China Built an Army of Influence Agents in the U.S.
The Russians may be getting all the attention for influencing American opinion and policy. But Beijing has been at it for decades.
In May, a classified Australian government report revealed that the Chinese Communist Party had spent the last decade attempting to influence every level of that nation’s government and politics.
“Unlike Russia, which seems to be as much for a good time rather than a long time, the Chinese are strategic, patient, and they set down foundations of organizations and very consistent narratives over a long period of time,” said the author of the report in March.
“They put an enormous amount of effort into making sure we don’t talk about what it’s doing.”
Commissioned by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the wake of a series of Chinese influence scandals that rocked Australian politics last year, the report, compiled under the auspices of an intelligence agency, examined Chinese attempts to influence politicians, political donations, media, and academia.
But such a report could easily be written about the United States—and may soon be. U.S. intelligence agencies have long tracked Beijing’s clandestine attempts at political influence inside the United States.
And they don’t like what they see. One former CIA analyst put it bluntly: Beijing’s agents in this country aim “to turn Americans against their own government’s interests and their society’s interests.”
Unlike Australia, however, American society has yet to engage in a broad public debate about the issue. Most Americans have never even heard of the main conduit of such influence, an obscure but sprawling Chinese Communist Party agency known as the United Front.
The organization has been around in one form or another since the World War II era. Mao famously referred to the United Front as one of the Communist Party’s “magic weapons.” These days, United Front operations sometimes resemble the CIA’s soft attempts to buy off, co-opt, or coerce influential community leaders. Sometimes it functions like a booster club for pro-party locals, or like an advocacy group trying to sway public opinion. Sometimes it works in concert with China’s traditional intelligence agencies, such as the Ministry of State Security, to gather information or apply pressure. And United Front networks may sometimes play a role in facilitating intellectual property theft and soft intelligence collection, though that role isn’t always clear.
What is clear is that the United Front is active in dozens of U.S. cities and has been for years, with almost no one the wiser.
Standing in front of a ruby-red backdrop, a Chinese diplomat’s hand resting lighting on her lower back, He Xiaohui looked radiant. The Chinese-American woman, a local activist in Maryland politics, had just been appointed president of the National Association for China’s Peaceful Unification in Washington, D.C., which describes itself as a non-profit for Chinese-Americans dedicated to the eventual unification of China with Taiwan.
He Xiaohui posed for a photo with the previous president, who was symbolically handing over an object to her. Presiding over the January 13 handover was Li Kexin, a high-profile minister at the Chinese embassy in Washington. Li stood between two, a hand on each of their backs.
“No matter the time, no matter the situation, the Chinese government and 1.4 billion Chinese people will always have your back,” said Li in his remarks. “I believe that this new cohort of leadership will continue… to unite the power of overseas Chinese, and hold high the banners of anti-independence and peaceful unification.”
On paper, peaceful reunification associations, such as the Washington, D.C. branch, are independent from both the Chinese government and, largely, each other. But functionally, these associations are the United Front’s most ubiquitous outposts in the United States. And as the leader of one of the oldest such associations in the world, He, who also goes by Helen, serves as a top point of contact between the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing and the Chinese-American community in greater Washington, D.C.
“Peaceful reunification associations”—the term refers to Beijing’s intent to obtain sovereignty over Taiwan—have a close relationship with the United Front Work Department, in some cases functioning almost as an extension of its Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, the government agency that focuses on outreach to the Chinese diaspora. (Sun Chunlan, who until 2017 directed the United Front Work Department, simultaneously served as the executive vice president of the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Unification in Beijing.)
The peaceful reunification association has established chapters in over 70 countries, according to the organization’s website. In the United States, there are more than 30 chapters in cities across the country, including San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, New York, and Washington, D.C. And while “peaceful reunification” was one of the original aims of United Front work, the associations in different countries may engage on many issues, including territorial integrity flashpoints such Tibet, Hong Kong, and maritime claims in the East and South China Seas.
Peaceful reunification associations serve as one of the CCP’s main connection points with Chinese-American communities. They function as welcome centers for visiting government officials, as platforms for the dissemination of party propaganda, as hubs that allow Beijing to identify and potentially co-opt prominent community members, and as centers for local community organizing, such as hosting cultural events.
The Washington branch is particularly illustrious. Founded in 1973, it was one of the earliest such organizations, and Beijing has praised its accomplishments. The organization sent a delegation to Beijing in 2015, where they met Tan Tianxing, the deputy director of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office. Tan praised the organization, saying that since its founding in 1973, the Washington branch has “done a lot of useful work” to “fight Taiwanese independence and promote unification.”
At its heart, United Front strategy involves amplifying friendly voices and suppressing critical ones. After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the CCP realized that it had a major global image problem, and it feared that the pro-democracy movement would flourish in overseas Chinese communities and then seep back in China. So the party launched what would become a decades-long expansion of United Front activity abroad, particularly among diaspora communities. The aim was to build party-linked networks in overseas Chinese communities, keep them connected to Beijing, and quash any anti-party organizing.
These overseas efforts have targeted independent Chinese-language media outlets, Chinese student and community groups, Chinese businesses and organizations, and increasingly, prominent non-Chinese individuals and organizations, including campaign donors and politicians, with the goal of convincing them to promote Beijing’s policies and interests in their host countries.
Anne-Marie Brady, a fellow at the Wilson Center who researches the United Front’s activities in New Zealand, describes the goal of United Front work among overseas Chinese communities as “[getting] the community to proactively and even better, spontaneously, engage in activities which enhance China’s foreign policy agenda.”
Peter Mattis, a former CIA China analyst and a research fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, takes it a step further.
“The purpose of this department is to turn Americans against their own government’s interests and their society’s interests,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s undermining the integrity of our democracy and it’s getting Americans to do it themselves.”
And by targeting Chinese-Americans, “it foments discord and encourages racial divisions. And what’s worse is, I think the party knows it.”
“They’re essentially taunting foreign governments like the United States to turn on their Chinese populations,” Mattis added.
United Front activity creates discord within the Chinese-American community as well. It actively creates pro-Beijing groups and pits them against Taiwanese and Tibetan groups, dissidents, and Falun Gong practitioners. As one Taiwanese-American told The Daily Beast, “It’s like everyone is in a faction and they’re trying to gauge what faction you’re in.”
In Australia, a major scandal unfolded last year after it was revealed that Huang Xiangmo, a top political donor and president of the country’s peaceful reunification association, had attempted to use his donations to sway Australia’s position on the South China Sea, a hotly contested region that China claims as its own. In New Zealand, the peaceful reunification association organizes Chinese community members to fundraise and block-vote for China-friendly politicians.
Less public scrutiny has been applied to peaceful reunification associations in the United States, so less is known about their activities. But according to former Western intelligence officials, the United Front and its U.S-based proxies actively cultivate ties to campaign donors in America. And the United Front has made it clear that it wants overseas Chinese to get involved in their respective countries’ politics to sway things in China’s favor.
And that’s exactly what He Xiaohui, the newly appointed head of Washington’s peaceful reunification association, has said Chinese-Americans ought to do.
“Helen” He came to the United States in 1988. In the 2000s, she became politically active in Maryland, lobbying the state government to make Chinese lunar new year an official holiday, founding an umbrella group for Chinese hometown associations called the Coordination Council of Chinese American Associations, and organizing voter drives in the Chinese community. In 2010, she was awarded the Governor’s Volunteer Service Award. She has also donated to the campaigns of local and state-level politicians.
Or at least, that’s what her English-language online footprint says. Chinese-language sources paint a different picture.
In 2005, He said in an interview with official party mouthpiece People’s Daily that Chinese people in America should get involved in civic spaces to oppose Taiwan independence and to “fight for the support of American people for China to achieve unification.” Unification with Taiwan, which has ruled itself since 1949, is one of the party’s top core interests.
In April, in an interview with the pro-Beijing newspaper Qiao Bao, for example, He criticized the recently-passed Taiwan Travel Act, which makes it easier for government officials from the U.S. and Taiwan to visit each other, and the 2018 National Defense Authorization act, saying they “interfered in China’s internal affairs” and “seriously violated the One-China Principle.”
Statements such as these are a window into He’s views, but also demonstrate a specific United Front strategy. When the United States adopts a policy that Beijing doesn’t like, official news outlets and website can approach people like He for comment, then tout those statements as evidence that Chinese-Americans don’t approve of Washington’s latest move. One intended audiences for this evidence is Chinese people in China -- it serves to bolster the party’s image as receiving support from Chinese around the world, not just at home.
He has worked for years in local-level community and political organizing in Maryland, and has become known among Maryland politicians for her ability to reach the Chinese community. Lily Qi, a current Democratic nominee for Maryland state delegate, described He as “one of those great connectors to pay attention to local level.” If you need to reach out to the local Chinese community, Qi told The Daily Beast, “she would always step up, more than most people, and follow through.” (Helen He did not respond to a request for comment).
That level of influence is just what United Front officials look for as they scout out potential recruits.
In 2009, while serving as president of the Chinese hometown associations group, He was invited to Beijing to serve as an overseas delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), one of China’s two rubber-stamp legislatures and another important United Front body that identifies influential overseas Chinese and aims to incorporate them into the party’s overseas goals.
Being chosen as a CPPCC delegate means that “these people are recognized by the [Chinese] party-state,” said Gerry Groot, who researched the United Front and serves as head of the department of Asian studies at the University of Adelaide in Australia. “The United Front department has seen these people as being influential and important in their communities, and is seeking to increase or deepen their ties to China, as the ancestral land.”
“In rewarding them, those people get status in their communities back home,” continued Groot, “and in many cases it increases their influence back home. And that means that these people go back much more committed to supporting the party than they were.”
A common thread runs through much of the United Front’s related activities in the United States and other Western democracies. It uses the freedoms guaranteed in liberal democracies to promote Beijing’s own ends. At times it resembles the tools that democracies such as the United States use to promote their own interests—funding friendly media outlets, recruiting sympathetic locals—but Chinese influence operations often employ elements of secrecy, coercion, and repression that the United States usually does not.
It also means that any response to the United Front must be carefully calibrated to preserve the rights and freedoms of Chinese-Americans.
“It is tempting to frame all party-state encroachment as a national security issue,” wrote Mattis and Samantha Hoffman, a research fellow at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, in May. But “bringing national security tools to bear risks what makes America exceptional. As the CCP tightens its grip, the United States should extend an open hand. It means ensuring Chinese students, scholars, and perhaps future Americans do not have their right to liberty impeded on American soil.”
“Rising to China’s challenge, however, is as much about being a better America as it is finding the appropriate strategic response.”
Whenever Chinese President Xi Jinping makes high-profile visits to cities abroad— whether Washington, Prague, or Auckland—he is almost invariably greeted by crowds of enthusiastic Chinese students wearing red t-shirts and carrying signs proclaiming their support. They line the streets outside of the meeting venue, sometimes for days, and local media outlets tend to be impressed with the level of committed patriotism that Chinese students display for their country’s leader, who has overseen a sweeping ideological crackdown on Chinese society and higher education.
But such demonstrations are often organized by Chinese consular officials, who work through the Chinese Student and Scholar Associations, or CSSAs, that exist on the campuses of universities around the United States and many other countries. CSSAs are another good example of United Front strategy at work in the United States. There are between 100 and 150 CSSAs at universities around the United States, and many of them are quite large and influential on campus. These are not the only Chinese student groups in the U.S., but unlike other groups, CSSAs typically consider themselves to be under the “official guidance” of the consulate—language they often include on their websites in Chinese but not in English. Many or most CSSAs receive funding from the Chinese embassy.
In return for their assistance and funding, Chinese consular officials make occasional political “asks” of CSSAs. These asks include quiet political mobilization campaigns. Any time a top Chinese leader visits a U.S. city, consular officials will direct student groups to wear red t-shirts, carry Chinese flags, hold enthusiastic signs, and fan out onto the streets to welcome the visiting leader. Sometimes the consulates offer cash compensation to students, up to $60 per day in some cases. They often provide the t-shirts and flags, may pay for transportation, and may provide food and snacks.
Chinese students are joined by delegations from other Chinese community organizations such as hometown associations who have received similar directives from the consulates, creating sizable crowds that easily drown out small groups of Chinese dissidents or other protesters. The resulting reports in both Western and Chinese language media typically portray these activities as “patriotic” demonstrations by “supporters of Beijing.”
There’s another reason the party wants to organize such large crowds. As participants have told The Daily Beast, one goal is to take up as much space as possible in prime locations in front of meeting venues so that would-be dissidents simply have no room to lodge their protests against the CCP.
This isn’t organic patriotism, though certainly many Chinese are patriotic. But it is intended to look like it. And the scale and scope of this covert political mobilization is striking. Embassies have been able to organize large pro-Beijing demonstrations in major cities all over the world for at least 15 years, and mainstream media coverage almost without exception portrays such events as evidence of organic grassroots support for Beijing—precisely the goal of United Front work.
A United Front policy which has become increasingly prominent in the past two decades is to encourage “huaren canzheng,” or Chinese participation in the politics of the countries they live in. Qiu Yuanping, the current director of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, which is under the direct oversight of the United Front Department, regularly encourages Chinese living in the United States and elsewhere to get involved in politics and to vote.
It’s a policy that by nature is tricky to discuss. In the United States, Chinese communities have traditionally been politically marginalized, and efforts to get more Chinese-Americans to vote and run for office are sorely needed. “Of course it is completely normal and to be encouraged that the ethnic Chinese communities in each country seek political representation,” the New Zealand scholar Brady writes in her report.
But the United Front efforts to encourage overseas Chinese to participate in politics are not “spontaneous and natural development,” writes Brady.
“This policy encourages overseas Chinese who are acceptable to the PRC government to become involved in politics in their host countries as candidates who, if elected, will be able to act to promote China’s interests abroad,” says Brady, “and encourages China’s allies to build relations with non-Chinese pro-CCP government foreign political figures, to offer donations to foreign political parties, and to mobilize public opinion via Chinese language social media; so as to promote the PRC's economic and political agenda abroad.”
Here’s an example of what that can look like. Yang Chunlai, a Chinese engineer, came to the United States in 1990. He later became the president of the Association of Chinese Scientists and Engineers, a U.S.-based group founded in 1992. In his role as ACSE president, Yang traveled to China in 2007 to participate in a conference for overseas Chinese organizations hosted by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office.
At a speech he gave at the conference, Yang said that Beijing views overseas Chinese political participation in host countries as a means to serve China.
“China has gone through three stages regarding its approach to overseas Chinese making contributions to China,” said Yang. “The earliest stage was emphasizing that overseas scholars should return home to serve China. Later, we realized that serving China doesn’t necessarily require returning to China. Now, China is placing an emphasis on our development in foreign countries, paying close attention to whether or not we can enter local mainstream society and play an active role in the politics and debate of our host countries.”
Yang added, “Next year is a big election year in America; voting is hard logic. ACSE hopes to take advantage of this opportunity to further expand our influence on American mainstream society.”
Perhaps Yang’s name rings a bell. That’s because he was arrested in 2011, accused of stealing trade secrets in a scheme to set up an exchange in China. He pleaded guilty, was convicted in 2015, and sentenced to four years probation. In the reporting on his arrest, trial, and conviction, his participation in United Front-related activities in China was not mentioned.