An ad in an Iowa newspaper. Withholding visas to skeptical scholars and reporters. Pressure on Hollywood.
These were some of the examples cited by a senior Trump administration official on Wednesday to substantiate President Donald Trump’s accusation that China is attempting to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections for the benefit of Democrats as a reprisal against his trade war.
But the examples cited by the administration don’t look at all like Russia’s sophisticated and multifaceted election interference in 2016. There’s no cited Chinese equivalent of the Democratic National Committee server infiltration, the exfiltration for release of scads of embarrassing documents to WikiLeaks, the creation of extensive imposter social-media accounts to inflame Americans’ political passions, the employment of a campaign architect with a long history of taking Russian money, or “dirt” promised to a campaign aide or offered ahead of a Trump Tower meeting.
A senior administration official, briefing reporters on Thursday on condition of anonymity, cited the activities of the Chinese Communist Party’s “United Front” influence agents, whose “activities have reached an unacceptable level.” But the official cited ways “China is actively interfering in our political system,” which is a different accusation than Trump’s charge at the United Nations that China is “attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election, against my administration.”
Those activities include “hurting farmers and workers in states and districts that voted for the president,” the official said. “China punishes or rewards businessmen, think tanks, movie studios, journalists, religious leaders and even political candidates depending on whether they criticize or support China’s policies. China has spent billions of dollars on propaganda, here and throughout the world, crowding out or even posing as independent news sources.”
As well, the official said, China intimidates and threatens “free speech on U.S. college campuses, professors and even Chinese students who want to talk about their good experiences in the United States.”
On Sunday, the state-run China News paid for a supplement in the Des Moines Register pushing the message that Trump’s tariffs would hurt workers in a state featuring significant congressional races and a gubernatorial race—on top of being an important state for the 2020 presidential election. It appeared to be the first time Chinese propaganda was targeted explicitly at U.S. voters. Still, the China News supplement was labeled as a Chinese product, unlike the hordes of Russian bots posing as Americans. Trump cited the Register ad in a Wednesday tweet.
The FBI declined comment for this story, and the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment. A Democratic aide for the House Intelligence Committee said committee Democrats have requested a briefing from the intelligence agencies about the accusation of Chinese interference in the midterm elections.
In July, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats raised alarm that the “warning lights are blinking red again” over foreign interference in American digital infrastructure. Coats cited China as well as Russia, Iran, and North Korea as principal malefactors.
“Every day,” he said, “they are penetrating our digital infrastructure and conducting a range of cyber intrusions and attacks against targets” that range from “businesses, to the federal government, including our military, to state and local governments, to academic and financial institutions and elements of our critical infrastructure.”
Coats, however, added, “We are not yet seeing the kind of electoral interference in specific states and voter databases that we experienced in 2016. However, we fully realize that we are just one click of the keyboard away from a similar situation repeating itself.”
The director of national intelligence reprised the theme on Tuesday at the Citadel, but stopped far short of accusing “subtle” Chinese propaganda of interference in the imminent congressional election. “China has also targeted state and local governments critical of officials. It is trying to exploit divisions between the federal and local levels on policy and uses investments and other strategies to expand its influence,” Coats said.
At the United Nations on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi rejected what he called Trump’s “unwarranted accusations.”
“We did not and will not interfere in any countries’ domestic affairs,” Yi said.
The Trump administration appears ready to intensify the claim. The senior official said that they were looking to declassify additional material on Chinese propaganda, and that Vice President Mike Pence will soon give a speech on the subject to the conservative Hudson Institute.