American media savants have recently warned that China may attempt to influence the coming US election. Some even say that effort has already begun.
What justifies this view?
A former Chinese tycoon now exiled in the United States, Guo Wengui, says that China has just interfered in an election in Cambodia; more are to follow. He also states Beijing has said publically that a Trump election victory in November “will set them back 100 years” and China has put more resources into cyber-warfare, including an “office” specializing in that on Hainan Island and has expanded relevant sections in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Others note China has incentivized Google to expand its business in China; it is anti-Trump and would like to see Democrats win in November. (According to a recent study, Google and Facebook can influence as many as 12 million voters.) Several large Chinese enterprises have become quite friendly with CNN — the major anti-Trump US news organization.
There is more … President Trump has tweeted that “the fools have focused on Russia and should look in another direction, China.” John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, recently said there is concern about Chinese meddling.
All of this seems credible prima facie evidence China wants to throw the November US election to the Democrats. There are some other arguments to support this proposition.
China has developed the capabilities to interfere in US politics through the Internet and cyber-warfare. According to Adam Segal (writing in the recent issue of Foreign Affairs magazine), the United States has already “ceded leadership in cyberspace to China.” Further, he says that China “aims to build an impregnable cyber defense system, giving itself a greater voice in Internet governance … and lead the globe in advanced technologies.”
China sending more students by far than any other country to US colleges and universities (especially to study the hard sciences and computers) and putting an emphasis on Internet and cyber related subjects in Chinese universities is additional “proof” it wants to dominate the world in these fields in the future.
Not only does China have the capabilities to gather intelligence in (and on) the United States, it is doing exactly that. China has managed to filch high tech trade secrets from US companies in large quantities. China (presumably its intelligence agencies) managed to lift, it is said, 20 million classified personnel files on American government employees and the contract workers of companies contracting with the US government.
Exerting political influence seems to be the logical next step. That includes swaying an election.
Another reason for thinking China is planning to influence the coming US election is that President Trump’s policy of putting tariffs on Chinese imports (which last year were USD 500 billion-plus, which constitutes a huge portion of China’s exports) has caused such disruption in China that according to some sources it has led to serious infighting in the government and to a state of “policy paralysis.” The Western media has even reported that President Xi’s leadership has been affected and that the “China dream” has been undermined.
And there is hard data to support this view: China’s economic growth and stability have been dented. Manufacturing indexes are down, consumer confidence is sliding, and the stock market has seen a negative trend. There is even an increase in failed land auctions while local governments are facing funding problems.
Chinese pundits are saying US-China relations are “more dangerous” than in the past 40 years. Chinese officials allude to the fact they originally assumed Trump was taken in by their adulation and friendly diplomacy and they did not, therefore, need to adhere strictly to their promises of fixing the trade imbalance (which got worse). That turned into Trump applying even tougher policies prompting fear of a trade war.
China’s leaders adopted hard policies in reaction lest they lose face. China even slapped tariffs on goods coming from critical Trump voting constituencies. But it soon appeared China was losing the contest.
The fact that China has fast developed its scientific capabilities tells us China is doing the right things (and humanity will benefit). It does not mean it will be used for nefarious purposes.
Some even sensed that the trade war might lead to a real war. Trump’s newly published National Defense Strategy labeled China a “strategic competitor.” To Chinese leaders, America no longer regarded China a friend and they would find it difficult to negotiate with an enemy. This, some say, changed China’s perspective of President Trump.
Why not wish Trump’s Republican supporters in Congress would lose the 2018 election and act accordingly?
There are the counterarguments to these reports and the interpretation of some “facts.” In other words, there are reasons to believe China is not interfering in America’s coming election and will not.
First, it is a fundamental principle of China’s diplomacy not to interfere in the domestic affairs of another country. This has long been China’s mode of conducting foreign policy and has been appreciated by nations China deals with. It also justifies China’s resistance to others criticizing its style of governance, human rights, and interfering in China’s domestic politics.
Even though China has become a much bigger power in recent years and can, and sometimes needs to, interfere in the internal matters of other countries, it has not made this a practice. In fact, it has faithfully kept the tradition of non-interference in other countries’ politics. There is no serious reason to think that China will adopt a different policy.
Anyway, Chinese leaders are very aware of the blowback in the United States from Russia’s efforts to influence a US election. So why risk it? It makes little sense and perhaps no sense at all since trade with the US is critical to China. Also, China seeks to maintain close relations with the United States for a host of other purposes.
Another reason for eschewing involvement in a US election and thus being charged with interfering in America’s domestic politics is that this would invite retaliation. The US invented the Internet and still sets its standards. American companies are still on the cutting-edge of research in this area.
Also, the US has demonstrated it is very talented at using cyber warfare weapons against another country. In 1999 during NATO bombings in Yugoslavia, US covert intelligence experts made Serbian air defenses believe US planes were coming from the opposite direction they actually were. Later, America made the work involved in Iran producing nuclear weapons go awry (literally explode); this caused a big setback to Iran’s nuclear weapons program (recall Stuxnet). So, Washington has considerable capability to inject its influence into others’ internal affairs.
There are some other good reasons to believe China is not making efforts to influence America’s coming election and will not.
First, the Western liberal media harbors serious antipathy toward China. They abhor China’s rise because it is destroying the liberal world order. They also dislike China’s authoritarian politics, its human rights policies and more. Thus, they love the narrative that China is or may mess with the US election. Moreover, the case that Russia interfered with the last election has grown old and is not having much impact any more; the media needs a new villain.
Second, it is election season in the United States and politicians and their promoters as well as the US media like scapegoats. Since many Americans are jealous of and fearful of China, it is a prime target. This has been true of past elections. Thus, it is natural to vilify China more than usual during election campaign and it is now handy to charge China with election interference. Chinese leaders are acutely aware of both these points.
Third, while China’s populace to some degree is distressed with President Trump, they still respect him. They perceive he resembles their own leader, President Xi, whom they highly respect. They still believe he reveres and likes China. Asking Chinese on the street about Donald Trump the common answer is they admire him. The wish that Hillary Clinton had won the election is something that is almost never heard.
Chinese leaders as well as the population have better feelings for Republicans than Democrats; Republicans have long treated China better. Last but not least, most of the Chinese leaders are optimistic that relations with President Trump will improve. Most also understand that America’s trade deficit with China is not sustainable and something must be done to fix it.
Thus, one should not anticipate China will mess with the US election and need to be skeptical when it is said it will. Certainly no one should take too seriously what a Chinese exile says or the reports from the anti-China media. Or even the harsh words exchanged between President Trump and Chinese leaders; that is their way of negotiating. Finally, the fact that China has fast developed its scientific capabilities tells us China is doing the right things (and humanity will benefit). It does not mean it will be used for nefarious purposes. Recall China invented gunpowder; the West used it in war.