On November 28, 2020, Di Dongsheng, vice dean of the School of International Relations at Renmin University in Beijing, gave a videotaped lecture in which he said:
Why did China and the U.S. used to be able to settle all kinds of issues between 1992 and 2016? It’s just because we have people at the top. We have our old friends who are at the top of America’s core inner circle of power and influence . . . for the past thirty years, forty years, we have been utilizing the core power of the United States.
He went on to say he was miffed when Donald Trump took office. China’s friends in Washington and on Wall Street couldn’t get the U.S. administration to back off from its efforts to challenge China like they had with previous administrations. “During the U.S.-China trade war, [Wall Street] tried to help, and I know that my friends on the U.S. side told me that they tried to help, but they couldn’t do much.”
Professor Di had higher hopes for the new Biden Administration: “But now we’re seeing Biden was elected, the traditional elite, the political elite, the establishment, they’re very close to Wall Street.” Perhaps he had reason to be optimistic—given the number of new appointees (many of them Obama Administration veterans) who came from “old friend” consulting firms that had serviced PRC clients.
Peter Schweizer’s books include detailed accounts of Chinese influence in Washington, D.C., highlighting the psychological dominance China has accumulated over many years. This has resulted in U.S. policies and actions (or inactions) in Beijing’s favor.
The Most Important Warfare
Ultimately, psychological warfare is the most important of the political warfare techniques, so we will look at it first. Chinese psychological warfare seeks to change an opponent’s thinking and behavior in a way that is favorable to PRC interests and objectives. Through non-kinetic means, it aims to weaken the opponent’s will and ability to resist. Successful Chinese psychological warfare makes the other side more accommodating and less willing or able to resist. There is a point at which, even if you realize the danger and are willing to “go kinetic,” you think there is no point—it’s futile. It doesn’t matter how big a stick you have if you aren’t willing to use it.
When China talks about winning without fighting, it essentially means without us fighting back. And that comes down to getting into our heads and disabling us from the inside. Most people have heard of psychological operations, or psyops.
Many of us think we are too smart, too well educated, and too discerning to be influenced by psychological warfare. But if you’ve ever said or thought any of the following, you’ve been influenced by Chinese psyops:
- COVID-19 couldn’t possibly have come from a Chinese laboratory
- China wants to reunify with Taiwan
- The United States must have China’s help on climate change, North Korea, and so forth
- We simply have to be invested in the China market
- China won’t like it
- To make China an enemy, treat it like one
- How can I criticize China, given what the West has done?
- China is no longer communist. It is capitalist.
- Criticizing the CCP is racist
- China’s rise is “peaceful” and “inevitable”
- Chinese culture isn’t compatible with democracy
- China is militarizing/aggressive/expansionist because of the trauma of a century of humiliation
- Fentanyl is just payback for the opium wars
- China is not expansionist. It has never attacked its neighbors.
- China is just doing what all great powers do
- We welcome a strong China—the only thing worse is a weak China with nuclear weapons
- You can’t say that about China! You will offend Chinese people
All of these downplay or excuse threats posed by the People’s Republic of China and justify inaction, lethargy, or compliance in the face of outrageous, inhumane CCP behavior. It’s all part of being conditioned to think the PRC is either not a threat or it cannot be resisted, as that will only make things worse.
Psychological Warfare and the Military
If you didn’t pass the test, don’t worry. Neither did America’s premier warfighters, the U.S. Marine Corps. At military exercise Dawn Blitz 2013, for the first time ever, the Japanese sent a small amphibious group to Southern California to train with the Marines and the U.S. Navy. Beijing was unhappy.
I was quoted in the press:
Colonel Grant Newsham, who is the Marine liaison to the Japanese military, said improving [Japan’s] military training was essential to strengthening the United States Asia-Pacific strategy. ‘If the twentieth century taught us anything, it is that when democracies are able and willing to defend themselves it preserves peace and stability. Most Asian countries welcome—even if quietly stated—a more capable (Japanese force) that is also closely allied to U.S. forces,’ Newsham explained to the Associated Press.
Seemed pretty uncontroversial—just a basic reporting of facts. However, the Marine Corps ruling class and its public affairs commissars went berserk.
“You can’t say that!”
“The Chinese will be mad!”
“They will think we’re containing them.”
If the United States Marines were too scared to say something that might upset the Chinese Communists, you knew PRC psychological warfare was working well. How well? Five years earlier, the Marine Corps had fallen for Beijing’s assurances that it had peaceful intentions, and dispatched U.S. Marine commandant, General James Conway, to visit the Chinese Marine Corps. He gave a speech encouraging the PLA Marines to master their profession. Unfortunately, they took his advice.
Too much of the American defense establishment has been conditioned over the years (with Chinese help) to believe that it faced no real threat from the PRC, and that engagement and understanding would solve any problems. America’s political class wasn’t much different, but had even more of a preference for accommodation. The American business and financial classes were mostly in the bag for China—lulled by Chinese promises of access to the lucrative China market.
To its credit, the Marines (and the rest of the U.S. military) have mostly awakened to the Chinese threat in recent years. But it took them a while. In the meantime, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army pulled off the biggest, fastest defense buildup since World War II—and probably in history. And they haven’t stopped.
What led to Chinese psychological warfare’s success, and too many American government and business elites missing the oncoming Chinese threat? There’s not one single reason, but the PRC understands its targets and, if it wants, has vast intelligence networks to draw on to create individual susceptibility profiles (something made even easier as we all moved online during the pandemic). It can, and does, use any combination of charm, blandishments, cash, flattery, threats (open and veiled), soothing language, in-person hospitality, promises of “opening up,” and the allure of access and favors for special friends to entice and convince that with just more effort or time, everything will come right.
Chinese psychological warfare is sometimes so successful that its targets seem to have battered spouse syndrome—excusing away PRC actions that are in fact harmful, and even blaming themselves for having caused it. Former assistant secretary of defense Professor Joseph Nye typified that approach in his 2013 New York Times article “Work With China, Don’t Contain It”: “When I worked on the Pentagon’s East Asia strategy in 1994, during the Clinton administration, we rejected the idea of containment for two reasons. If we treated China as an enemy, we were guaranteeing a future enemy. If we treated China as a friend, we kept open the possibility of a more peaceful future.”
Internalize this idea, and it’s easy to convince yourself that if China is acting like an enemy, it must be something America is doing wrong. This approach is still common currency among the so-called China Hands—that tight-knit and self-protecting coterie of China whisperers who try to ensure they are the only ones deemed worthy to explain China.
Exemplifying this phenomenon, Henry Kissinger—who has been the go-to guy regarding China for many people in both countries—was quoted in 2022 on the China-U.S. relationship: “We have to be conscious of the differences of ideology and of interpretation that exists. We should use this consciousness to apply it in our own analysis of the importance of issues as they arise, rather than make it the principal issue of confrontation, unless we are prepared to make regime change the principal goal of our policy.”
Maybe so, if it’s Canada or France you are dealing with. But what if the other side sees differences in ideology as the main issue of confrontation and believes there will be a winner and a loser—and the winner will be the People’s Republic of China, by force if necessary? Dr. Kissinger seems to be suggesting America concede to the Chinese Communists, or else we are the bad guys.
Sometimes this sort of analysis derives from one of the usual MICE (money, ideology, coercion, ego). Sometimes it’s reputational or professional embarrassment at having completely misread the Chinese Communists for decades. Regardless, the PRC benefits from U.S. foreign policy elites being so invested in a largely non-threatening view of China, because debate was impossible for many years—and still isn’t easy. Indeed, challenge the accepted wisdom in the mainstream media, academia, think tanks, or any of the other thought-shaping zones so thoroughly infiltrated and infected by the CCP, and you can expect to be roughly handled—at best marginalized, and at worst destroyed.
One American defense analyst suggested at a seminar a few years back that China intended to invade Taiwan. During the break, an irate former U.S. ambassador to Beijing berated him—to include a spittle fleck shower. Too often, this is considered reasoned debate in the China Hand world. The Chinese Communists could also often count on their friends in the United States to keep administrations from pushing back too far—and even to open doors for Beijing, as in the case of the Clinton Administration vouching for China as a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the early 2000s. That one act, the result of hubris and greed-fueled blindness, did more to undercut America’s strategic position against China than any other action in the last 30 years
It opened the floodgates for the move of large swaths of American manufacturing to China, and the mostly unchecked transfer of technology and know-how with both commercial and military uses. Most Americans—at least in the elite—convinced themselves there was nothing wrong with this, and most people at the street level understood that the move was dangerous. Just ask a former factory foreman in Baltimore.
Chinese psychological warfare has also created a degree of fear on the U.S. side that has shaped policy and strategy. U.S. policy towards Taiwan, for example, has for years been based on a fear of provoking China, thus leading to an attack on Taiwan or trouble in the U.S.-PRC relationship, all resulting in the interruption of supply chains or difficulties for U.S. companies in China. The fear and self-censorship are disguised, however, as “statesmanship” or “hard-headed realism.”
So strong is the ingrained fear of challenging the Chinese that when a senior U.S. military officer at INDOPACOM in 2015 was asked why they were appeasing China, he answered: “What are we supposed to do? Go to war with them?”
Instead, the plan was that the U.S. forces would push back just enough to give the PRC “off-ramps” from their aggressive behavior. But that only works when the other guy is interested in the off-ramps—and when he doesn’t think his behavior is yielding better results. This approach lost military planners valuable time and allowed the PLA to close the military capabilities gap even more.
Psychology Shapes Events, and Events Shape Psychology
This dangerously mistaken mindset isn’t new. In 1991 and 1992, believing there was nothing to fear from the PRC, and feeling perhaps too proud of itself at having won the Cold War, the United States pulled out of its key military bases at Subic Bay and Clark Field in the Philippines. One Asia analyst I spoke with observed,
America’s departure from the Philippines and its stunning release of hard assets (Clark Air Base and Subic Bay) there did more than any other single event to embolden the CCP to embark on its current course at home and abroad. The Philippine exit exemplified for the Chinese communists the old Chinese saying, ‘Seek truth from facts,’ to confirm its perception America had entered its irreversible, reactionary-state, decline.
Nearly 20 years later, the Chinese applied some psychological pressure and got the United States to respond in a way that only suited Beijing. In 2012, Chinese Coast Guard ships occupied an islet called Scarborough Shoal, rich fishing grounds and well within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
The Obama Administration had no interest in a fight with China—whom it really didn’t see (or want to see) as a threat. Remember, senior military officers were forbidden from even saying the Chinese communists might be a problem—and too many of them were keen to engage with the PLA anyway.
Beijing sensed weakness, and perhaps even fear. So it pushed to see how the Americans would respond to this assault on the Philippines sovereignty. The Philippines is a U.S. treaty ally that Washington is obligated to defend.
Instead of sending U.S. Navy ships to defend the overmatched Philippine Coast Guard, Obama’s staff cut a deal requiring each side to withdraw. The Filipinos did. The Chinese did not. And the Americans did nothing. Eventually, we produced a tortured explanation for why “some rocks” (that is, Scarborough Shoal) really did not come under the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty. It was a huge psychological win for Beijing. In the face of Chinese aggression and overt disregard for a recent agreement, Washington effectively said, “Nothing to see here,” abandoned a treaty ally, and pretended everything was okay. Across the world, strategic communities took notice.
China took full advantage of the United States not just blinking, but closing its eyes. It went all-out on its island-building campaign in the South China Sea. Within five years, it established de facto control of legally international waters, through which vital trade routes transit. But what value is the law if no one can or, in this case, will enforce it? The Philippines was distressed, and U.S. prestige took a massive blow throughout the region—akin to the damage done in 1975 when the Americans left South Vietnam (and their South Vietnamese allies behind) as North Vietnamese forces took over the country. And it happened again with the catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.
This also helps Beijing’s psychological warfare operations in other countries—to include telling those leaders that the United States can’t be relied upon to help, so it had better cut a deal with China as soon as it can.
Psychological Warfare: Enlisting U.S. Media and U.S. Education
The Chinese Communists figured out a long time ago that you can enhance control over what people think by controlling what they read, hear, and learn. They did this in China, but have been successful in the United States too.
Indeed, the PRC’s psychological warfare against the United States has been much easier and effective, because American media—especially corporate houses with interests in China—largely averted their gaze or tried to give the Chinese Communist Party the benefit of the doubt.
American media gladly (and rightly) savage Russian aggression, but when it comes to China, it’s too often the kid gloves treatment. When Donald Trump tried to protect the American economy from PRC predation, he was routinely disparaged by the mainstream media as a racist who just didn’t like the Chinese.
While there have been, and still are, some good reporters and columnists covering the PRC—James Mann (Los Angeles Times in the 1990s), Joseph Kahn (New York Times in the 2000s), Austin Ramzy (formerly New York Times, now Wall Street Journal), and Kathrin Hille (Financial Times)—there are also the other kind. New York Times opinion columnist Tom Friedman sang Beijing’s praises for years. In 2009, he wrote he’d like to be the Chinese government for a day so he could fix America, explaining, “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.”
Newspapers print PRC government talking points and data, uncritically as often as not. Two years after the start of the pandemic, when the United States had reported over 825,000 COVID deaths, China was still reporting fewer than 5,000. And that number was being echoed in media across the United States, often as the basis for justifying more Chinese-style lockdowns.
Sometimes U.S. media outlets even accept overt Chinese-paid propaganda, as the Washington Post did with its China Daily insert. The Wall Street Journal, supposedly the best on PRC matters, did as well.
The Chinese Ambassador to the United States recently got top billing in a Washington Post op-ed attacking the United States and its policies towards Taiwan. Other Chinese officials have no difficulty finding outlets for their often-venomous propaganda.
Apart from promoting the PRC’s line, there are frequent cases of suppressing stories that might “offend” Beijing. Bloomberg killed a well-researched story in 2013 on CCP leadership corruption, seemingly afraid of damaging its other money-making operations in the PRC.
Then consider the fentanyl epidemic that is killing more Americans each year than died during the worst days of the Vietnam War. Major American media—including the New York Times and Washington Post—only occasionally mention that China is the ultimate source of most of the drugs and could turn the supply off in a minute.
Within China, Beijing benefits from U.S. administrations being too afraid to challenge Chinese restrictions and harassment of American reporters, and this while Chinese reporters and media companies operate freely in the United States. The Trump Administration tried to do something about this, simply insisting on reciprocity for American reporters. But it no longer seems to be a priority for the Biden White House.
One longtime U.S. intelligence official describes even deeper problems with U.S. reporting in and on China:
[Western reporters] tend to over-rely on the usual suspects—Chinese ‘think-tank’ and academic sources—and utilize without skepticism ‘sources’ steered to them by their local-hire ‘researchers’ who, by the way, are recruited by the Ministry of State Security–controlled Foreign Enterprise Service Corp. to work in foreign news bureaus around China.
Over the past decade, almost all major international news media actors have recruited large teams of PRC-Chinese, who have been trained in CPD (Central Propaganda Department) journalism or foreign language schools and have overseas Xinhua or China News Service tours under their belts (i.e., they have been trained as intelligence collectors).
They are all instructed directly by the MSS on what intelligence to collect, and by the CPD in Beijing on what stories to cover, what angles to play-up, what statistics to use. Further, they are able to inject those biases into their unwitting non-PRC colleagues’ PRC reporting and editorials.
During COVID, for example, they . . . engaged in an intensive campaign to label U.S.G.-suspicions of COVID’s Chinese origins as ‘racist’ and to report all instances of ‘anti-Asian’ violence as a direct result of the Trump administration’s COVID worries.
Academic Honesty Has Its Price
As for American universities, Beijing correctly calculated that the price of academia’s principles equals the number of Chinese students paying full tuition. Until the COVID pandemic stopped the flow, over 300,000 Chinese students were studying at U.S. colleges and universities. Handsome donations to university “China centers” bring in money, as do visas, business-class tickets, and seminar invitations for professors and administrators. No matter how dull they or their courses may be, those professors and administrators are ever so grateful for the chance to bask in their glory as they look out at a room filled with adulatory “students.”
University faculty and administrators who allow conservative speakers to be hounded off campus and who go along with “Boycott, Divest, Sanction” movements against Israel don’t say a word when Chinese agents—often students, and sometimes consular officials—intimidate Chinese students criticizing or protesting the communist regime.
As for Chinese communist human rights atrocities, try raising awareness on a U.S. college campus, and you should stand by for trouble. Even professors who say things about the PRC that Chinese students think are offensive can find themselves under investigation by campus administrators.
Once upon a time, American universities thought human rights mattered. Remember apartheid in South Africa?
Confucius Institutes, funded by the Chinese Communist Party, sprung up from the 1990s on over a hundred U.S. college campuses. Nominally, they taught Chinese language and culture, but served just as much as a useful platform for promoting the CCP party line and for monitoring activity on campus. The Trump Administration sought to close them down by giving colleges a choice: do business with the U.S. government or have a Confucius Institute. Most colleges did the cost/benefit analysis and shuttered the Confucius Institutes.
However, they appear to be reforming under different guises. While the Confucius Institutes get most of the attention, Confucius Classrooms have largely gone under the radar, even though their effects are even more pernicious. They teach Chinese language and culture like the Confucius Institutes, but they are targeted at American public schools, grades K–12, and there are over 500 of them.
That’s a win-win from Beijing’s perspective. A goodly number of young Americans grow up well disposed to the PRC, internalizing the idea that the People’s Republic of China and the CCP are just lovable pandas. Can you imagine Beijing allowing the U.S. government to set up “George Washington Classrooms” in China? No, you can’t. Maybe American universities should start teaching courses in reciprocity.
Psychological Warfare and U.S. Business
It’s just as bad in other U.S. business sectors. The PRC’s China Daily recently crowed that an American Chamber of Commerce paper in China stated that U.S. companies are saying, “If [you are] not in China, you can’t be competitive globally.” After 50 years, U.S. business is still keen to get into the People’s Republic of China—and Beijing is keen to keep them interested. It isn’t hard. There is the dangling bait of selling one of something to every person in China. And the Chinese government perpetually promises to open up—this time, we mean it!
Americans routinely do the sort of business in China they would never do in Wisconsin, or in any of the other 49 states. Such is the effect of Chinese psychological warfare that they ignore the risks of an ersatz market controlled by a capricious dictatorship—a dictatorship in which a contract means nothing more than what the dictator says it means, and in which handing over key technology is the price of entry. The Americans studiously overlook the fundamental nature of the regime and its human rights atrocities, even when fellow investors and business owners are thrown in jail for, well . . . whatever reasons the dictator might have at the moment.
But the Chinese Communist Party understands the psychology involved and plays its hand well. The Chinese have an easy time. The smell of money will often make Westerners dance like sea lions performing tricks at SeaWorld for a mackerel snack.
I was corresponding with an American businessman who had years of experience in the China market. I wrote, “Like all good psyops campaigns, the communists knew their target’s vulnerabilities. They capitalized on American avarice, ignorance, naiveté, vanity, and hubris.”
He replied, “Yes, all of these characteristics led to giving away much of our technology to China. I witnessed it first-hand. I would add racism, too, not in all cases, but in many situations, latently and patently. I remember one colleague telling me, ‘John, I’m going to let them have the tech manual (for free). They are Chinese. They will never figure it out.’”
Another psychological warfare element to the way China does business is one that you’ve probably felt yourself and have certainly witnessed in others. The Chinese government subsidizes Chinese manufacturers so they can make the product for less than the Americans (and others) can. And the best part (for them) is that they create a dependency and get the Americans hooked on cheap products—to the point they (American importers of the cheap products) lobby the U.S. government to allow the Chinese to keep doing what they are doing for “the good of Americans.”
The American businessman mentioned earlier describes it as follows:
China takes full advantage of our addiction to cheap. An American goes to a big box store to purchase four plastic lawn chairs. When he gets there, he discovers the chairs are really cheap (made in China by a PLA offshoot).
Instead of purchasing the four chairs he needs, he purchases six ‘because they are so cheap.’ The cost of the six chairs about equals the price of four higher quality chairs made in Youngstown, Ohio.
The sale, in USD, goes to China’s State Administration for Foreign Exchange (SAFE). The PLA offshoot receives a yuan-denominated payment from SAFE (maybe). The amount is usually not at the China-made exchange rate but a sum far lower. After all, the PLA offshoot is funded by the state.
China, and just about every other country around the world, knows Americans have this addiction, and they keep feeding it.
When I explained this to some Beltway types, their reaction was that China’s cheap goods have provided lower socio-economic groups in America with a material lifestyle they would not otherwise be able to afford. They went on to say this was critical for maintaining the American belief in upward mobility.
I pointed out that paying a little bit more to purchase American goods was the price of freedom needed to keep us from becoming CCP party/state dependent. They dismissed the idea. They could not, or would not, accept or concede Made in China was eroding our own economy and strengthening, product-by-product, purchase-by-purchase, the CCP’s party/state influence on the U.S.
That is successful psychological warfare. It also reinforces Chinese economic warfare and makes chemical (fentanyl) warfare more effective by making sure manufacturing (and jobs) don’t come back to America. At the same time, it is funding the PLA buildup for the day kinetic warfare begins.
The gravy for the PRC is that it is Americans making sure U.S. government policy doesn’t change—even as their fellow citizens are harmed. The Chinese barely need to break a sweat. That’s what comprehensive national power looks like.
Bottom line, Chinese psychological warfare has been very successful, and for decades. No matter what the PRC does—threatens U.S. ships in international waters, harasses and sinks other nations’ fishing boats, withholds life-saving medical care from a Nobel Prize winner and lets him die, locks up citizens en masse in concentration camps, or gets caught red-handed stealing American trade secrets and government secrets—there is an amen chorus of bureaucrats, Ph.D.s, business and financial types, government officials, politicians, and pundits who will tell you why there’s nothing to worry about from Communist China.
And, they add, anyone who says otherwise is racist, stupid, a hawk (or even a super hawk)—and anyway, it’s all America’s fault since we treated China like an enemy. And more than a few senior U.S. military officers and their courtiers (the colonels who hope to be generals) are willing to say the same thing.
One can argue why and where the blame should go, but one can’t argue with the outcome. With only token opposition, the United States ceded its advantages and allowed—indeed, helped and encouraged—a self-avowed enemy to develop its economic and military might (and the psychological might that comes with it) to the point that the PRC can potentially defeat America, maybe even without fighting.
But there is some good news. Like a drunkard awakening from a stupor, the powers that be in the U.S. military and the Department of Defense are starting to recognize the PRC as a threat. That’s quite a change from the Obama era when you couldn’t use the word “adversary” for China. Even Capitol Hill is more awake to the China risk than it has been since the Cold War—though the donor class that makes money from the PRC still carries plenty of weight.
Even some American businesses are starting to realize that being in the PRC market is riskier than they thought. Others will require a punch in the nose to wake up, and even that probably won’t be enough.
Wall Street and the financial class, unfortunately, remain fully committed to the PRC. It is somebody else’s money, after all. But we know what the People’s Republic of China is about now—and it’s getting harder for those who pretend it’s something else.
We need to accept what reality tells us about the Chinese Communists and not be lulled, confused, or cowed by what the CCP’s psychological warfare operations try to make us think. We have to keep our heads clear, because there are many more “warfares” ahead of us. We can only see them for what they are, and win, if we’ve liberated our mental battlefield.
Excerpt from When China Attacks by Colonel Grant Newsham