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China’s Gray-Zone Tactics Come to America

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China employs various “gray zone” tactics—moderately aggressive actions that are not egregious enough to provoke conventional military retaliation­—against multiple adversaries. One such tactic is deployed within the United States: undeclared influence operations through social media. Chinese government-linked activity has recently become more worrisome. Previously, the principal danger was PRC propaganda lulling the U.S. into uncritical acceptance of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) foreign policy agenda. Now, the Chinese government is adding its weight to the forces tearing at America’s national fabric from the inside.

Until recently, the main thrust of PRC-sponsored messaging aimed at Americans through social media was to cultivate a positive image of China and its current government and promote Beijing’s point of view on controversies, such as Taiwan’s political relationship with China, the treatment of Uyghurs and Tibetans, and the restriction of civil liberties in Hong Kong. The content of social media posts was similar to what Chinese diplomats based in the United States were saying when they gave public speeches and TV interviews or wrote editorials for newspapers.

This contrasted with the messaging promoted by the Russian government, which generally disparaged the U.S. government and amplified highly divisive social and political issues, suggesting the Russian goal was to foment political instability in America. This seemed consistent with the respective Russian and Chinese relationships with the United States. Putin wanted to hurt the United States. He held deep grudges over the loss of Russia’s great power status in the 1990s, humiliating U.S. treatment of Russia through the expansion of NATO, the disregard for Russian sensibilities as America waged conflicts in Iraq, Libya, and Syria; the publication in 2016 of the so-called Panama Papers (which Putin saidwas an attempt by the U.S. government to embarrass him), and U.S. sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Putin would likely welcome America falling into anarchy and economic collapse. China, on the other hand, needed Americans to continue buying Chinese goods, educating Chinese students, and transferring cutting-edge technology to China. Hence, the goal of Chinese strategic messaging was to defeat any threats to business as usual with the United States.

The attempt to foster positive U.S. attitudes toward China has continued. During the 2022 election campaign in the United States, PRC-linked entities promulgated messaging supportive of China-friendly candidates in a few electoral races. TikTok has promoted short videos to millions of its users that support the PRC propaganda line about Xinjiang (namely, that it’s a happy place where Uighurs spontaneously dance rather than languish in detention camps).

But now, there is an even darker aspect of PRC messaging.

The U.S. Director of National Intelligence notes “growing [PRC] efforts to actively exploit perceived U.S. societal divisions,” by which “The PRC aims to sow doubts about U.S. leadership [and] undermine democracy.”

According to Clint Watts, general manager of Microsoft’s Threat Analysis Center, “More recently, [PRC government] efforts have shifted to exploiting existing partisan divides in the U.S.,” including “the Chinese actually going into U.S. audience spaces, masquerading as Americans, and posting inflammatory content around current events or social issues or political issues.”

A report by Microsoft published in April 2024 found efforts by the PRC to “spread conspiratorial narratives on multiple social media platforms.” As an example, these posts said the deadly August 2023 wildfires in Maui, Hawaii, resulted from the U.S. military testing a “weather weapon.” Chinese-linked accounts also published speculation that the U.S. government caused the derailment of a train in Kentucky in November 2023 and was “hiding something” in the aftermath. Microsoft concluded that the apparent objective of such posts is “encouraging mistrust of and disillusionment with the U.S. government.” In another report also published in April 2024, Microsoft’s Threat Analysis Center assessed that Chinese government-sponsored social media activity “aims to destabilize” the United States and other democracies.

The change in the content of PRC-promoted messaging in the social media that Americans consume has two important drivers. The first was the COVID-19 pandemic. Just before the virus hit the United States in early 2020, President Trump was praising the Chinese government for its counter-pandemic response and touting a bilateral agreement that was supposed to end the “trade war” and restore normalcy to U.S.-China trade relations. As fatalities mounted, however, Trump blamed China for unleashing a “plague” on American shores. The PRC government responded by ratcheting up its criticism of the U.S. government. Chinese officials and government-controlled media not only decried the botched management of the pandemic in the United States but extended the critique to argue that America’s political system is broken and that the United States does not deserve a role in global leadership. Heavier emphasis on these themes in PRC strategic communication became a new norm.

A second boost came from Russia’s expanded invasion of Ukraine that started in February 2022. The war pulled China into stronger diplomatic support for its “no limits” quasi-ally. This has led to closer alignment between Russian and Chinese propaganda messaging. The Chinese government, for example, repeats the Russian position that NATO is responsible for causing the war. As the conflict in Ukraine has deepened the sense among the democracies of an increasingly dangerous authoritarian bloc, Russia and China are further incentivized to work to delegitimize U.S. influence and the international appeal of the liberal political model that threatens both Xi Jinping and Putin.

Researchers have found large numbers of China-linked social media accounts spreading pro-Trump and anti-Biden messaging, suggesting that China prefers Trump over Biden as the next president. For the Russian government, there is no question about which of the two major party presidential candidates in the upcoming U.S. election will be preferable. Trump has consistently maintained a friendly and respectful stance toward Putin and often criticized U.S. aid for Ukraine and the NATO alliance.

For Beijing, however, the question is more complicated.

Biden has major predictable downsides for the PRC. He would continue to frustrate Chinese desires for more unrestricted access to American markets and technology. The Biden Administration maintained the Trump-era tariffs against Chinese imports and restricted China’s access to advanced technologies. Biden’s team has also repaired and strengthened alliances in the Asia-Pacific region, obstructing PRC domination.

But Trump is a wild card for China. The Chinese like that he is transactional and seems to lack either a strategic or ideological vision demanding a U.S. policy of what the Chinese would call “containment.” Trump is respectful toward Xi and has sometimes uncritically absorbed CCP views such as “Korea actually used to be a part of China.” On the other hand, Trump brought advisors into the White House during his first term, who dramatically toughened U.S. China policy. Trump himself has at times harshly criticized China, as during the pandemic. He recently said he might increase tariffs on Chinese imports into the U.S. to over 60 percent. At his worst, Trump might be worse for China than Biden.

Has the top leadership in Beijing now decided that China’s interests are best served by America descending into chaos? That is unlikely, given that CCP officials continue to emphasize that their wish is for Washington to stop worrying about national security and allow China the maximum opportunity to extract wealth and know-how. However, they also want Americans to feel less confident in promoting the liberal democratic model of governance worldwide. Chinese leaders want to fortify their country against demands for political liberalization. This is part of the reason why the PRC government keeps harping on the importance of the “Bali consensus” in U.S.-China relations. According to Beijing, this “consensus” is a list of five policies that Biden renounced during his meeting with Xi in Bali in 2022, including “the United States does not seek to change China’s system.” There is no parallel list of policies that China renounced in the Chinese summary of the meeting, and the U.S. official readout does not include a list of five U.S. renunciations.

The fact that the Chinese government is involved in such a campaign is both ironic and expected. It is ironic because Beijing insists so often and so strenuously that “China never interferes in the affairs of other countries.” PRC officials specifically deny that China ever has or ever will attempt to influence the U.S. electoral process, saying the accusation indicates American “paranoia” and a penchant for “slinging mud at China to divert attention” from U.S. governance failures.

Yet a surreptitious Chinese attempt to subvert an adversary’s government is not surprising because the Chinese government is itself obsessed with the danger of subversion. The 2013 internal PRC government memo Document No. 9summarizes the Xi regime’s fear of “Western anti-China forces” overthrowing China’s political system by smuggling in liberal ideas and values. It emphasizes that CCP authorities must “ensure that the media leadership is always firmly controlled by someone who maintains an identical ideology with the Party’s Central Committee” and “allow absolutely no opportunity or outlets for incorrect thinking or viewpoints to spread.” PRC leaders and government-controlled media often speak of the threat posed by “color revolutions” and routinely blame “hostile foreign forces” or “black hands” for causing unrest within China that actually results from discontent with Chinese colonization or CCP repression. If the Chinese government thinks subversion from the outside is potentially effective, Beijing will not fail to employ the same tactic against its own adversaries.