The recently concluded talks between the United States and Chinese delegations in Anchorage, Alaska were nothing short of disastrous. China expert Gordon Chang called the Chinese approach “off-the-charts arrogant” as Beijing officials openly mocked their American counterparts, saying the United States “does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.” Breitbart termed the meetings “tense, chaotic, and disastrous.”
And how could they have been otherwise? To begin, the talks were held at the request of the Biden Administration, which already put the United States in the weaker position. The intent was to ask the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime to please consider restarting a bilateral relationship. But that was not on the agenda for the CCP: humiliating Biden’s naïve and inept representatives was. Making sure the whole world witnessed who dominated the exchanges was, too.
On both counts, the CCP scored. The United States came away empty-handed.
A Win for China’s Influence Operations
Although the United States’ stated policy objective vis-à-vis China is to continue President Donald Trump’s tough stance, the actual performance by the hapless team was anything but tough. Its agenda items included climate change and nuclear nonproliferation. No mention was made, however, of Beijing’s harsh treatment of the Hong Kong democracy movement, its horrific human rights record, or its aggressive behavior against Taiwan and in the South China Sea. Given all of that, plus the CCP’s blatant and brazen interference in U.S. domestic matters, including the espionage and intellectual property theft that helped justify closing China’s Houston consulate last year, at least some of those key issues might have been mentioned.
Some of the reasons for the U.S. delegation’s reticence may have to do with just such Chinese influence operations, which have reached deeply into myriad U.S. institutions. According to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, the CCP directs an organization called the United Front Work Department (UFWD), which is under the authority of the CCP Central Committee. The China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), which, according to a December National Pulse report, operates under the authority of the UFWD, specifically targets U.S. media and journalists, often by sponsoring them for “familiarization trips” to China. The full list of outlets that reportedly gave “favorable coverage” to the CCP includes Fox News, the New York Times, NPR, the Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, the Washington Post, The Hill, and many more. Additional mainstream outlets met with CUSEF officials in the United States.
Every one of them either knew or should have known that the mission of the UFWD is to coordinate influence operations—propaganda—both domestically and abroad that stifles all criticism and spreads only positive views of China. Influencing those who influence American perceptions about China and the CCP means special attention for the full spectrum of U.S. media.
In an October 2020 report, Newsweek identified hundreds of channels through which the CCP targeted “businesses, universities and think tanks, social and cultural groups, Chinese diaspora organizations, Chinese-language media and WeChat, the Chinese social media and messaging app.” Social media efforts to manipulate outcomes in the 2020 U.S. presidential election included hundreds of Facebook and Twitter accounts that pumped out divisive messaging.
A January report in The New American delved even deeper into the rapidly-expanding threat to our First Amendment press freedoms posed by the willingness of so many top U.S. media outlets to allow themselves to be compromised by the CCP. That the senior leadership of the U.S. State Department, in its first face-to-face opportunity to confront its Chinese counterparts on these critical issues, utterly failed to do so, bodes ill for the First Amendment.
Rebranding the Confucius Institutes
In the United States, where CCP cadres work out of China’s diplomatic missions, this also entails co-opting an array of actors including ethnic Chinese individuals, communities, and organizations, such as so-called “friendship associations.” The Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) is a prime example of these, founded in San Francisco in 1972 and with another active chapter today in Boston. On American campuses, the Confucius Institutes actively target unwary university leadership as well as Chinese nationals who may be students or exchange scholars there.
The good news is that under tough U.S. government oversight during the Trump Administration, the number of Confucius Institutes throughout the U.S. was cut back sharply, from 103 branches in 2017 to just 51 in 2021. The bad news is that Beijing has begun rebranding its campus outposts to call them its “Asia Society Chinese Language Partner Network.”
Even worse, within the first week of the Biden Administration, the Department of Homeland Security dropped plans to require U.S. schools and universities to disclose financial agreements with Confucius Institutes on their campuses, thus allowing CCP intelligence collection and influence operations to flourish there unsupervised once again. And finally, the worst news of all is that no one among the U.S. State Department delegation who attended the talks in Anchorage, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, thought to even mention these CCP influence operations on U.S. soil.
What Happened in Houston
Let us conclude by returning to that Houston consulate, ordered closed in July 2020 by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It wasn’t just about espionage and intellectual property or technology theft. Chinese cadres posted there also were involved in direct interference in the U.S. political process, including encouraging and supporting Antifa and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement street protests.
According to an August 2020 report in China Scope, which itself cited a Mandarin language report from Radio Free Asia in that same month, the Second Chief Directorate of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—its intelligence unit—sent staff members to the Houston consulate with a specific mission. That mission was to use data-mining technology to identify Americans who might be susceptible to messaging about participating in Antifa and BLM street protests. They then used the Tik Tok app to send those individuals videos on how to organize riots. Gordon Chang was right when he called CCP meddling ahead of the 2020 presidential election “an act of war.”
At the Anchorage talks, Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi had the unmitigated gall to throw Black Lives Matter directly into Blinken’s face, saying: “The challenges facing the United States in human rights are deep-seated. They did not just emerge over the past four years, such as ‘Black Lives Matter.’” Blinken and his team, likely clueless about what went on at Beijing’s Houston consulate, offered not a murmur of protest.
It’s worth mentioning that Alicia Garza, one of the three self-avowed Marxists who founded the Black Lives Matter movement, with a background in the Maoist Freedom Road Socialist Organization, also runs a network of affiliated organizations. One of these is the Black Futures Lab. A click on the website’s “donate” button goes to a page that states: “Black Futures Lab is a fiscally sponsored project of the Chinese Progressive Association.” Despite group denials of any affiliation between the two, there is no question that the CPA is supportive of the People’s Republic of China.
The backlash in the wake of the Biden-Blinken team’s craven performance in Anchorage continues. The CCP’s unconcealed contempt for its American counterparts will be difficult to overcome. But should U.S. deterrence fail completely, the United States, Taiwan, and all of our allies and partners in the region will be facing a lot more than mere contempt.