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Congress’s fixation with China’s ‘malign influence’ undermines Americans’ civil liberties and security

The Strategic Competition Act purports to oppose anti-Asian racism but its provisions would actually contribute to it.

This is the sixth installment in a multi-part Responsible Statecraft series on the Strategic Competition Act (S.1169), a bill under consideration that would effectively constitute a declaration of a Cold War on China by the US Congress. The introduction to this series critiquing the overall approach of the bill can be read here.

At a conference of Chinese Americans last week, former Washington governor and former U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke decried the way that “geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China, coupled with overreaching U.S. policies” have created a hostile environment for people of Chinese descent in America. To counter these trends, he highlighted the important principle, “We make America great by celebrating our diversity, not by fearing it or demonizing it.” 

Unfortunately, the Strategic Competition Act recently approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a related bill that may be marked up by the House Foreign Affairs Committee would do the opposite. Specifically, Sections 132, 133, and 136 of the SCA, which echo provisions in H.R. 2329 on “countering the Chinese Communist Party’s malign influence,” risk missing the bigger picture of influence operations emanating domestically and globally, as well as deepening paranoia and anger against Asian Americans by painting China’s threat in broad strokes.

There are at least four ways in which these bills would negatively affect U.S. interests.

First, the term “malign influence” deliberately stokes fear, suspicion, and blame as means to intimidate Americans who want to have constructive engagements with China or other countries. Such generalized and fear-based language, first adopted by Trump administration officials and now embedded within the proposed SCA, normalizes discourse about China that is alarmist in nature and could exacerbate the McCarthyist attacks against Asian Americans that are becoming more commonplace. It implicitly places any person of Chinese descent or anyone who has dealings with Chinese universities, businesses, or associations under suspicion of being an agent of the Chinese government. Such efforts are government-sanctioned ways to, as legal scholar Margaret Lewis writes, criminalize “China-ness.” 

Second, such broad-based criticism of anyone or anything deemed to be connected to the CCP weakens the foundations of positive U.S.-China relations, thereby undermining U.S. national security. Businesses, state and local governments, colleges and universities, scholars and advocates, and diaspora communities have long been the ballast of a tumultuous, complicated U.S.-China relationship. The “influence operations” concept can be misused to cast suspicion on all of those relationships, erecting barriers to well-informed discussions on bilateral issues and subjecting Americans with the most accurate knowledge of China to career-crippling accusations of being a foreign agent of China and unjustified delays in obtaining security clearances.

Third, the approach in these bills risks threatening the integrity of the free press. Although funding to U.S. government media can provide one useful means of ensuring alternatives to Chinese government media narratives, inducing “local” or “independent media” to do the same using U.S. government funding and training, as is done in the Strategic Competition Act, is likely to have a counterproductive effect. Funding media that are not transparently affiliated with the U.S. government specifically in order to promote an anti-China agenda would undermine the credibility of journalists who are involved with such work. By manipulating the free press in support of a U.S. state-promoted agenda of “great power” conflict, it would also risk imbalancing public discourse in favor of anti-China journalism, drowning out more unbiased analyses and reports on constructive engagement with China. 

Fourth, making broad claims about the “malign” influence of the CCP could result in failure to respond effectively and smartly with targeted strategies tailored to discrete problems and risks. This generalized concept prompts a generalized response of fear-based rhetoric coupled with protectionist and anti-immigrant regulations that do little to counter real threats and instead cause significant collateral harm. Often, the blanket bans and symbolic gestures against “the CCP” involved in this strategy actually leave Americans more vulnerable to privacy and national security risks due to their narrow, politicized framing.  

Instead, the U.S. government should disaggregate the concept of “influence operations” into its constituent parts, with distinct responses. Cultural, scientific, educational, and commercial exchanges between U.S. and Chinese universities, companies, organizations, and state and local governments should be encouraged. Instead of banning or avoiding such linkages due to the connections (of varying degrees) of Chinese counterparts to the PRC party-state apparatus, American entities that engage in these activities should provide training and resources to their personnel and students to make them aware of potential intelligence and security risks, and suggest ways to mitigate them. U.S. federal government officials can provide American civil society and state and local governments with information that will help them in developing such training resources. 

Harmful activities such as traditional espionage, intellectual property theft and economic espionage, censorship, or covert disinformation campaigns, whether undertaken by the Chinese government or any other foreign or domestic entity, merit a more rigorous response by intelligence and law enforcement officials. However, such responses should not adopt an exclusively China-specific approach. Not only are such efforts likely to result in damaging racial profiling, but they also risk diverting attention from activities by other countries and entities that actually present a greater challenge to the United States, such as disinformation campaigns by Russia to undermine confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine and efforts by domestic conspiracy theorists to weaponize the pandemic to fuel hate toward Asian Americans. 

To be fair, the SCA contains a section that condemns all forms of anti-Asian racism and discrimination. Section 135 expresses concern for this growing challenge and calls on the U.S. government and others to “use all available and appropriate tools to combat the spread of anti-Asian racism and discrimination.” This is welcome. 

Unfortunately, other parts of the bill would commit the U.S. to a destructive and excessive approach to the “malign influence” of China. Two previous articles by Jake Werner and Shuxian Luo analyzed how provisions of the bill would undermine prospects for U.S.-China cooperation to improve development aid in the Global South and impose onerous review requirements on American universities that would have a chilling effect on international educational and research collaboration.

In addition, Section 132 of the SCA would authorize $1.5 billion over a five-year period (Fiscal Year 2022 – 2026) to a “Countering Chinese Influence Fund” to erode “the malign influence of the Chinese Communist Party globally.” The bill would task senior officials at the State Department and USAID with administering the fund. Yet the term “malign influence” from the PRC is defined in extremely broad and vague terms and could be stretched to encompass anything China does to promote its interests or enhance its influence in the world, including normal public diplomacy and economic integration activities commonly undertaken by countries, including the United States.

Section 133 of the SCA, which is not included in Rep. McCaul’s stand-alone bill, lists findings from a report that the Trump administration submitted to Congress regarding past propaganda and disinformation campaigns by the Chinese government. It highlights potential malign political influence operations targeting “businesses, universities, think tanks, scholars, [and] journalists… to influence discourse.” It would require the president to “counter and deter PRC and other foreign information warfare and malign influence operations” through appointing a coordinator within the National Security Council and establishing a Foreign Malign Influence Response Center at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. 

Section 136, which also is not included in the McCaul bill, would authorize appropriations totaling $500 million over FY22-26 not only to support U.S. state media such as Radio Free Asia, but also to fund training for “local media” and “independent media,” in efforts to “combat Chinese disinformation.” Funds would target coverage aimed at discrediting Chinese activities such as the Belt and Road Initiative. 

These harmful provisions of the Strategic Competition Act, as well as Rep. McCaul’s bill H.R.2329, should be rejected, as they threaten America’s noble ideals of free expression, racial equity, and democratic pluralism, while simultaneously undermining our national security.   

Read the other installments here:

The ‘Strategic Competition Act’ is a dangerous declaration of cold war on China

Stability in the Taiwan Strait at risk under ‘Strategic Competition Act’

How the ‘Strategic Competition Act’ could actually stonewall talks with North Korea

‘Strategic Competition Act’ takes aim at collaborative exchanges with China

What Congress gets wrong about China’s Belt and Road Initiative

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