CCP’s Political Warfare Left Unchecked in US, Experts Warn

While global awareness of Beijing’s malign influence is on the rise, America lags behind in recognizing and countering the threat, analysts say
By Terri Wu
Terri Wu
Terri Wu
Terri Wu is a Washington-based reporter for The Epoch Times.
November 8, 2021 Updated: November 10, 2021

News Analysis

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) gave the United States two lists when U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited the megacity of Tianjin in July. One was “a list of U.S. wrongdoings that must stop”; the other, “a list of key individual cases that China has concerns with.” Together, they urged the U.S. government to reverse a slew of China-related policies.

Following the senior CCP officials’ reprimand of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Alaska in March, the lists sounded like an ultimatum.

Items on the “wrongdoings” list included investigations into the origins of COVID-19, visa restrictions on CCP members, and sanctions on CCP leaders. The indictment of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, who was in Canada fighting extradition to the United States, was also cited in the “wrongdoings” list. Meng later reached a deal with U.S. prosecutors and was allowed to return to China in late September.

At a press conference a few days after Meng’s release, the regime’s foreign affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying mentioned the two lists again when asked about Beijing’s response to the United States’ China policies. “We hope the U.S. can attach high importance and take concrete actions to empty the two lists,” Hua said.

The two lists didn’t get much media attention in the United States—a Google search in October resulted in fewer than five media articles.

Yet when the CCP issued a similar ultimatum to Australia—a list of 14 grievances, including some against Australia’s key policies—the nation roared back.

Epoch Times Photo
Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a press conference in the Prime Ministers Courtyard at Parliament House on March 17, 2021, in Canberra, Australia. (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Following Australia’s call for an independent inquiry into the pandemic origins in April 2020, Beijing has imposed a series of trade restrictions targeting major Australian imports, including coal, beef, barley, and wine. Collectively, these targeted exports to China were worth about $25 billion in 2019, or 1.3 percent of Australia’s gross domestic product, according to The Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank.

The Aussies, however, didn’t bow down. “Australia will always be ourselves,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in an interview in November 2020. “We will always set our own laws and our own rules according to our national interests—not at the behest of any other nation, whether that’s the U.S. or China or anyone else.”

This response drew broad-based support, according to John Lee, a senior fellow at Washington-based think tank Hudson Institute and former Australian national security adviser.

“The people and even the media are right behind the fairly tough stance that the Australian government has taken against China,” Lee said during a Hudson Institute podcast in August.

A poll by the Lowy Institute showed that Australians’ perceptions of China had plummeted to a record low this year; 63 percent of Australians saw China as “more of a security threat to Australia,” a 22 percent increase from 2020.

Nine of the 14 items on China’s list of grievances were not about the COVID-19 origins investigation or other matters relating to Beijing’s policies toward Xinjiang, Hong Kong, or Tibet, Lee said, but “policies that Australian leaders passed for the Australian population.”

“So that showed that China wanted to effectively influence and even veto over Australian domestic and foreign policy. Because Australia has not allowed that to occur, we continue to suffer the sorts of coercive economic policies that China’s throwing at us,” he said.

The third item on the list was “foreign interference legislation, viewed as targeting China.” The laws were introduced in 2018 following what then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called “disturbing reports of Chinese influence.” The legislation imposed disclosure requirements for lobbyists of foreign governments, and criminalized covert and coercive activities intended to interfere with democratic processes.

Political Warfare

The CCP’s influence operations are a part of its three warfares doctrine—psychological, public opinion, and legal warfare—which guides the CCP in its quest to win a war against the free world without firing a single shot.

Psychological warfare seeks to demoralize the enemy; public opinion warfare seeks to shape the hearts and minds of the masses; legal warfare seeks to use systems of law to deter enemy attacks.

The three warfares doctrine has been summarized in the West as “political warfare,” and has been described by renowned Cold War American diplomat George F. Kennan as “an extension of armed conflict by other means.” The CCP’s political warfare “requires efforts to unify military and civilian thinking, divide the enemy into factions, weaken the enemy’s combat power, and organize legal offensives,” according to a report by the Jamestown Foundation.

The CCP learned the fundamentals of its political warfare strategies from the Soviet Union. However, Ken McCallum, head of the UK’s counterintelligence service MI5, in October 2020 likened China’s influence operations to “climate change,” whereas Russia’s was just “bad weather.”

In a 1983 lecture, former Soviet agent Yuri Bezmenov, who defected to the West, said: “The highest art of warfare is not to fight at all, but to subvert anything of value in the comfort of your enemy, until such time that the perception of reality of your enemy is screwed up to such an extent that he does not perceive you as an enemy. And your system, your civilization, and your ambitions look to your enemy as an alternative, if not desirable, then at least feasible—’better red [than dead].’”

Analysts have noted that Beijing’s political warfare operations are breathtaking in size and scope, and most are kept away from the public’s eyes. Virtually no segment of society is left untouched, though key target areas are those sectors that have an outsized role in shaping a society’s mores and perceptions: education, media, politics, culture, and social media.

Tactics are also wide-ranging, from disinformation to blackmail to economic coercion to cyberattacks.

“Chinese communist political warfare uses covert, corrupt, and coercive means to manipulate public perceptions and undermine democratic values,” Mark Stokes, executive director of Virginia-based think tank Project 2049 Institute, told The Epoch Times in an email.

“Political warfare, including propaganda, is fundamental to Marxist-Leninist forms of authoritarian governance.”

Epoch Times Photo
Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on television screens at a media center as he delivers a speech via video at the opening ceremony of the China International Import Expo (CIIE) in Shanghai on Nov. 4, 2021. (Andrew Galbraith/Reuters)

Global Awareness on the Rise

Stokes acknowledged “a marked increase in global awareness of CCP political warfare over the last five years or so.” He credited Australia as one country leading the rise.

In 2018, a series of investigative reports in the country exposed the alleged efforts made by wealthy Chinese businessmen with ties to Beijing’s “United Front” groups to influence local politicians. “United Front” groups refers to an array of overseas grassroots, community, and professional groups that ultimately serve to advance Beijing’s interests abroad and are supervised by the CCP’s United Front Work Department.

The reports jolted the political class into action. “The last two governments [Turnbull and Morrison] took the lead in beginning the public conversation about what Beijing is doing and why legislation has been passed to outlaw certain activities by foreign entities. These governments encouraged the media to pursue these issues and piece the information and facts together for the public,” Lee wrote in an email to The Epoch Times.

“In short, the Australian public is now on the lookout for instances of CCP activity, and this has been the best defense.”

Similar trends are starting to take shape in Europe, too. In September, French military think tank the Institute for Strategic Studies of Military Schools published a 650-page report titled “Chinese Influence Operations—a Machiavelli Moment.” The document goes into extensive detail about the use of the CCP’s three warfares and other strategies in various areas, including film, education, media, and international organizations.

In June, Germany’s Die Welt (The World) newspaper published a 21-page report, “China’s Secret Propagandists,” detailing how the CCP uses average Germans to influence public opinion online about COVID-19 in China. Major bookstores in the country were also involved in promoting Chinese propaganda publications, the report said. The article also gave examples of how the CCP rewarded local elites who opened doors for it and lobbied on its behalf with big public relations contracts, and retaliated against those who criticized it.

America Plays Catch-Up

Faced with such an expansive effort to subvert Western democracies, public awareness is sorely needed to counter Beijing’s campaign, analysts say.

At least two U.S. senators are trying to raise awareness. In August, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) introduced the Countering the Chinese Government and Communist Party’s Political Influence Operations Act, requiring “an unclassified interagency report” on the CCP’s political influence operations in the United States.

“Beijing is a threat, not only to our nation’s national security interests but also to sovereign nations that fall for the CCP’s coercive diplomatic schemes. Democracies worldwide must wake up to the reality that China is an international bully,” Rubio told The Epoch Times in an emailed statement.

But some observers say this simply isn’t enough. China expert and journalist Bill Gertz previously told The Epoch Times that the U.S. administration’s efforts to counter Beijing’s information warfare have been “woefully inadequate,” saying the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC)—an interagency body tasked with countering foreign propaganda and disinformation campaigns—had done “very little” on this front.

In response to this critique, a State Department spokesperson told The Epoch Times in an email that the GEC launched a China division in 2018 “to help create a more balanced, transparent, and trustworthy information space.”

“The GEC’s collaborative approach works with local partners to empower journalists, expose false narratives, and build community resilience to propaganda and disinformation,” the spokesperson said.

A recently reported U.S. Army survey conducted in May 2020 indicated that almost 90 percent of soldiers hadn’t been warned about Chinese and Russian COVID-19 disinformation.

The lack of awareness about Beijing’s operations seems to span across all levels of society, said Kerry Gershaneck, author of the book (pdf) “Political Warfare: Strategies for Combating China’s Plan to ‘Win Without Fighting’” and visiting scholar at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University.

“The threat that the CCP’s political warfare poses and the means China is using to divide, demoralize, deceive, and destroy us are almost completely ignored in the mainstream news media and academia,” he told The Epoch Times in an email. “Worse, they are little understood even within much of the U.S. government.”

Gershaneck is a former counterintelligence officer, U.S. Marine Corps officer, and strategic planner and spokesman for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

He said that while senior leaders in the Trump administration had delivered strong speeches and actions targeting the CCP’s abuses, the Biden administration seemed to be “stumbling its way towards a China policy, as it appears to be torn by various camps with agendas ranging from climate change to the resumption of full economic engagement with the totalitarian party-state.”

“In the absence of a clear policy,” Gershaneck said, “there can be no national strategy to deal with this threat similar to the strategy the U.S. developed early in the Cold War to combat the Soviet Union’s political warfare.”

The White House and the Office of the Secretary of Defense didn’t immediately respond to requests by The Epoch Times for comment.

In Gershaneck’s view, the United States’ ability to fight back against political warfare has atrophied during the past three decades following the end of the Cold War.

Randall Schriver, chairman of the board of the Project 2049 Institute and former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, wrote in an Oct. 26 tweet: “During the Cold War, there was granular expertise on Soviet platforms across the Department of Defense. That broad, granular expertise doesn’t exist now with the competition with China.”

Gershaneck advocated systemically educating U.S. leaders on this topic. To this end, he included an outline for a five-day “Counter-PRC [People’s Republic of China] Political Warfare Course” in his book.

A search of the online curriculum link that West Point provided to The Epoch Times generated no results relating to Chinese warfare. The National Defense University in Washington didn’t comment on its education programs regarding the CCP’s political warfare.

In an email, the U.S. Naval Academy said that its Political Science Department “does offer courses on a routine basis that touch on China and strategic warfare” and that “these classes include electives specifically on China (Politics of China and Japan), on Asia overall (Asian International Politics), and on the grand strategy of various countries (Grand Strategy & Great Power Politics).”

Epoch Times Photo
Chinese soldiers march past Tiananmen Square before a military parade on Sept. 3, 2015, in Beijing. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Chinese Military Prioritizes Political Warfare

At the forefront of the CCP’s political warfare operations is its military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The CCP Central Military Commission, the Party agency that oversees the armed forces, first identified the three warfares as a PLA priority and a part of its “strategy revolution” in a December 2003 policy document (pdf). Since then, the subject has become a significant field of research for PLA scholars, who have studied hundreds of historical cases, established guiding frameworks, and published warfighting manuals.

In late 2015, the PLA reorganized to align its operations with the political warfare approach. As a result, the Strategic Support Force (SSF) was created to “centralize most PLA space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare capabilities,” according to a 2018 report (pdf) by the U.S. National Defense University.

The SSF reportedly has around 300,000 troops, according to a 2021 report by the RAND Corporation. “If even one-third of those are for psychological operations and a portion of those are focused on social media, that would still be potentially thousands of people available to engage in disinformation on social media,” the report states.

At a June panel discussion, Eric Chan, a senior Korea/China strategist in the U.S. Air Force’s Checkmate Directorate and an adjunct fellow at the Washington-based nonprofit Global Taiwan Institute, said that the CCP’s political warfare successfully defeated the Chinese Nationalist Party during the Chinese civil war from 1927 to 1949. The CCP, he said, took advantage of the Chinese people’s mentality of “Chinese first, political affiliation second” to get nationalists to defect over to the communist side.

Chan said many Chinese military officers wonder how the U.S. military maintains troops’ morale and loyalty without political officers like those in the PLA. In Chan’s view, this is because with the U.S. Constitution taking pride of place, there’s no need for political officers.

“One of my biggest fears is, as politicization increases in America and the identity of party politics starts ascending across our other identities as Americans, then that will leave a big, big hole for this type of political warfare that the Chinese Communist Party is extremely adept at playing,” he said.

Terri Wu
Terri Wu is a Washington-based reporter for The Epoch Times.