Terms commonly used during the Cold War have again emerged amid allegations that Russia tried to interfere with the 2016 U.S. elections. These words and phrases, which were all but forgotten in recent history, include “active measures,” “agents of influence,” and “disinformation,” and they are tied to campaigns meant to alter public perception and influence political decision-making.
While it has been a struggle to prove that Russia’s alleged campaign to influence the U.S. presidential election had any effect, these strategies of influence are in fact being used heavily against the United States—only now, most are carried out not by Russia, but by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
All of these systems fall under an umbrella strategy known as “political warfare,” and the Chinese regime has at least an entire military branch and two political branches, as well as large-scale systems for information control, to carry out its aims on a massive scale.
“We haven’t even begun to coordinate ourselves to take on this challenge,” said Richard Fisher, senior fellow on Asian military affairs with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
“Any political activity undertaken by a dictatorship that, at its core, is devoted to the destruction of freedom, warrants the broad attention of Western security organs,” he said.
Political warfare is a unique system of fighting that targets many things we would not normally think of as military targets, using systems most of us would not regard as weapons.
“Political warfare seeks to influence emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals in a manner favorable to one’s own political-military objectives,” states a 2013 report on the CCP’s political warfare operations from politics and security think tank Project 2049 Institute.
This form of warfare can include any number of methods that can alter public opinion or political policy. It can take the form of an agent of influence laughing and shaking hands in political or business circles; beautiful female spies being sent to date or marry foreign policymakers and thought leaders; financial deals allowing agents to exert influence over a targeted industry; or professors and think tank employees getting friendly invites to speak in China, where they are wooed into thinking the world is wrong about the CCP.
Even civilian populations are targeted. Campaigns include paying for CCP propaganda to run in foreign news outlets, such as the “China Watch” inserts published by American newspapers including The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
Through these means, the CCP’s political warfare systems aim to alter foreign views on its policies, lay down new interpretations of its authoritarian rule, or influence foreign policy to advance its interests.
“In an orchestrated campaign of good cop/bad cop, Chinese officials have gone directly to U.S. public opinion, trying to appeal to sentimental feelings of cooperation and partnership while literally threatening war,” states the Project 2049 report, quoting a report from J. Michael Waller of the Institute of World Politics.
“The operation is aimed at five levels: the American public at large, journalists who influence the public and decision-makers, business elites, Congress, and the president and his inner circle,” it states.
An Unseen War
The CCP has several departments heavily focused on political warfare. These include its military’s General Political Department, as well as its Propaganda Department, United Front Department, and Overseas Chinese Affairs Office.
According to Fisher, however, its operations are not limited to just these departments, and “there could be extensive overlap between them—this is not uncommon in Chinese active measure endeavors.”
“In China, intelligence is stratified,” Fisher said. The regime’s intelligence departments at nearly any level, in any city, “can be approved to run independent and international operations.”
He also noted that there is a formlessness to political warfare operations—the focus is the goal, not the method.
“In no given order of priority, they could include compromising a political target, enlisting a political target, and defaming, damaging the reputation of a political target. It could also include short-term or sophisticated long-term propaganda, or directed information campaigns,” he said, adding that among many other things, political warfare includes altering information or manufacturing false information.
Political warfare has different names under different regimes. The Chinese regime’s lexicon refers to it as “liaison work,” according to Project 2049, while the Soviet Union referred to it as “active measures.”
It also overlaps with many other forms of unconventional warfare. Among its main components is psychological warfare, used to impact an opponent’s will to fight, or to change its interpretation of events. An example would be Soviet propaganda that fed popular opinion in the United States with the aim of ending the Vietnam War.
Psychological warfare under the CCP’s military “is the employment of psychology, through such means as propaganda, to sap the will of an opponent’s military and civilian populace, as well as to counter an opponent’s effort to do the same,” states Dean Cheng, in a 2012 report in Special Warfare, the U.S. Army special operations bulletin.
Under the CCP, these same strategies are employed directly in its military strategy. The communist regime’s “Three Warfares” concept uses psychological warfare, media warfare (to spread propaganda), and legal warfare (to manipulate legal systems), according to a 2015 report from U.S. Special Operations Command.
It notes that under the CCP, “media warfare seeks to influence domestic and international public opinion to build support for military actions and dissuade adversaries from actions contrary to China’s interests,” while legal warfare “uses international and domestic law to claim the legal high ground or assert Chinese interests.”
The goals of the CCP’s political warfare operations, and its agents of choice, need to be examined in context.
Carrying out visible, “overt,” and technically legal intelligence operations requires the use of foreign agents of influence, who are typically recruited from the diaspora of the regime’s citizens living abroad or from devotees to the regime’s ideology.
The main culprit of political warfare used to be Russia under the Soviet Union. Its main tools for these operations were its ideological supporters in foreign societies—journalists, professors, and activist community organizers, for example.
It recruited these often unofficial “agents of influence” through ideological subversion, converting them into believers of its communist doctrine. Fisher said that “by and large, the Soviet ground force was ideologically inclined,” since the Soviets did not have major ethnic communities around the globe they could call upon.
This differs from Russian political warfare operations today, which are comparatively limited in scope. Its supporters are typically region-locked, in Eastern European states, and only among the ethnic Russian communities.
Most of its political warfare operations further abroad, such as in the United States, are carried out by smaller numbers of more official spies, and through electronic means—such as online state media, social media posts, and cyberattacks.
The CCP, however, maintains agents from both its ethnic diaspora and supporters of its ideology, in levels close to those the Soviets had during the Cold War. The key difference, according to Fisher, is what they’re aiming to accomplish and what steps they’re taking to achieve their goals.
According to a 2013 report from the Council on Foreign Relations, the United States used to run and counter such operations, but “the U.S. government has gotten out of the habit of waging political warfare since the end of the Cold War.”
The Long-Term Objective
The CCP’s political warfare systems are still under the influence of a faction led by former CCP leader Jiang Zemin, who officially ruled the Party from 1989 to 2002. Jiang’s faction still has sway over several key regime organs—such as propaganda and security—and has put the current leader, Xi Jinping, in a life and death struggle.
The objectives of Jiang’s system differ in several ways from past political warfare systems. The Soviet Union’s political warfare operations, for example, were aimed more directly at destabilizing foreign societies in order to foment communist revolution, and thereby export its political and ideological model.
The CCP’s political warfare goals, however, aren’t as simple, and according to Fisher, they appear to be playing out in two stages.
The first stage, he said, is to grow the CCP’s political and economic power globally, and to “promote the notion and to convince most of the world of the inevitability of China’s rise.” The communist regime will continue this stage, he said, until it is able to displace the United States as the “central political and strategic authority around the globe.”
If it can achieve that goal, it will move to the second phase of exporting its authoritarian “China model” of governance. Fisher said at this stage, its operations “would be much closer to the Soviet method of ‘active measures,’ which would mean going out and defending the China model—attacking and defeating all opposition to China’s position.”