China’s gray zone social media war comes to America

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 People’s Republic of China (PRC) propaganda lulling the US 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 to promote Beijing’s point of view on China-related controversies such as Taiwan’s political relationship with China, Chinese treatment of Uighurs 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 US 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 US government and amplified highly divisive US domestic 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 US. Vladimir Putin wanted to hurt the United States. He held deep grudges over

  • the loss of Russia’s great power status in the 1990s;
  • humiliating US treatment of Russia through the expansion of NATO and 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 said was an attempt by the US government to embarrass him; and
  • US sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea in 2014. 

Putin likely would welcome an American fall 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 US 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 lines about Xinjiang and other controversial political issues.

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

The US director of national intelligence notes “growing [PRC] efforts to actively exploit perceived US societal divisions,” through which “the PRC aims to sow doubts about US 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 US,” including “the Chinese actually going into US 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.” Accounts that appear to be CCP-affiliated “post about divisive US domestic issues such as global warming, US border policies, drug use, immigration and racial tensions.”

As an example, these posts said the deadly August 2023 wildfires in Maui, Hawaii resulted from the US military testing a “weather weapon.” Chinese-linked accounts also published speculation that the US 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 US 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 US 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 coronavirus pandemic. Just before the virus began to severely impact the United States in early 2020, US President Donald 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 US-China trade relations. 

As US fatalities mounted, however, Trump blamed China for unleashing a “plague” on the US. The PRC government responded by ratcheting up its criticism of the US government. 

Chinese officials and government-controlled media not only decried the botched management of the pandemic in the US but extended the critique to add the argument that America’s political system is broken and that the US 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 US 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 US president.

For the Russian government, there is no question which of the two major party presidential candidates in the upcoming US election is preferable. Trump has consistently maintained a friendly and respectful stance toward Putin and often criticized US aid for Ukraine as well as 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 freer access to US 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 US 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 US 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 US policy toward China. Trump himself has at times harshly criticized China, as during the pandemic. He recently said he might increase tariffs on Chinese imports into the US to over 60%. 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 if America descended 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 maximum opportunity to extract wealth and know-how.

But 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 US-China relations. According to Beijing, this “consensus” is a list of five policy renunciations that Biden agreed to during his meeting with Xi in Bali in 2022, one of them his assurance that “the United States does not seek to change China’s system.”  (There is no parallel list of policies that China renounces in the Chinese summary of the meeting, and the US official readout does not include a list of five US renunciations.)

That the Chinese government is involved in such a campaign is both ironic and expected.

It is ironic because Beijing so often and so strenuously insists 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 US electoral process, saying the accusation indicates American “paranoia” and a penchant for “slinging mud at China to divert attention” from US 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 9 summarizes the Xi regime’s fear of “Western anti-China forces” overthrowing China’s political system by smuggling in liberal ideas and values.

The document 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 speak often 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.

The many broken promises from PRC officials, including Xi, to behave ethically in international affairs demonstrate bad faith and cynicism. To dissuade Beijing from continuing to meddle in American politics, a US response is justified.

As with other Chinese gray zone operations, however, hitting back is problematic.  The PRC does not have real elections or open debate about domestic political issues, and the social media outlets that the PRC exploits to reach American audiences are banned in China.    

A possible proportionate US response would be to target a weak spot of the ruling regime: its fear of losing legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese public. 

Xi’s government has already suffered a decrease in prestige because of widespread public pessimism about the government’s ability to successfully manage China’s economy, plus fresh bad memories of the government’s counter-Covid policy, which included draconian lockdowns followed by acquiescence to a mass die-off.

In 2012, a New York Times article documented the immense wealth built up by family members of PRC Premier Wen Jiabao. The expose clearly jabbed a raw nerve in Zhongnanhai; the Chinese government scrambled to censor the story and discussion of it, officially called it false and later expelled a New York Times reporter as retaliation.

Current top-ranking Chinese leaders are similarly vulnerable to damaging revelations about their personal hypocrisy (such as, for example, sending their children to colleges in the United States) from a credible foreign source.

In normal times, the US could disregard Chinese social media influence operations as insignificant. Unfortunately, this Chinese push occurs at a time when US domestic politics are highly polarized, conspiracy theories are widely believed and procedures and institutions vital to the proper functioning of US democracy are under stress.

PRC interference reinforces harmful trends that already have momentum. Under such circumstances, this malign influencing activity might contribute to outcomes that not only would be bad for America but that even Beijing might regret.

Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu.

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