For a long time, it could be said that China, unlike Russia, sought to be loved rather than to be feared; that it wanted to seduce, project a positive image of itself in the world, and arouse admiration. Today, Beijing has not given up on seduction, on its attractiveness, and on its ambition to shape international norms. Not “losing face” remains very important for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). And yet, Beijing is also increasingly comfortable with infiltration and coercion: its influence operations have been considerably hardened in recent years and its methods increasingly resemble Moscow’s. The Party-State has entered a “Machiavellian moment” in the sense that Beijing now appears to believe that, as Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, “it is better to be feared than loved.” This evolution shows a “Russification” of Chinese influence operations. And our report [see the full report] analyzes this evolution, with the ambition of covering the entire spectrum of its tools of influence, from the most benign (public diplomacy) to the most malign — which means interfering in other countries’ affairs (clandestine activities). To do so, our analysis proceeds in four parts, successively presenting the concepts, actors, actions pertaining to this moment, and it ends with several case studies.
- The concepts that are important to understand Chinese influence operations include the “United Front” — a CCP policy that consists in eliminating internal and external enemies, controlling groups that could defy its authority, constructing a coalition around the Party to serve its interests, and projecting its influence abroad — and the “three warfares,” which represent the core of China’s “political warfare,” i.e. a form of non-kinetic proneness to conflict aimed at overcoming an opponent without a fight through the creation of an environment favorable to China. A wartime and peacetime undertaking, it encompasses public opinion, psychological, and legal warfare (the latter being close to what is called “lawfare” in English).
A Soviet concept is also useful to describe Beijing’s repertoire: “active measures,” which includes disinformation, counterfeiting, sabotage, discredit operations, destabilizing foreign governments, provocations, false-flag operations and manipulation aimed at weakening social cohesion, the recruitment of “useful idiots,” and the creation of front organizations.
- The main actors implementing Chinese influence operations are emanations from the Party, the State, the Army, and the companies.
Within the Party, this includes the Propaganda Department, which oversees ideology, controls the entire media spectrum and all the cultural production in the country; the United Front Work Department (UFWD), with its 12 offices reflecting its main targets; the International Liaison Department (ILD), which maintains relations with foreign political parties; the 610 Office, which has agents across the world acting outside any legal framework to eliminate the Falun Gong movement. The Chinese Communist Youth League (CYL) should also be included in this group, serving at once as a link toward young people, as an incubator for future Party executives, and as a force that can be mobilized when needed — even if it is not a formal structure of the Party but rather a mass organization.
Within the state, two bodies in particular are involved in influence operations: The Ministry of State Security (MSS), which is the main civilian intelligence agency, and the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), in charge of the propaganda aimed at Taiwan.
Within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Strategic Support Force (SSF) is at the forefront, especially through its Network Systems Department. It has the resources and is entrusted with missions in the informational domain. More precisely, the principal actor identified in this domain is Base 311, headquartered in Fuzhou, which is dedicated to the implementation of the “three warfares” strategy. It also operates media companies as civilian covers and a fake hotel to hide a training center.
Finally, public and private companies play an important role in collecting the data needed to decide who should be targeted by influence operations, when, and how. Infrastructures are particularly useful in data collection — buildings and submarine cables for instance — as are new technologies: digital platforms such as WeChat, Weibo, and TikTok; companies like Beidou and Huawei; and databases that provide insight into what researchers call China’s “techno-authoritarianism” or “digital authoritarianism” are all used to prepare and feed influence operations abroad. The Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission, which has apparently inherited intelligence missions previously entrusted to the former 2APL, should also be included in this list. However, due to insufficient sources, this institution is not covered in the report.
- The actions carried out by Beijing in its influence operations abroad pertain to two main and non-mutually exclusive objectives: first, to seduce and captivate foreign audiences by crafting a positive representation of China, which can be illustrated by four specific narratives (the Chinese “model,” its tradition, benevolence, and strength); and then, and above all, to infiltrate and coerce. Infiltration aims at slowly penetrating the opposing societies to hamper the very possibility of an action contrary to the Party’s interests. Coercion corresponds to the progressive enlargement of the Chinese “punitive” or “coercive” diplomacy toward a policy of systematic sanctions against any state, organization, company, or individual that threatens the Party’s interests. Both are generally carried out via a web of intermediaries. Overall, these practices target the following categories:
– Diasporas, with the dual objective of controlling them — so that they do not represent a threat for the Chinese power (Beijing carries out a transnational campaign of repression which, according to the nongovernmental organization Freedom House, is the “most sophisticated, global, and complete in the world”) — and mobilizing them to serve its interests.
– The media, as Beijing’s explicit goal is to establish “a new world media order.” Indeed, the government has invested $1.4 billion annually since 2008 to impose a tighter control over its global image. The major Chinese media outlets have a global presence, in several languages, on several continents, and on all social networks, including those blocked in China (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram), and they invest large amounts of money to augment their digital audience artificially. Beijing also seeks to control the Chinese-language outlets abroad, which has proven so successful that the CCP now effectively enjoys a near-monopoly among them, and it also seeks to control the mainstream media. Finally, the Party-State is interested in controlling the containers, exerting its influence over each step along the global information supply chain, targeting televisions, digital platforms, and smartphones.
– Diplomacy, with a focus on two aspects. First, influence over international organizations and norms: Beijing deploys classic diplomatic resources along with clandestine influence operations (economic and political pressure, cooptation, coercion, and corruption) to strengthen its influence. Second, the so-called “wolf-warrior” diplomacy: it refers to more aggressive postures adopted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ spokespersons and a dozen diplomats. These attacks take both classic and relatively new forms, notably relying on the use of social networks and on an uninhibited recourse to invective, admonition, even intimidation. Overall, this aggressive turn of the Chinese diplomacy has proven counter-productive and it has largely contributed to the abrupt deterioration of China’s global image in recent years. This evolution is probably sustainable for the actors involved, as the objective is less to conquer the hearts and minds than to please Beijing.
– The economy: An economic dependence is often the first lever China uses. Economic coercion then takes very different forms: a ban from the Chinese domestic market, embargos, trade sanctions and restrictions on domestic investment, quotas imposed on regions highly dependent on Chinese tourists, or mass boycotts. Besides, Beijing increasingly imposes censorship as a prerequisite to access its domestic market; many companies end up bowing under pressure.
– Politics, with the goal of penetrating target countries to influence public policymaking mechanisms. Maintaining direct relationships with political parties and influential political figures allows the Party-State to infiltrate the target countries, to gather official and unofficial support there, and to circumvent eventual blockages within the governments by using opposition or “retired” public figures. Beijing also interferes with elections (over the last decade, China may have interfered in at least 10 elections in seven countries).
– Education, via universities first and foremost, which are one of the main targets of the Party’s influence efforts. Its principal levers are financial dependence, leading to self-censorship in the universities; surveillance and intimidation of Chinese students, university instructors and administrators on foreign campuses; imposed modifications in course content, teaching materials, or programmed events; and shaping Chinese Studies, by encouraging self-censorship and punishing critical researchers. The Party-State also uses universities to acquire knowledge and technology, via legal and overt means, such as joint research programs, or illegal and covert actions, like theft and espionage. In a context of civil-military fusion, certain joint programs or researchers holding positions in dozens of Western universities involuntarily aid Beijing build weapons of mass destruction or surveillance technologies which are used to oppress the Chinese population. On this topic, several scandals broke out in public in 2020 and 2021. Finally, there is another important actor of Chinese influence in education tied to the universities: the Confucius Institutes and Classrooms that have opened all around the world and which, under the guise of teaching Chinese language and culture, have heightened the dependency, or subjection, of certain universities to China, and damaged academic freedom. They may have occasionally been used for espionage.
– Think tanks: the Chinese strategy in this domain is two-pronged. Beijing seeks to establish overseas branches of Chinese think tanks, and to take advantage of local relays that may themselves be think tanks, with three possible scenarios: occasional partners acting as amplifiers on local markets of ideas, circumstantial allies that spread the Party’s narratives, and accomplices that share a common worldview and convergent interests with the CCP.
– Culture: first via the production and export of cultural products, such as films, TV series, music, and books — all powerful tools of seduction. Influence can also be exerted on foreign cultural productions, especially filmmakers, with the example of Hollywood: to avoid upsetting Beijing and hence maintain an access to the enormous Chinese domestic market, many American movie studios censor themselves, cutting or modifying movie scenes. Some are even overzealous, casting Chinese characters for the “good” roles. Being denied access to the Chinese market is almost certain for any artist who criticizes the Party-State. Via other types of pressure, Beijing also hopes to encourage artists to modify their work or, for those exhibiting elsewhere in the world, to simply stop, or even to do the work of Chinese censors.
– Information manipulation, resorting to fake accounts on social networks to spread the Party’s propaganda in the media, trolls and astroturfing (to simulate spontaneous popular movements), and to numerous “internet commentators” (falsely labeled the “50 cent army”) that are paid to “guide” public opinion. Generally controlled by the PLA or the CYL, trolls defend, attack, stir controversy, insult, or harass their targets. Another way to simulate authenticity is to have content published by third parties in exchange for money (content farms, purchase of messages, of influence over an account, of an account or a page, or recruitment of “influencers”). Since 2019, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube no longer refrain from identifying coordinated campaigns originating in China. Hence, tens of thousands of fake accounts have been suspended: some had long been “dormant,” others had been bought or stolen, most of them amplifying Chinese propaganda and attacking the United States (in Chinese and in English). Some accounts have profile pictures generated by artificial intelligence — a now regularly observed practice in Chinese operations on social networks. Additionally, an important aspect of these campaigns is that they do not simply defend China: the promotion of the Chinese model goes hand in hand with the debasement of other models, especially liberal democracies, as Russian influence operations have done for years. The PLA is at the heart of these maneuvers, using social networks to conduct “open” influence operations and circulating propaganda on the one hand, often aiming at deterrence and psychological warfare; and to conduct clandestine and hostile operations against foreign targets on the other hand.
– Other levers: Beijing also uses citizen movements in its influence operations — especially separatist (New Caledonia, Okinawa) and pacifist groups (No Cold War) — Chinese tourists, influencers (including Western YouTubers), and foreign academics, as well as hostages, since Beijing has deployed a “hostage diplomacy.”
- The case studies are introduced in concentric circles. Taiwan and Hong Kong constitute the first front in Beijing’s “political warfare”: They are outposts, training grounds, “R&D labs” for Chinese operations which are subsequently refined and applied to other targets worldwide — not unlike what Georgia and Ukraine meant for Russian operations. A first widening of the circle of Chinese operations targeted Australia and New Zealand. A second step was to aim for the rest of the world, particularly — but not exclusively — Europe and North America. This part introduces four cases — Taiwan, Singapore, Sweden, and Canada — and two operations, which targeted Hong Kong protestors in 2019 and framed COVID-19 as an American creation in 2020.
Finally, the conclusion comes back to this notion of a “Machiavellian moment” in two steps. First, to confirm that there has indeed been a “Russification” of Chinese influence operations since about 2017: The parallel had already been made in 2018 during the Taiwanese municipal elections, and later during the 2019 Hong Kong crisis; but the world only became aware of the problem in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic. The three components of this russification are then laid out: Beijing draws inspiration from Moscow on several levels (the existing Chinese military literature acknowledges that, for the PLA, Russia is a model to emulate on such operations). Yet, differences obviously remain between the two, and there is also a certain degree of cooperation.
Last but not least, the conclusion seeks to assess the effectiveness of this new Chinese posture and concludes that, if it brought certain tactical successes, it has been a strategic failure overall, China being its own worst enemy in terms of influence. The abrupt degradation of Beijing’s reputation since the arrival of Xi Jinping, particularly in the last couple of years, confronts China with a growing unpopularity problem that may indirectly come to weaken the Party, including vis-à-vis its own population.
* The Institute for Strategic Research of the French Military School (IRSEM, in French), an independent organism of the General Directorate of International Relations and Strategy (DGRIS, in French) of the French Ministry of the Armed Forces, is the main war studies research center in the French-speaking world.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government, Diálogo magazine, or its members.