On Wednesday, while presiding over the U.N. Security Council, President Donald Trump accused China of interfering with the upcoming American midterm elections and of undermining his administration. According to the president, China’s covert attempt at manipulating American voters is the result of his tough stance on trade between the two nations.
“Regrettably, we found that China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election, coming up in November, against my administration,” President Trump said. “They do not want me, or us, to win because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade.”
It wasn’t long before people began asking the Trump administration for evidence to support the president’s claims. Some officials responded early with objectively accurate information about China’s foreign and domestic propaganda enterprises but offered little in the way of specifics.
“Some of these activities are actually covert,” one senior official told the press pool. “It employs cyber, it employs in some cases corruption, and it employs propaganda and things that appear to be more normal modes of interacting and spreading information.”
When pressed for more specifics regarding the midterm election itself, the same official responded, “Some examples of the ways that China is actively interfering in our political system include hurting farmers and workers in states and districts that voted for the president because he stood up to the ways China has taken advantage of our country economically.”
President Trump, however, took to Twitter to present evidence of his own, posting images of paid advertisements in a Des Moines newspaper that were designed to look like news pieces.
China is actually placing propaganda ads in the Des Moines Register and other papers, made to look like news. That’s because we are beating them on Trade, opening markets, and the farmers will make a fortune when this is over! pic.twitter.com/ppdvTX7oz1
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 26, 2018
While the president’s tweet does suggest a Chinese effort to sway American voters, it offers little indication that those advertisements were purchased by the Chinese government. Further, it doesn’t seem to represent a very technologically advanced or capable manipulation effort. Newspaper circulation has been on a steady decline since the 1990s. While Trump may have hoped to prove his point with the tweet, it was instead dismissed by many as an ineffective method of message distribution. The American people, primed from two years of stories about Russian hybrid warfare tactics and social media trolls, by and large, don’t seem to be that worried about pro-China op-eds in regional newspapers.
The problem, however, may not be that President Trump’s allegations are baseless. It’s entirely likely (and even probable) that China has found ways to exert influence on the American people regarding the ongoing trade dispute. The problem is that influence is often a matter of layered nuance and indirect messaging. Russia’s influence efforts are still widely misunderstood by Americans, who tend to think that the campaign began and ended Trump’s election. It’s quite likely that China’s efforts would be better masked by convention than Russia’s “biggest bang for the buck” approach.
China maintains significant financial leverage over many industries within the United States and even invests heavily in American media and film. This offers Xi Jinping’s regime a far more indirect (and potentially dangerous) avenue to exert influence. Instead of sending Twitter an army of trolls, China forces films to change the way their nation is depicted. Instead of running fake news stories in loosely affiliated outlets, China allows American foreign policy to position them in the role of stabilizer, mediator, and often peacekeeper on the international stage. In effect, China’s complex economic ties with the U.S. and centralized power allow them to exert a great deal of influence within U.S. borders. Russia can’t rely on money to influence Americans, so they instead turned to aggressive online propaganda.
If Russia’s interference effort could be characterized as a thousand Russian trolls spreading fake news on social media, China’s could be characterized as 10 thousand businessmen nudging their American contacts in specific directions, using the power of money to shape perceptions of China and America’s own political process. That type of influence is far more difficult to identify, root out, or subvert because, unlike Russia’s influence, which comes from Russian’s posing as Americans, China’s influence is delivered effectively through American proxies in business and entertainment.
Because of this, China can use accusations of election meddling to further advance other influence campaigns internationally. China has long worked to position themselves as the global diplomatic leader amid President Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, and they are now using these latest allegations to bolster perceptions around the world that President Trump is being needlessly aggressive, and that the United States “bullies” other nations.
“The United States is to blame for the present problem, so the United States must immediately correct its mistakes, and withdraw the so-called sanctions to dispel obstacles that interfere in the healthy development of relations between the two militaries,” Defense ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said of both Trump’s accusations and recent sanctions placed on China’s military over the purchase of Russian Su-35 fighter jets.