President Trump recently accused the Chinese of interfering in American politics ahead of the midterm elections. “They do not want me or us to win because I am the first president to ever challenge China on trade,” he said, addressing the United Nations Security Council. He provided no evidence, and appeared to be complaining mostly about retaliatory tariffs by the Chinese government, which may hurt constituencies that support him, and an advertorial touting U.S.-China trade in an Iowa newspaper.
In a speech to the Hudson Institute on Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence doubled down on the accusation, arguing that China “has initiated an unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion, the 2018 elections and the environment leading into the 2020 presidential elections.” Neither the president nor the vice president charged China with stealing and releasing politically sensitive emails or manipulating social media, as the Russian government appears to have done to sway the 2016 presidential election.
上周四在哈德逊研究所(Hudson Institute)的一次演讲中，副总统迈克·彭斯(Mike Pence)重申了指控，认为中国“发起了一项前所未有的行动，以求影响美国公众舆论、2018年选举，以及2020年总统大选之前的环境。”总统和副总统都没有指责中国窃取和发布政治敏感的电子邮件或操纵社交媒体，正如俄罗斯政府似乎为影响2016年的总统大选所做的。
And the Chinese government has not yet tried to use cyberspace to disrupt American elections, it seems. Yet the threat is real.
China has both the playbook and the capacity to interfere. Chinese entities operating with the assent of the government in Beijing already have mounted long-running cyberespionage campaigns against United States government agencies, the defense industry and American private companies. And they have conducted disruptive cyberattacks on political processes and social media campaigns in targets the Chinese government considers internal: Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
In 2012, during a wave of self-immolations by Tibetans protesting Chinese repression, online discussions using the hashtag #FreeTibet were often drowned out by bots and fake Twitter accounts. It is difficult to tie Beijing directly to the bots, but there is good reason to suspect a connection given that government-supported hackers have targeted Tibetan activists and exiles before then and since.
During the 2014 Umbrella Movement, a series of protests calling for more direct democracy in Hong Kong, Chinese hackers with suspected ties to intelligence agencies infected the devices of activists with spyware. They also conducted denial-of-service attacks on Apple Daily, a newspaper critical of Beijing, and on an academic website that was carrying out a civic referendum about expanding voting rights in Hong Kong.
Chinese hackers have often used Taiwan to test cyber espionage techniques that are later deployed against other targets, and they appear to being doing the same with online influence operations.
Beijing is suspected of being behind a disinformation campaign last year that claimed that the government of President Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan. was planning to strictly regulate Buddhist and Taoist temples and ban the burning of incense. The government denied having any such intentions, but temple owners from across the island held protests in Taipei, believing the fake policy announcement.
In July, the website of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party was hacked. Legislators from the party have complained about the proliferation of online trolling and fake news campaigns originating from China in the run-up to local elections — and ahead of Taiwan’s 2020 presidential race.
Seen from Beijing’s vantage point, these operations are responses to internal threats. And so far China doesn’t seem to have intervened in another country’s elections through online attacks.
Compared with their Russian counterparts, Chinese intelligence officers historically have pursued their country’s foreign policy objectives by cultivating long-term relationships rather than through disinformation. Russian operations tend to heighten political divisions to drive a wedge in the target society: Russia-linked bots pushed both pro- and anti-vaccination information in the United States between 2014 and 2017, and a Russian agency with ties to the Kremlin bought Facebook ads about divisive issues such as race, abortion and gender equality ahead of the 2016 election. Chinese operations aim instead to cultivate common interests with powerful actors.
China’s and Russia’s influence techniques differ because their strategic goals do. Both governments may want to weaken the United States and its alliances, but Beijing seems more intent than Moscow on bending institutions to meet its interests: Perhaps it hopes to supplant the current international order, but not by completely disrupting it. For example, Chinese officials have proposed new rules for governing cyberspace, arguing that each country should be able to regulate its internet, free of outside intervention.
In the past, Beijing has denied claims by the United States government and American cybersecurity firms that it uses the Ministry of State Security, the People’s Liberation Army and private actors for cyber espionage. Anyway, there are no international agreements restricting such spying. Revelations by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that American government agencies have also engaged in hacking only make Washington’s complaints seem hypocritical.
When Americans accuse the Russian government of meddling, it simply refutes the charges, with little concern about being believable, or anything other than its power relative to Washington’s. Getting caught using cyberattacks to disrupt an election would seriously undermine both Beijing’s narrative that it has an alternative but cooperative model of international governance to offer and its vision of itself as a rising power committed to not interfering in other countries’ internal affairs.
China’s continued restraint, however, is not guaranteed. Beijing has invested heavily in artificial intelligence, big data and other technologies that could boost its ability to manipulate information in the future. There is a growing pushback against all forms of Chinese influence in Australia, Europe, New Zealand and the United States.
In addition, the Chinese leadership increasingly believes that Washington is moving away from a strategy of engaging China toward a policy designed to contain its rise. The loss of traditional means of influence and a more conflictual relationship with liberal democracies may eventually convince Beijing that it stands to gain from resorting to more aggressive methods online.
If so, the tactics it has deployed in Taiwan may provide a model for any operations in the United States. For example, Chinese hackers could steal and release documents and emails from congressional staffers or State Department officials to, say, expose and embarrass supporters of closer relations with Taiwan or critics of America’s allies.
As it watches Washington struggle to find a coherent response to Russian interference in 2016, the Chinese government is likely to think that it could avoid serious repercussions if it ever launched similar cyberattacks in the United States. Were China’s strategic calculations to change, there would be little to stop it from entering the online fray.