How China leads a campaign of censorship and intimidation throughout the West

Russia may get the headlines, but China's reach is enough to make Moscow envious.

Russia may grab the headlines, but China's campaign of censorship throughout the West is beyond compare. (CREDIT: AP/ANDY WONG)
Russia may grab the headlines, but China's campaign of censorship throughout the West is beyond compare. (CREDIT: AP/ANDY WONG)

For the past few years, one foreign government, an autocratic adversary in all but name, has jailed the families of American journalists, unleashed hackers and social media trolls by the tens of thousands, and injected a campaign to silence critics throughout the West, forcing publishers to back down and convincing American academic institutions to look the other way.

This dictatorship, building a police state and cult of personality at home, has attempted to export its one-party model abroad, attracting autocrats and smothering liberal democrats at every turn – all while, if recent photo ops are anything to go by, finding a sympathetic ear in the White House.

This dictatorship, however, isn’t Russia.

It’s China.

From imprisoning spouses and siblings of American journalists to littering American academia with pro-Beijing institutes, China has led a campaign of influence and intimidation in the West that has outpaced Russia at nearly every turn. While there are no signs Beijing attempted to meddle in the recent American election to the extent Moscow did, Chinese officials have nonetheless exerted a campaign of subterfuge throughout Europe, the Americas, and Australia and New Zealand. The aim of the campaign is ending criticism wherever it may be found, and expanding China’s autocratic diktat wherever it can.

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The Economist, in a cover feature this month on China’s push for censorship across the West, noted that China’s not pushing to conquer foreign territories per se, as with Russia in Ukraine or Georgia. Rather, for China “the ultimate prize is preemptive kow-towing by those whom it has not approached, but who nonetheless fear losing funding, access or influence.” Or as The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin wrote this month, “Beijing’s strategy is first to cut off critical discussion of China’s government, then to co-opt American influencers in order to promote China’s narrative.”

Exporting censorship

Indeed, while Russia has garnered much of the headlines when it comes to interference, it’s China that’s spear-headed new, arguably far more concerning means of censorship and meddling across the West. And it’s not just a matter of convincing Hollywood studios to edit out any material that would paint China in a less-than-flattering light, or setting up a troll army model that Russia would later emulate.

Certain male relatives of Radio Free Asia employees have been placed in “re-education camps” in China.

For instance, where Moscow has recently made it more difficult for American media companies to operate on Russian soil, it’s Beijing that has barred outlets like the New York Times outright – and led a campaign of imprisoning the relatives of American reporters publishing material critical of the Chinese Communist Party. Three years ago, Chinese authorities began arresting family members of Shohret Hoshur, an American journalist with Radio Free Asia. Hoshur’s coverage of China’s presence in Xinjiang, a colonial outpost along China’s western reaches – and a testing ground for Beijing’s most illiberal surveillance and police tactics against the country’s Muslim minority – tweaked Chinese authorities, who proceeded to arrest a trio of Hoshur’s brothers in retaliation for his coverage.

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A spokesperson for Radio Free Asia told ThinkProgress that two of Hoshur’s brothers have since been released, but that one remains in prison. Numerous other employees of Radio Free Asia have also seen their families harassed, with certain male relatives “detained and put in re-education camps,” according to the spokesperson.

But Radio Free Asia isn’t the only outlet with American employees whose families have been targeted. Another American reporter, Chen Xiaoping – who had recently interviewed one of China’s most well-known dissidents – revealed this week that his wife has remained under police detention for months.

But jailing the families of American reporters on trumped-up charges is far from the only means with which Beijing has attempted to silence critics abroad. To wit, Chinese security officers have pursued Guo Wengui, a dissident currently in self-imposed exile, throughout the U.S. Earlier this year Guo, best known for his attempts at exposing corruption in the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party – and the subject of Xiaoping’s recent interview – encountered Chinese officials in New York, according to the Wall Street Journal, who attempted to convince Guo to end his revelations.

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Guo, however, demurred, and the FBI later confronted the Chinese officials at Penn Station in New York. FBI officials effectively booted their Chinese counterparts from the U.S.

However, that wasn’t the end of Beijing’s move to silence Guo. Any number of bots bombarded those tweeting about Guo, leading, as The Daily Beast described, a surge in “harassment.”

The Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank, also rescinded a planned October talk featuring Guo, following both a Shanghai-based assault on its website and pressure from Chinese officials. (Disclaimer: This reporter has worked with the Hudson Institute in the past.) The president of the Hudson Institute later said the cancellation of Guo’s event was not due to Chinese influence, but due, rather, to poor planning.

Schooled in silence

Unfortunately, Guo is by no means the lone opposition voice China has attempted to silence on American soil. A recent op-ed from Wang Dan, a Chinese dissident who helped lead the Tiananmen Square protests nearly 30 years ago, described how the “Chinese Communist Party is extending its surveillance of critics abroad, reaching into Western academic communities and silencing visiting Chinese students. Through a campaign of fear and intimidation, Beijing is hindering free speech in the United States and in other Western countries.”

One Trump advisor recently said that Trump “most admires” a trio of leaders: Turkey’s Erdogan, Russia’s Putin, and China’s Xi, all autocrats of varying flavors.

Tactics include recruiting Chinese students in Western institutes to monitor other Chinese students expressing views critical of Beijing, or even those simply “seen with political dissidents” like Wang, with family members in China subsequently threatened or abducted. Other students in the U.S. critical of Beijing have faced hacking campaigns originating in China. Due to the surveillance, Chinese students in Australia have begun requesting tutorial classes without other Chinese students.

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Unfortunately, Chinese moves to censor or co-opt voices on Western campuses aren’t limited to students. In one notorious instance, Cambridge University announced in August that it would block access to certain material in its China Quarterly journal — at the behest of Beijing. One professor critical of the decision called the move a “craven, shameful and destructive concession to [China’s] growing censorship regime.” The subsequent blowback forced Cambridge to rescind its decision, reinstating material on Xi, Tiananmen Square, and the Cultural Revolution – the latter of which killed more than two million Chinese citizens. But in November, the publisher behind magazines like Nature and Scientific American also announced it would censor material critical of China.

Elsewhere, China’s Confucius Institutes, attached to dozens of universities across the U.S. – and hundreds of more abroad – have gained renewed attention for their pro-Chinese Communist Party slant, cowing school officials and pushing Beijing-friendly messaging throughout academia. Given that these Confucius Institutes are run out of official Chinese government agencies, they are, as The New York Review of Books’ Richard Bernstein wrote earlier this year, “often … set up in secretive agreements with host institutions, which has caused Western scholars to question whether their universities are ceding undue control to a foreign government – in this instance, a foreign government well known for aggressively propagandizing its official views, censoring dissenting opinions, and imprisoning those who express them.”

Not only has Beijing pressured those working out of the Confucius Institutes to toe the state’s line on controversial topics, ranging from Tibet to Taiwan to Tiananmen, but they also appear to bar members of the Falun Gong, a religious sect facing heavy persecution in China, from working, a clear violation of proscriptions against religious discrimination in the U.S. A report from the National Endowment for Democracy this month even found that taxpayers in numerous democracies fund these Confucius Institutes, helping subsidize China’s state line on any number of topics.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, China seems to have found a powerful ally in its attempt to silence criticism abroad: President Donald Trump. As The Guardian reported, Trump, when confronted with the ongoing  saga surrounding Guo, referred to the dissident as a “criminal,” and initially expressed an interest in deporting Guo back to China. Trump, of course, has hardly been shy about his affinity for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has recently consolidated more power than any leader since Mao Zedong. And the Trump administration has been pursuing policy friendly to China more broadly. (See, for instance, the administration’s move to pull back from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.) One Trump advisor recently told The Washington Post that Trump “most admires” a trio of leaders: Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and China’s Xi, all autocrats of varying flavors.

Disaster Down Under

Thus far, American academia and security services have proven enough to stymie China’s efforts to smother criticism and whitewash its image abroad, at least to an extent. But there’s one model for where the U.S. may be heading if Chinese efforts prove successful: Australia.

“Australia is a bellwether. If dissent can be stifled here, then it can be stifled anywhere.”

Over the past few years, China has found perhaps its greatest successes at co-opting liberal democratic institutions in Australia. As a recent piece in The Australian read, “Beijing’s interference in Australian public life is occurring at unprecedented levels and represents an emerging, if not already widespread, form of political corruption,” with China’s efforts having “moved beyond traditional espionage and morphed into a wider assault on Australia’s institutions.” As one Australian professor said, “Australia is a bellwether. If dissent can be stifled here, then it can be stifled anywhere.”

In addition to networking Chinese nationals to monitor Chinese-Australian voices critical of Beijing, and alongside paying off Australian politicos to spout Beijing’s line, fears of Chinese retaliation recently helped curtail the publishing of a new book penned by Charles Sturt University’s Clive Hamilton. “Silent Invasion: How China Is Turning Australia into a Puppet State,” as The New York Times described, examines “an orchestrated campaign by Beijing to influence Australia and silence China’s critics,” ranging from cultivating sympathetic journalists to the transfer of intellectual property.

While the book was initially scheduled for publishing in April, an email from the head of the publishing house behind it attributed the postponement to “recent legal attacks by Beijing’s agents of influence against mainstream Australian media organizations.”

“The impact of [the publisher’s] decision was to make real, in a very personal way, the kinds of concerns that my book expresses,” Hamilton told ThinkProgress. “Suddenly I became a victim of the kinds of [Chinese] Communist Party interference that the book details in other parts of Australian society.”

Beating back Beijing

Thankfully, there may be a means of slowing Beijing’s efforts at censorship across the West – with similar tools and tactics already proposed as a means of undercutting Russia’s parallel efforts.

“I’d say this to the United States: There’s been a great emphasis on Russia, but in fact the real danger is China.”

Like Russia’s elite, Beijing’s higher-ups look primarily to the West to stash their ill-gotten gains, ranging from luxury real estate to so-called “investor visas.” A 2017 book from Cambridge University’s Jason Sharman found that the U.S., Canada, and Australia remain the top destination countries for “looted wealth” thieved from China, with Beijing now the top source of real estate purchases in Australia. (At last check, nearly 20 percent of new home purchases in Sydney went to Chinese nationals.)

Like their parallel Russian networks, many of these purchases flow through shell companies to mask the origin of the funds. While Xi has overseen a nominal crackdown on grand corruption at home, tens of thousands of Chinese officials have managed to shift hundreds of billions of dollars – if not more – out of the country. That presents ample opportunity for Western governments to exert pressure on any number of Chinese officials to help slow Beijing’s creeping censorship efforts abroad.

But given Trump’s kleptocratic tendencies, any effort from the White House to crack down on Chinese efforts might have to wait until 2020. In the meantime, though, China will only continue its strategy of obliterating criticism and convincing American academics and producers to try to follow Beijing’s line. Meanwhile, Beijing will find an administration in Washington that will pay them no mind.

“I’d say this to the United States: There’s been a great emphasis on Russia, but in fact the real danger is China,” Hamilton added. “China’s economy is eleven times bigger than Russia’s. … It has deep business and financial links in the United States, it has a bigger diaspora in the United States. Really, that’s where the focus should be.”