Near the end of September, before the United Nations, President Donald Trump leveled an extraordinary charge: China was attempting to “meddle” and “interfere” in the upcoming US election. A senior intelligence official repeated the claim on a subsequent call with reporters. And on Thursday, in a speech at the Hudson Institute think tank, Vice President Mike Pence made the implication explicit: “What the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country, and the American people deserve to know it.”
It’s a standout “big, if true” moment in an administration full of them. Russia, after all, launched a coordinated, well-funded, years-long covert assault on US democracy. It spread disinformation and sowed division, posing as US citizens online, violating laws and geopolitical norms. Russian intelligence agents hacked into the email accounts of multiple high-profile Democratic individuals and institutions, and timed their release for maximum disruptive effect. It was an unprecedented attack on the US electoral process. It’s hard to imagine what a more aggressive version of that would even look like. Especially because it does not yet exist.
China absolutely tries to exert its influence in the US. It has carried out several high-profile cyberattacks, generally focused on gleaning intelligence. But to say that China’s actions are anything remotely like Russia’s in 2016 and beyond isn’t just wrong—it distorts the threats the US faces, potentially making it harder to counteract them.
“They feel like substantively different things. China seeks to influence foreign actors, and does use influence operations, but they really differ in important ways from what Russia does,” says Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former senior intelligence officer currently at the Center for a New American Security think tank. “I actually think that the Chinese probably view Russia’s approach as ineffective and counterproductive.”
Pence at least articulated a fuller picture of what the Trump administration means when it castigates China. He cited the country’s efforts to promote its interests in the United States through tough interactions with business leaders, retaliatory tariffs that target districts that voted for Trump, and an advertisement in The Des Moines Register, designed to look like authentic news articles but clearly labeled as paid content. “There can be no doubt,” Pence said. “China is meddling in American democracy.”
“I don’t think the goals or intentions of China are anywhere near comparable to what Russia has been looking to accomplish.”
Andrea Kendall-Taylor, CNAS
China clearly prioritizes and tries to advance its own interests. But what the Trump administration describes as meddling can more reasonably be called political maneuvering. China often sets unpalatable terms when dealing with outside business interests—look how far Google has reportedly considered bending to launch a search engine there—but it does so in the open. Its tariffs sting, but likely would not exist had Trump not levied his own. That they exert political as well as economic pressure seems unsurprising for a trade war. As for newspaper inserts, that’s a fairly common practice. More importantly, it plays by the rules.
“It’s not covert. It’s quite on the top that it’s a Chinese-produced document,” says Todd Helmus, senior behavioral scientist at the Rand Corporation who focuses on strategic communications. “The notion of them doing an insert is not really news. I don’t really see that level of comparison of Russia’s covert actions to influence the election and this insert.”
The next logical question, then, would be if perhaps the National Security Council was sitting on classified information that showed more active, politically disruptive cyberattacks or misinformation campaigns of the type Russian hackers have pursued. That is, after all, how “interference” has lately been defined. The answer, again, seems to be no, according to Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. “What we see with China right now are the influence campaigns, the more traditional, longstanding, holistic influence campaigns,” not active hacking, Nielsen said at a recent Washington Post summit.
Independent cybersecurity researchers back up that assessment. “We have not yet identified any covert influence activities by China to influence the US elections, though it is possible we haven’t yet detected those operations,” says John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis at FireEye, one of the leading trackers of nation state cyberactivities.
None of which is to say China doesn’t pose a threat in some areas. A blockbuster Bloomberg report this week alleges that the country infiltrated servers operated by Apple, Amazon, and dozens more companies through a sophisticated hardware supply chain hack. (All implicated parties have vigorously denied the story.) And Chinese hackers have increasingly targeted the United States, in step with escalating trade war tensions.
“We have not yet identified any covert influence activities by China to influence the US elections.”
John Hultquist, FireEye
But conflating China’s operations with Russia’s distracts from genuine, specific electoral threats the United States has and continues to face. “When we’re talking about Russian efforts to influence, we have to distinguish what would be expected from a regular country looking to advance its interests, and what crosses the line into something more unsavory. Those are really important distinctions to make,” says Kendall-Taylor. “It’s much more problematic to say that China’s looking to interfere in our elections. That’s a much less helpful comparison. I don’t think the goals or intentions of China are anywhere near comparable to what Russia has been looking to accomplish.”
Meanwhile, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned this summer—also at the Hudson Institute—that the “warning lights are blinking red” when it comes to Russian cyberattacks. By shifting focus to China’s overt courtship of US opinion, the administration distracts from, and minimizes, the impact of Russia’s covert campaigns.
One thing did ring true from Pence’s speech Thursday. “In June, Beijing itself circulated a sensitive document entitled ‘Propaganda and Censorship Notice,’” he said. “It stated that China must, in their words, ‘strike accurately and carefully, splitting apart different domestic groups in the United States of America.’”
If that strategy sounds familiar, it’s the one that Russia deployed to devastating effect through dummy social media accounts—and the same tactic that President Trump pointedly refused to hold Vladimir Putin accountable for when he had the chance.