The uproar over possible Chinese interference in recent Canadian elections is a reminder of what researchers and intelligence agencies have warned regarding Beijing’s attempts to politically influence other nations.
The allegations of direct meddling and of money flowing from Beijing operatives into the hands of some Canadian federal candidates is indicative of China’s ramped up strategy in recent years to attempt to interfere in the political processes of countries, some observers say.
In a 2017 report, Anne-Marie Brady, a professor of political science at the University of Canterbury and specialist of Chinese politics, wrote that China’s foreign influence activities have accelerated under Chinese President Xi Jinping and have the potential to undermine the sovereignty and integrity of the political system of targeted states.
In terms of foreign interference by China, “we’re not used to seeing this on such a global scale,” she said in a telephone interview with CBC News. “We haven’t seen anything like this from any country for a very long time.”
Indeed, this is the first time since Mao’s era that China is assertively trying to meddle in the internal politics and societies of countries on nearly every continent, according to Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Experts explain how China interferes in foreign politics, methods used and where such methods have been deployed:
How does China interfere in foreign politics?
China uses a wide range of direct and indirect resources in attempts to influence the political process of countries and “spent years developing strategies to influence politics and elections throughout the Pacific Rim,” Kurlantzick wrote in an article for the Council on Foreign Relations.
“China often uses its state media and control of Chinese language media in other countries. Its toolbox also includes economic coercion, disinformation on social media platforms, its growing power on university campuses, and its wielding of influence directly over politicians,” Kurlantzick wrote.
China’s foreign election interference has included “sizeable Communist Party-linked donations to political parties, financial support for friendly research institutions, harassment of the overseas diaspora, monopoly of Chinese-language media … and other avenues,” China foreign policy experts Rush Doshi and Robert D. Williams wrote in a 2018 Lawfare article.
Jacob Wallis, an expert on election interference at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said China will use financial inducement and at times coercion to “shift the playing field” by exploiting corrupt and malleable political elites.
“Here in Australia, we’ve had a number of scandals where politicians [were] being handed shopping bags full of cash. So if that’s what works, then that’s the kind of action that we’ll see, just pure political corruption,” he said.
Wallis said they have also observed how Chinese information operations are shifting in their use of Mandarin, Cantonese and English language.
“[They are] getting increasingly confident of working in other languages. And that tells us that they are trying to target beyond diaspora groups. They’re trying to target kind of international political discourse.”
What’s the role of the United Front Work Department?
The United Front Work Department (UFWD) is an official arm of the Chinese Communist Party that seeks to influence political activities domestically and abroad. But its importance was noted during a Sept. 2014 speech by Xi Jinping, who referred to it as one of CCP’s “magic weapons.”
“It’s basically the propaganda arm; they interface with overseas advocacy groups, work with the diaspora worldwide,” said Anna Puglisi, director of Biotechnology Programs and Senior Fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.
“And I think it’s really hard for westerners to understand because we don’t have that. Their main goal is for the world to see China in a good light, that China controls the message.”
But beyond propaganda UFWD is also believed to be linked, either directly or through affiliated groups, to political interference ventures, say some experts.
“United front work encompasses a broad spectrum of activity, from espionage to foreign interference, influence and engagement,” wrote CCP researcher Alex Joske in a 2020 report for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“United front work generally involves covert activity and is a form of interference that aids the CCP’s rise and reduces resistance to its encroachment on sovereignty,” he wrote.
But Joske, in an interview last year, said that while United Front networks are involved in a whole range of activities, China’s professional intelligence agencies are “behind the scenes and actually directing some of these political influence operations and other covert activities.”
What are some recent examples of China’s alleged election meddling on other countries?
China’s alleged election meddling has made headlines across the globe. Most recently, the U.S. midterms were said to have been a target of Beijing through a social media disinformation campaign. But as Kurlantzick recently noted, reports filed to the U.S. Justice Department claim that China has spent more money in the past six years to influence U.S. politics than any other foreign country.
“With members of Congress wary of Chinese influence, Beijing has increasingly targeted local politicians, mayors, governors, and state legislators, according to a report by the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center,” wrote Kurlantzick.
Australia has also been a main target for political interference, experts say. Last year, Australia media reported attempts by Chinese spies to fund candidates for Australia’s centre-left Labor opposition party in its upcoming federal election but that the plot was foiled by the national security agency.
In New Zealand, there are reports that the Chinese government has “built multiple links to some of the country’s top politicians and business leaders in part by orchestrating cushy post-retirement sinecures for some of them at Chinese state firms,” according to Kurlantzick in his new book Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World.
“In addition, at least before Covid, Beijing stepped up people-to-people links between Chinese enterprises, many of them state-owned or with state connections, and New Zealand companies,” he wrote.
Taiwan as well has reportedly been a target of election interference in both the 2018 local elections and 2020 presidential elections through media and disinformation tools, as China sought to promote the Beijing-friendly candidates, said Kurlantzick.
“They tried to use a whole wide range of their control over some Taiwanese media outlets, as well as a range of disinformation,” he said.
On his way into a caucus meeting, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explained the creation of the special rapporteur looking into election interference when reporters pressed him for more answers on his knowledge of the situation.
In the 2018 Malaysian presidential elections, Beijing attempted to influence the election “through soft power and through covert and possibly corrupt means, also known as sharp power. Beijing cultivated Chinese Malaysians,” Kurlantzick wrote in the Washington Monthly.
However, while China scored some success in the 2018 Taiwan elections, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen won re-election in 2020 against China’s preferred candidate Han Kuo-yu, which was seen as a major rebuke to Beijing.
Meanwhile, the coalition of then Malaysian prime minister Najib tun Razak, which was backed by China, also suffered defeat.
Indeed, Kurlantzick notes that China has “failed in its efforts more often than not,” and its efforts have often been caught, leading to a backlash.
But those setbacks, Kurlantzick told CBC News, aren’t likely to deter China’s election meddling efforts. China could potentially improve its efforts when it comes to disinformation campaigns, better conceal money that’s funnelled to politicians or conceal pressure placed on politicians by Beijing-linked businesses, he said.
“China has been able to adapt in the past to challenges and problems. So as a result, I expect that they’re going to come up with a shifted, more sophisticated influence strategy on a whole wide range of areas, including possibly election influence.”