China Built an Army of Influence Agents in the U.S.
The Russians may be getting all the attention for influencing American opinion and policy. But Beijing has been at it for decades.
In May, a classified Australian government report revealed that the Chinese Communist Party had spent the last decade attempting to influence every level of that nation’s government and politics.
“Unlike Russia, which seems to be as much for a good time rather than a long time, the Chinese are strategic, patient, and they set down foundations of organizations and very consistent narratives over a long period of time,” said the author of the report in March.
“They put an enormous amount of effort into making sure we don’t talk about what it’s doing.”
Commissioned by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the wake of a series of Chinese influence scandals that rocked Australian politics last year, the report, compiled under the auspices of an intelligence agency, examined Chinese attempts to influence politicians, political donations, media, and academia.
But such a report could easily be written about the United States—and may soon be. U.S. intelligence agencies have long tracked Beijing’s clandestine attempts at political influence inside the United States.
And they don’t like what they see. One former CIA analyst put it bluntly: Beijing’s agents in this country aim “to turn Americans against their own government’s interests and their society’s interests.”
Unlike Australia, however, American society has yet to engage in a broad public debate about the issue. Most Americans have never even heard of the main conduit of such influence, an obscure but sprawling Chinese Communist Party agency known as the United Front.
The organization has been around in one form or another since the World War II era. Mao famously referred to the United Front as one of the Communist Party’s “magic weapons.” These days, United Front operations sometimes resemble the CIA’s soft attempts to buy off, co-opt, or coerce influential community leaders. Sometimes it functions like a booster club for pro-party locals, or like an advocacy group trying to sway public opinion. Sometimes it works in concert with China’s traditional intelligence agencies, such as the Ministry of State Security, to gather information or apply pressure. And United Front networks may sometimes play a role in facilitating intellectual property theft and soft intelligence collection, though that role isn’t always clear.
What is clear is that the United Front is active in dozens of U.S. cities and has been for years, with almost no one the wiser.
Standing in front of a ruby-red backdrop, a Chinese diplomat’s hand resting lighting on her lower back, He Xiaohui looked radiant. The Chinese-American woman, a local activist in Maryland politics, had just been appointed president of the National Association for China’s Peaceful Unification in Washington, D.C., which describes itself as a non-profit for Chinese-Americans dedicated to the eventual unification of China with Taiwan.
He Xiaohui posed for a photo with the previous president, who was symbolically handing over an object to her. Presiding over the January 13 handover was Li Kexin, a high-profile minister at the Chinese embassy in Washington. Li stood between two, a hand on each of their backs.
“No matter the time, no matter the situation, the Chinese government and 1.4 billion Chinese people will always have your back,” said Li in his remarks. “I believe that this new cohort of leadership will continue… to unite the power of overseas Chinese, and hold high the banners of anti-independence and peaceful unification.”
On paper, peaceful reunification associations, such as the Washington, D.C. branch, are independent from both the Chinese government and, largely, each other. But functionally, these associations are the United Front’s most ubiquitous outposts in the United States. And as the leader of one of the oldest such associations in the world, He, who also goes by Helen, serves as a top point of contact between the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing and the Chinese-American community in greater Washington, D.C.
“Peaceful reunification associations”—the term refers to Beijing’s intent to obtain sovereignty over Taiwan—have a close relationship with the United Front Work Department, in some cases functioning almost as an extension of its Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, the government agency that focuses on outreach to the Chinese diaspora. (Sun Chunlan, who until 2017 directed the United Front Work Department, simultaneously served as the executive vice president of the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Unification in Beijing.)
The peaceful reunification association has established chapters in over 70 countries, according to the organization’s website. In the United States, there are more than 30 chapters in cities across the country, including San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, New York, and Washington, D.C. And while “peaceful reunification” was one of the original aims of United Front work, the associations in different countries may engage on many issues, including territorial integrity flashpoints such Tibet, Hong Kong, and maritime claims in the East and South China Seas.
Peaceful reunification associations serve as one of the CCP’s main connection points with Chinese-American communities. They function as welcome centers for visiting government officials, as platforms for the dissemination of party propaganda, as hubs that allow Beijing to identify and potentially co-opt prominent community members, and as centers for local community organizing, such as hosting cultural events.
The Washington branch is particularly illustrious. Founded in 1973, it was one of the earliest such organizations, and Beijing has praised its accomplishments. The organization sent a delegation to Beijing in 2015, where they met Tan Tianxing, the deputy director of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office. Tan praised the organization, saying that since its founding in 1973, the Washington branch has “done a lot of useful work” to “fight Taiwanese independence and promote unification.”