environment that will benefit the CCP government,” boosting support for pro-CCP candidates and attacking the party’s critics, says Benjamin Fung, professor of information studies and Canada research chair in data mining for cybersecurity at Montreal’s McGill University.

“Having a government that is less anti-China has a benefit to the Chinese government,” he adds. “They may not be able to change the final outcome of the election, but they may be able to control one or two seats: that’s what we can see in the last [Canadian] election, in 2021.”

Benjamin Fung

So China’s interventions pose less of a structural risk to democracy and civil cohesion than Russia’s. In a tight election, however, Chinese activities that change the outcome in a handful of constituencies could have a disproportionate effect. “Canadian elections can be a very close-run thing, in a first-past-the-post system with very regionalised politics. One could argue that the last two federal elections would have gone the other way if as few as maybe 100,000 votes had gone differently in the right constituencies,” comments Wernick. “So it’s sensitive enough to be very tempting for a foreign government.”

This raises the prospect of some very ugly divisions, he adds: “If you have a very close-run outcome determined by a few seats, it would be very tempting for the loser to cry foul and say the election outcome’s not legitimate – and then you get into the kind of post-election politics that we’ve never had in Canada yet.”

Pressure points

The Chinese Communist Party has various ways to wield influence in diaspora communities, explains Fung. It can, for example, try to shape the content or editorial line of Chinese-language radio stations in the major cities. Many people in the Chinese community get much of their information on current affairs from these stations, he says: “If the CCP can control who’ll be a guest on the top show, that is sufficient to spin the opinion of the Chinese community very effectively; and it doesn’t cost much.” Chinese state operatives use levers such as influencing advertisers’ spending to bring pressure to bear on radio stations, he believes.

Chinese agents are also active on social media, says Fung, “spreading disinformation and misinformation in the Chinese community”. These people tend to enter community-based chatrooms, he explains, then turn the conversation to politics and “create an atmosphere that they’re trying to fight against racism or help the Chinese community in Canada. It takes years to build this atmosphere; and then during election time, they will take anti-racism positions to spin the group towards specific candidates or to have negative views on others”.

This kind of interference, says Wernick, evades the systems established to guard against foreign interference in Canadian elections: there are suspicions that China has interfered in “the party processes for selecting candidates – for who’s going to run in which constituency – and had influence on incumbent and would-be Members of Parliament. That’s a matter which is largely outside of the scope of most of the institutional guardrails and safeguards in Canada”.

Michael Wernick

As an example, Fung cites the case of Kenny Chiu: a Conservative MP whose Foreign Influence Registry Bill would have required those interacting with public servants to declare any money they receive from overseas governments. Following a campaign – run via Chinese and social media – that painted Chiu’s bill as discriminatory and designed to impose surveillance on the Chinese community, he lost his seat and his bill fell.

What’s more, Fung adds, China can use some pretty dark techniques when it feels its interests are threatened. There can be “consequences” to giving interviews or campaigning, he says: he’s been subjected to cyber attacks, harassed by students, and photographed by PRC operatives while demonstrating in support of Hong Kong democracy activists. 

Buying influence

China meanwhile seeks to recruit senior figures to its major companies and cultural institutions, explains security expert Elisabeth Braw, a senior associate fellow at the European Leadership Network and a member of the UK’s National Preparedness Commission. Through “the hiring of former top civil servants, former ministers to various boards and positions,” she says, China seeks to “change the societal discourse”.

Elisabeth Braw

Former UK prime minister and current foreign secretary David Cameron, to take one high-profile case, has done promotion work for China’s Port City Colombo development in Sri Lanka. Most such recruits, though, are former senior officials or businesspeople: Chinese telecoms firm Huawei, for example, has in the past hired former UK civil service lead non-executive director Lord Browne, former UK government CIO John Suffolk, and former UK Trade and Investment chief Sir Andrew Cahn. With China’s declining reputation in the West, notes Braw, this “elite capture” technique is now in decline “because it doesn’t look very good on your CV. Nonetheless, it has been very common and very effective”.

So the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) approach to influencing elections is both less harmful to democratic societies than Russia’s, and more likely to slip under the radar. However, its impact should not be underestimated: “Attempts at foreign interference are ubiquitous, especially from the PRC,” said David Johnson, then Canada’s independent special rapporteur on foreign influence, in his May 2023 report. “Foreign governments are undoubtedly attempting to influence candidates and voters in Canada.”

Shared weaknesses

China’s influencing operations in Canada, which outflank the safeguards and regulations built to protect the integrity of democratic elections, are a worry for senior officials. And we see similar vulnerabilities across the democratic world: the main subjects of Russia’s and China’s elections interference campaigns have lacked the ability to rapidly identify and counter these attacks.

Edward Lucas. Photo by John Russell

This problem has its roots in the 1990s, explains Russia expert Edward Lucas, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. After the Cold War, the intelligence agencies switched their focus from hostile states to Islamist radicals: by 2012, according to the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), just 10% of signals intelligence agency GCHQ’s time was spent monitoring Russia. “So although we do terrorism, we don’t do other sub-threshold threats with any sort of systematic emphasis in government,” says Lucas. “It’s been a long, slow road back” to rebuilding those capabilities, he adds, and “I don’t think we’re anywhere like where we ought to be in terms of a whole-of-government response”.

The ISC takes a similar view, noting in its 2019 Russia report that “it has been surprisingly difficult to establish who has responsibility for what. The issue of defending the UK’s democratic processes and discourse has appeared to be something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation recognising itself as having an overall lead”.

The UK’s new Joint State Threats Assessment Team (JSTAT) represents an attempt to plug this gap, Lucas says – bringing together officials from across the intelligence agencies and relevant departments. Yet the main threats to the UK from Russia lie in the fields of dirty money and disinformation – and JSTAT “doesn’t really do either dirty money or disinformation, because they’re the responsibilities of other bits of government”.

Slow reactions

Some governments have been slow to reshape institutions and capabilities in the face of these new threats. The UK’s Defending Democracy programme, the ISC notes, was “signed off by the National Security Council only in February 2019, almost three years after the EU referendum campaign and the US presidential election which brought these issues to the fore”. Ironically, publication of the ISC’s own report was then delayed by then-prime minister Boris Johnson: although it had been signed off by the intelligence agencies by October 2019, Johnson did not permit its release until July 2020 – apparently because its findings embarrassed his Russian and Brexiteer allies.

Read more: Russia’s elections toolkit: dollars, disruption and disinformation

Governments are, however, now reacting – addressing a problem that has now, says Wernick, reached “the endemic stage, where it’s a permanent feature of our democracy”. We should not underestimate the scale of Russia’s attempts to interfere in democratic nations, says Güllner: Putin’s people have deployed a wide range of techniques “on numerous occasions, either developing specific narratives – aggravating specific situations, sometimes with a direct link to Russia’s interests – or in long-term destabilisation activities”.

In the fourth and fifth parts of this report, we’ll examine how democratic nations can best respond to these threats – averting the risk of vicious circles in which, charged and heated by overseas actors, domestic debates become so poisonous that democratic norms and institutions are threatened by a country’s own population.

Nina Jancowicz. Photo by Pete Kiehart

Some countries have already reached that point. Nina Jancowicz, vice president of the Centre for Information Resilience and former director of the US government’s Disinformation Governance Board, recalls that seven years ago, she “was serving in Ukraine, advising the foreign ministry on disinformation and strategic communications”. Ukraine had then been in the frontline of the disinformation war for some years; it is now, of course, fighting a much more kinetic battle with Russia.

Meanwhile, Russia was mounting its most ambitious overseas interference operation ever – influencing the 2016 presidential election, with consequences that continue to shake US politics today. If foreign attempts to sow disinformation and discord are not countered, warns Jancowicz, these narratives can take root domestically; and then it becomes ever harder to find a way back. 

“If you had told me then that, in seven years, the US would be in this state – where the domestic disinformation is so much more harmful and more voluminous than the foreign disinformation, I would have laughed,” she says now. “But this is the hole that we’ve dug for ourselves. And unfortunately, it’s one that’s going to be really difficult to get out of.”

This is the third part of our report into the attempts by government-backed actors – particularly in Russia and China – to influence election outcomes and national debates in the democratic world, with the use of tools including disinformation campaigns, election hacking and party donations.

You can read the first part of the report here: Organised chaos: how Russia weaponised the culture wars and the second part here: Russia’s elections toolkit: dollars, disruption and disinformation. Both cover Russia’s elections interference work.

The fourth and fifth parts cover ways to tackle election interference: Knowing and showing: how intelligence and transparency can combat electoral interference, and Defeating disinformation: how to create a healthier national conversation

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *