Months after President Donald Trump tried to claim that China was just as bad as Russia when it came to election interference, senators are still waiting for answers.
In a letter sent Wednesday, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), and Kamala Harris (D-CA) wrote to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to request that information on purported Chinese election interference efforts be made public.
“There may be no intelligence issue in which the public interest is stronger than foreign influence with regard to U.S. elections,” the senators wrote. “It is critically important that the American people understand which specific activities each of our adversaries have or have not undertaken, and to what degree.”
Specifically, the senators asked Coats to declassify an October 31, 2018 letter which detailed China’s election interference efforts — or lack thereof. That letter, according to the senators, “includes important information about the 2018 elections, as well as the 2016 elections[.]”
The senators have been requesting information to back up Trump’s claims for months. Trump claimed in September that China was trying to “interfere” in the 2018 midterm elections, and the president even stood in front of the United Nations to say he had “evidence” of his claim, but failed to produce any. Senators requested information from Coats about whether the claim was supported by the intelligence community.
Coats’ October 31 letter remains classified, and a February 8 follow-up letter from Coats to Wyden detailed only what Coats and his colleagues had written or said previously in prior testimonies on the topic. In that letter, Coats re-asserted his testimony that China was “one of the countries that attempted to influence the 2018 U.S. elections.” But all of these prior assessments have centered on Chinese efforts to “influence public sentiment and government policies and undermine confidence in democratic institutions,” Coats wrote, not outright election interference, as seen with Russia in 2016. That unclassified letter did not “address whether China interfered in 2016, as the president claimed,” a statement from Wyden’s office noted.
Chinese influence campaigns have expanded considerably over recent years across Europe, North America, and especially Australia and New Zealand. China wields its foreign influence not only through groups affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party, like Confucius Institutes and United Front organizations, but with parallel efforts to take over Chinese-language media across the West, secretly funding political campaigns or buying votes, and even pressuring Western academic publishers to cease criticism of Beijing’s policies. Anne-Marie Brady, a New Zealand academic considered one of the leading researchers on Chinese influence campaigns, has endured such extensive harassment over the past year that she’s requested protection from the New Zealand government.
Despite China’s other efforts, little evidence has emerged to back up Trump’s claims that China directly “interfered” in the U.S.’s 2018 midterms, or that they carried out an operation comparable to the 2016 Russian election interference campaign. There remains a clear distinction between Chinese attempts to “influence” Western audiences and Russia’s: The Kremlin hacked Democratic party institutions, set up fake pro-Trump social media accounts, and helped push the Republican nominee toward the presidency.
“It’s a mistake to look for election interference from China through a Russian lens,” Clive Hamilton, an expert on Chinese influence efforts at Charles Sturt University, told ThinkProgress. “That’s not how the Chinese Communist Party works… The CCP builds influence over time and does so by winning friends who then act in China’s interests.”
Nonetheless, Hamilton added that he expected to see increased Chinese influence efforts that won’t be focused on Washington alone in the U.S.
“Based on overseas experience, and confidential Party documents, we can expect that as scrutiny of China’s influence activities is ramped up in Washington, the Party will step up its influence activities in U.S. states and city councils,” he added.