Chinese Communist Party influence ops: Real threat or imaginary reds under beds?

Foreign Affairs

An all-star group of China scholars, including Anne-Marie Brady, Orville Schell, Bonnie Glaser, John Pomfret, and Ezra Vogel, has written a report published by the Hoover Institute titled “Chinese Influence and American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance” (summary, full report).

Noted China-watcher Bill Bishop commented (paywall):

The report is interesting. balanced and timely, though I do not like the title. It is a mistake to talk about “Chinese influence” when the issue is Chinese Communist Party influence and interference operations, as just saying “Chinese” is a dangerous conflation that can spark anti-Chinese sentiment. To paraphrase Confucius, names matter.

As you would expect from the title, the report is highly critical of the Chinese government, and makes a case that the U.S. needs to do much more to stop Communist Party influence and espionage operations. The report includes a (short) dissenting opinion by Susan Shirk. Excerpt:

Although I have no problem with the factual research that has gone into specific sections of the report, I respectfully dissent from what I see as the report’s overall inflated assessment of the current threat of Chinese influence seeking on the United States. The report discusses a very broad range of Chinese activities, only some of which constitute coercive, covert, or corrupt interference in American society and none of which actually undermines our democratic political institutions. Not distinguishing the legitimate from the illegitimate activities detracts from the credibility of the report. The cumulative effect of this expansive inventory that blurs together legitimate with illegitimate activities is to overstate the threat that China today poses to the American way of life.  

The Global Times has weighed in on the report (in Chinese):

We believe that this report once again shows that the American society’s overall mentality toward China has changed. Simply put, America’s strategic self-confidence has been eroded by China’s rise.  

The Global Times also notes that many scholars involved in the report were advocates of engagement with China, including former ambassador in Beijing Winston Lord, and that the report mentions the “disillusionment” (they use scare quotes) of a whole generation of Chinese scholars.

A generation of China scholars loses hope

“Disillusionment” should not be in scare quotes: The disillusionment is real.

For more on why a generation of American China-watchers have soured on China, see this essay by longtime Beijing-based journalist Francesco Sisci: You wronged me, thinks the U.S. of China. (Francesco is very well informed on China-Vatican issues, and he also once threatened to punch me in the face, so obviously I recommend that you follow his work.)

Related: Reuters reports that the “Trump administration is considering new background checks and other restrictions on Chinese students in the United States over growing espionage concerns, U.S. officials and congressional sources said.”