Wilmington, DE – Today, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D – Del.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and co-chair of the Senate Human Rights Caucus, and a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to the Trump administration, raising concerns about China’s attempts to undermine democratic institutions and civil discourse in the United States and supplant American leadership and alliances abroad. The senators, including members of the Senate Foreign Relations, Armed Services, Intelligence, Banking and Judiciary Committees, called on the administration to develop a comprehensive strategy to counter Chinese actions, which aim to manipulate public discourse and democratic institutions in support of China’s interests.
In the letter, the senators cited several cases wherein organizations and individuals with ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) attempt to exert undue influence over media outlets and academic institutions – in the United States and abroad – to serve China’s political interests. They also called attention to cases overseas where China sought to mobilize political elites, as well as nationals of Chinese ancestry, in support of CCP-backed policies. The letter is addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Hank Green.
“We are concerned that while some of these efforts may seem innocuous when taken independently, collectively they represent an attempt to increase the appeal of autocracy and strengthen Chinese leverage over U.S. allies,” said the senators. “We want to make clear that we believe our government should welcome transparent diplomacy from all nations. We recognize that the United States and many nations around the world engage in public relations and strategic communications efforts designed to improve the nation's public image, shape international policy debates, and promote economic opportunities. These efforts are fundamentally different from those that seek to suppress information, and undermine democratic institutions and internationally accepted human rights.”
The senators continued, “We firmly believe the United States must continue to support the free and transparent flow of information and the independence of democratic institutions from undue influence, particularly when other governments are seeking to undermine them. Indeed, without developing a clear strategy to counter these efforts, the independence of democratic societies may be at risk. That risk extends beyond the borders of our allies – for one of democracy’s greatest defenses against autocracy is the support of other likeminded nations.”
The letter is co-signed by U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Angus King (I-Maine), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
A copy of the letter can be found below:
Dear Secretaries Pompeo, Mnuchin, Mattis, Administrator Green, and Directors Coats and Wray:
We write to you to express our deep concern about growing Chinese influence operations around the world, and the implications for U.S. institutions, alliances, and the international structures that support American prosperity. In the United States, these activities threaten the independence of our civil discourse and our institutions. Overseas, they put American influence with our allies and partners at risk. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) recently published a report calling China’s manipulation of information and foreign institutions a campaign of “sharp power”; one that aims to strengthen the appeal of authoritarianism, while eroding the ability of democracies to fight back.
While nations around the globe seek to influence public opinion and policy debates beyond their borders, the nature of Chinese efforts goes well beyond those legitimate activities. Indeed, we believe the nature and scope of China’s influence operations suggest it is time the United States look at them holistically, and respond with a similarly unified strategy.
Public assessments from our intelligence community, independent researchers and representatives of allied governments illustrate the tools China systematically employs in its influence activities. Organizations and individuals linked to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) use financial ties to political elites, propaganda filtered through local media outlets and academic institutions, highly managed cultural events, and even coercion of nationals of Chinese ancestry to manipulate democratic political environments to serve China’s interests. The CCP’s long-term objectives with these operations are to undermine liberal democracies, erode the strength of US alliances, weaken the ability of democracies to work against China, supplant U.S. leadership in the world and shape the future of the international order.
In the United States, China’s influence operations have been subtle but are becoming increasingly apparent. In American news outlets, Beijing has used financial ties to suppress negative information about the CCP. In the past four years, multiple media outlets with direct or indirect financial ties to China allegedly decided not to publish stories on wealth and corruption in the CCP. In one case, an editor resigned due to mounting self-censorship in the outlet’s China coverage. Beijing has also sought to use relationships with American academic institutions and student groups to shape public discourse. In some cases, the vehicle for such influence has been through the leadership of Chinese educational and cultural centers on campuses, known as Confucius Institutes. While many Confucius Institutes offer services like language instruction, there is evidence some Institute leaders have sought to shape campus discussions of China, especially around Taiwan and Tibet. The intensity of the attempts at control was enough to cause multiple universities to close their Institutes.
Similar patterns have emerged elsewhere. In Peru and Argentina, China has worked closely with local media organizations to manage information put forward on Chinese politics. CCP-linked organizations have taken over cultural events that locals once led, changing the historical discussion and marginalizing locals of Taiwanese descent.
In other parts of the world Chinese influence activities have been more brazen and visible. In Australia, journalists with Chinese-language media outlets reportedly experienced intimidation and even physical assault for publishing material critical of the CCP. China has also sought to manipulate politics among neighboring democracies. In the most high-profile case, a CCP-linked donor allegedly persuaded Australian Senator Sam Dastyari to adopt the CCP’s position on the South China Sea by threatening to withdraw a $400,000 donation. China appears to have used a similar playbook in the Czech Republic – using a Chinese energy firm as a means for gaining favorable policy changes through financial ties with those close to the President. In New Zealand, Beijing has mobilized pro-CCP citizen organizations to publicly oppose Australian policies that run counter to China’s interests, while monitoring and at times silencing citizen groups that differ with the CCP.
We are concerned that while some of these efforts may seem innocuous when taken independently, collectively they represent an attempt to increase the appeal of autocracy and strengthen Chinese leverage over U.S. allies. We want to make clear that we believe our government should welcome transparent diplomacy from all nations. We recognized that the United States and many nations around the world engage in public relations and strategic communications efforts designed to improve the nation's public image, shape international policy debates, and promote economic opportunities. These efforts are fundamentally different from those that seek to suppress information, and undermine democratic institutions and internationally accepted human rights.
We firmly believe the United States must continue to support the free and transparent flow of information and the independence of democratic institutions from undue influence, particularly when other governments are seeking to undermine them. Indeed, without developing a clear strategy to counter these efforts, the independence of democratic societies may be at risk. That risk extends beyond the borders of our allies – for one of democracy’s greatest defenses against autocracy is the support of other likeminded nations.
With that in mind, we urge the Administration to adopt a comprehensive strategy to address these activities, in the United States and abroad. We respectfully request your response to the following questions:
We look forward to the Administration’s prompt and thorough response to these questions. We believe that there are significant opportunities – and indeed a necessity -- for Executive and Congressional collaboration and partnership to address these challenges, and look forward to working alongside the Administration to develop and execute appropriate U.S. policy in response to the CCP actions laid out in this letter.