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China’s Infiltration Playbook

CCP operatives are making headway with politicians, in universities, and even at major news agencies in America and the broader West.

In December of 2020 an information leak of unprecedented scale revealed how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has successfully infiltrated strategic political, cultural, and academic actors in the West.

An investigation from the Australian uncovered nearly two million CCP members, including their national ID number, birth date, and party position. The database, recovered in 2016 by a Chinese dissident in Shanghai, contained information on almost 80,000 party branches, showing these CCP members working inside international corporations, universities, and even government agencies around the world. The newspaper also indicated the names of several companies that have employed CCP members, such as Volkswagen, Deutsche Bank, J.P. Morgan, Astrazeneca, and Pfizer.

This news did not come as a surprise to many observers. U.S. authorities were already well-aware of the CCP’s infiltration of the country, as exposed in July 2020 by the FBI:

We’ve now reached the point where the FBI is opening a new China-related counterintelligence case about every 10 hours. Of the nearly 5,000 active FBI counterintelligence cases currently underway across the country, almost half are related to China. And at this very moment, China is working to compromise American health care organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and academic institutions conducting essential COVID-19 research.

The CCP’s strategy of infiltration is more or less the same regardless of the country where it is implemented. It does not only affect the United States and Australia, but other Western allies as well, such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and countries of the European Union, as China aims to achieve economic, political, and technological hegemony worldwide.

This is a multi-level strategy, as the Chinese regime pays strong attention to all sectors, from politics to institutions, from the academy to the media, aware of the extreme effectiveness of an offensive on several fronts. Each context is examined to understand its weaknesses and strengths. The actors potentially more receptive to the regime’s propaganda are identified and the system is infiltrated and worked from within in order to drag it to China’s side.

As detailed by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg in their book Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World, the CCP targets the elite power map, which might differ by country, but the strategy is largely the same: cultivating past, present, and future political leaders at various levels, both national and local, as well as high-level figures who advise and influence political leaders.

To achieve this, the Chinese regime uses various associations and organizations that present themselves as promoters of friendship and cooperation between peoples, but who are connected to the CCP, such as the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries or the China Association for International Friendly Contact.

The main engine of this process is the United Front, a political strategy that the CCP has used to implement its influence and interference worldwide. Described by Chinese President Xi Jinping as his “magic weapon,” the United Front engages in various forms of political warfare ranging from lobbying to pressure and harassment, with the objectives of promoting the regime’s narrative while censoring and undermining those who are critical of it. The Front’s leaders are selected by the CCP and are, in most cases, members of the Party itself. It is currently run by Wang Yang, the fourth-ranked member of the CCP’s Politburo.

The CCP also has a careful mechanism for identifying potential political and cultural establishment targets of influence. As explained by UCLA Center for China Studies director, Richard Baum, the CCP divides infiltration targets into categories, such as “friend,” someone who is fully in line with what the Communist part says; “friendly,” someone who can be relied upon but not trusted, such as business people, due to their interest in appearing friendly to reach their objectives; those who love China but know very well the vices of the CCP; and those who are beyond influence. The second to last category identifies those who like China but hate the CCP and the last ones are those who simply don’t know or don’t care.

An example of this process is the work of Chinese national Christine Fang (or Fang Fang), who entered the United States in 2011 as a college student and spent the following four years targeting politicians in California and the Midwest, especially those who had potential on a national level—including now-Congressman Eric Swalwell—in order to obtain sensitive information and earn their trust. Fang’s tactics differed according to her targets and included campaign fundraising, extensive networking, personal charisma, and even romantic or sexual relationships.

To promote its agenda, Beijing backs infiltration with economic pressure and reprisal, aware of the fact that the Chinese market is extremely important for Western countries and for many politicians who have interests in the area. This need automatically becomes a political weapon, because those who are not willing to promote the CCP agenda, endorse China, and silence its critics will be excluded and economically punished.

For instance, when Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada in 2018 on U.S. fraud charges, China blocked imports of Canadian soybeans, canola, and pork in retaliation; additionally, Beijing also arrested two Canadian citizens and even sentenced a third one to death. Indeed, the Chinese regime denied that such decisions were a reprisal. The charges against Meng Wanzhou were later dropped, she was released, and flew back to China in September 2021.

Another interesting case involved Houston’s NBA team, the Rockets, when in 2019 its general manager, Daryl Morey, tweeted his support for Hong Kong protesters. Beijing immediately retaliated by suspending the broadcasting of the Rockets games in China, where the team has a huge number of fans. The Chinese Basketball Association, whose chairman is former Rockets player Yao Ming, cut cooperation with the Houston-based team and sponsors were also quick to retreat.

The CCP has always been obsessed with Western capabilities of disseminating anti-communist ideas inside China, putting the regime’s ideology at stake and potentially generating instability and unrest within China’s society. Beijing has identified the main threats from such a direction as being found in academia and the media.

Universities in China are fully under the control of the party. It is basically impossible to fill any teaching or researching role without the CCP’s approval. The campuses throughout the country are under the scrutiny of thousands of students ready to report teachers disloyal to the Party and CCP ideology. For instance, in 2019 Xu Zhangrun of Tsinghua University’s law faculty was suspended and put under investigation following the publication of an essay criticizing Xi Jinping’s crackdown on dissidents. The same dynamic played out with Xia Yeliang, sacked from Beijing University in 2013 for his public support for human rights and his criticism of Liu Yunshan, director of the propaganda department of the CCP.

Western academics are not immune from reprisals either, as in the case of Christopher Balding, a U.S. citizen who had been teaching at Beijing University’s HSBC School of Business in Shenzhen for nine years before being fired after criticizing the regime’s censorship policies. Balding told Reuters that China, under Xi Jinping’s rule, had reached a point where he did not feel safe anymore discussing business and economics.

However, China’s offensive against the academy goes way beyond its borders through a series of actors and measures that work similarly to the one implemented to infiltrate the political arena. One well-known instrument of academic propaganda is the Confucius Institute, public educational and cultural promotion programs funded and organized by the Chinese International Education Foundation. Chapters are extensively present throughout English-speaking countries and Europe, and considered the long cultural arm of the CCP and according to David Shambaugh, an expert on China at George Washington University, are funded by the CCP through the Ministry of Education.

The United States, Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy are the preferred activity ground for the Confucius Institute. These countries are considered the top “battlegrounds” for the CCP’s ideological offensive.

The Chinese regime is also active with cultural and research initiatives on foreign campuses that are easily canceled if universities or political actors in the specific country take initiatives that go against China. Chinese students are eventually discouraged to study at specific universities and in certain countries, removing a major source of tuition. Among the issues not to be discussed: Falun Gong, Tibet, the concentration camps for Uyghurs, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

The international media is of course a very important area of influence for the Chinese Communist Party, which has been working to establish a strong presence in Western countries, reaching media cooperation agreements with foreign press agencies, tabloids, and newspapers. The American Conservative has already discussed the CCP’s activity in Italian media, but such a strategic framework has been implemented in most of the Western world.

It is by now known that China Media Group, one of the largest state-owned media powerhouses, is planning to open a European office in Brussels in order to better operate in the Old Continent. China Media Group was formed in 2018 as an umbrella organization for different Chinese broadcasters such as China Global Television News, China Central Television, China Radio International, and China National Radio.

Over the last two decades, China’s national news agency, Xinhua, has signed cooperation agreements with various press agencies such as the Associated Press, Italian Ansa, Francepress, and German DPA. A large number of Western newspapers are also cooperating with the Chinese media machine, and as a consequence, Chinese news propaganda has begun to appear in various international publications. The CCP seeks to shape information according to Beijing’s needs and use a massive flow of funding, presented as “cooperation,” to influence Western media just like it is doing in the political and academic sectors. Same dynamics, same goals, different contexts.

Beijing’s agenda is to present China as the leader of a new world order that struggles against “Western imperialism” and pass off CCP dictatorship as a different type of democracy, rather than a Communist regime. Moreover, China seeks to separate the United States from Europe and increase its influence in the Old Continent by exploiting the sentiments of those who do not trust the U.S. as well as those who rashly view China as an alternative ally against the technocratic European Union. Several European countries have already shown strong interest in the Belt and Road Initiative and Chinese 5G communication technology, and the CCP is dangerously pushing its way through.

Giovanni Giacalone is a researcher at Centro Studi Machiavelli and a senior analyst at the Italian Team for Security, Terroristic Issues and Managing Emergencies at the Catholic University of Milan.