China’s Global Influence War: French Military Exposé

October 2, 2021 Updated: October 11, 2021

News Analysis

Beijing’s global influence operations, including election interference, has been revealed by a new French military study that leaves the peak targets untouched.

A new study of China’s global influence operations by France’s Ministry of Armed Forces demonstrates that Beijing is making a Machiavellian turn toward seeking to inspire fear in the world, rather than solicit its amour. In Beijing’s influence operations, the authors argue, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is consciously using influence tactics that it obtained by observing similar tactics used by Russia.

The study is excellent, but focuses too much on petty forms of influence. It treats with kid gloves the most important targets of Beijing’s influence operations—the current political and economic elites of Washington, London, Brussels, Berlin, Tokyo, New Delhi, and, you guessed it, Paris.

In the most comprehensive study of its kind, the authors boldly construct a taxonomy of CCP influence operations, including propaganda, lawfare, espionage, and organizational influence tactics. They cover some of the most controversial topics in the field of Chinese politics, including Beijing’s foreign election interference, the capture of foreign elites through trade relations, the CCP’s persecution of the Falun Gong, and the CCP’s attempt to control narratives about global organ trafficking, even as the Party engages in forced organ harvesting from China’s prisoners of conscience. But the study leaves Beijing’s most important influence operation out of its taxonomy: the capture of foreign elites through bribery of various kinds.

The 646-page report titled, “Chinese Influence Operations: A Machiavellian Moment,” was authored by Dr. Paul Charon and Dr. Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer at the Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM), a prestigious French military school. The IRSEM made the report public on Sept. 20. Vilmer has been the director of the IRSEM since 2016.

The taxonomy of the CCP’s propaganda war is divided into “concepts, actors, and actions,” with concepts including propaganda, espionage, lawfare, and organizational influence; actors being the Party, state, military, and industry; and actions being seduction, subjugation, infiltration, and coercion.

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Chinese leader Xi Jinping shakes hands with then U.S Vice President Joe Biden inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Dec. 4, 2013. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

These latter two topics get the most attention, and compose a chapter titled “Infiltrer et Contraindre.” Contraindre can be translated in multiple ways, including to compel, force, constrain, and coerce. The chapter is organized according to targets and means, including the Chinese diaspora, the media, diplomacy, the economy, politics, education, think tanks, culture, and the internet.

The report also includes case studies on Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sweden, Canada, and “Operation ‘Infection 2.0’ during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” in which the CCP promotes disinformation alleging that the virus originated in the United States.

However, the entire topic of economic influence only merits eight pages under its own heading, buried deep in the study. The $1.3 million bribery of U.N. General Assembly President John Ashe, who later died under suspicious circumstances, merits a single sentence in the study. Hunter Biden is nowhere to be found.

But discovery of the identity of Larry Romanoff, an almost unknown Canadian immigrant to Shanghai who the CCP apparently hired as a two-bit propagandist, gets seven pages and is highlighted proudly in the introduction as an original contribution. One could argue that the French military is not seeing the forest for the trees.

That said, the authors’ original research exceeds the work of prior analysis in some important ways, including the Chinese military’s 311 psychological warfare and lawfare group, the influence operations of the Chinese Communist Youth League, and the CCP-influenced ecosystem of think tanks and publishers in France. The authors utilize extensive Chinese-language sources for their original research.

The report is getting some press, especially in France, that will hopefully overturn, and wake up, a dangerously sleepy public français. It has received purely positive media coverage, to my knowledge, including in CNBC, The Canadian, France’s RFI, FranceInfo, Le Parisien, and the country’s iconic leftist newspaper, Libération. Singapore’s Straits Times and South Asia’s ANI also applauded the new study. The Epoch Times has published four articles on the report, including one in the Chinese language, all of which are supportive.

Several China experts, with whom I communicated, argued that the study is both provocative and accurate. “How Soviet the Chinese approach is is intriguing,” wrote David Cowhig in an electronic communication. “While I assumed that some of it was, given the long KMT/Communist Party/Comintern association with [the] USSR from the Mikhail Borodin days in the 1920s, this does make it clearer,” he wrote. “Perhaps the collapse of the USSR made it easier to see some things more clearly in the Soviet elder brother worth imitating and [thus] patch things up with the Russians?”

Cowhig is a former U.S. State Department official who has extensive experience in both China and Russia.

Sam Cooper, a Canadian expert on China’s influence operations, responded positively to the report’s case study on Canada. “The findings of this extensive French study regarding United Front interference in Canada’s democracy are accurate, and very timely. My own research has found what look like high-level state actors in Vancouver WeChat and United Front groups escalated brazen interference in B.C.’s [British Columbia’s] 2018 municipal elections, and in the recent federal election, some of the primary actors have celebrated swinging a Richmond riding against the Conservative Party and incumbent MP Kenny Chiu.”

The Straits Times positively covered the report’s Singapore case study, identifying Beijing’s talking points for the country as a mix of racism and realism—for example, Singapore is “Chinese” and part of “Greater China,” to which Singaporeans should be loyal.

The report comes at an optimal time for Singapore, which is considering government-proposed legislation against foreign interference, including through propaganda and local proxies.

Beijing has thus far reserved comment, though its embassy in France criticized the report on Sept. 22 as a “stigmatization operation.”

The French study is important in that it evidences a growing international concern over China’s illiberal influence that the CCP typically seeks to portray as solely associated with a supposed anti-China agenda in Washington. In fact, as the report demonstrates, the concern over authoritarian influence operations is international and increasingly urgent.

The authors, therefore, have no excuse for leaving elite capture out of their taxonomy, as they describe the basic ideas and principles of the issue of elite capture in their examples and case studies, including influence imposed upon heads of state and ministers in France, Germany, Britain, Australia, Estonia, Taiwan, and at the United Nations. They also discuss CCP influence of CEOs inside and outside of China, including through the regulation of market access and through the insertion of Party cells into corporations.

People are seen on Wall Street outside the New York Stock Exchange on March 19, 2021. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Elite capture, as a particular form of Chinese economic influence at global elite levels, including the heads-of-state level, is more hidden. It is arguably more powerful than the influence Beijing can have over a country through the CCP’s awkward attempts to appeal to overseas Chinese voters through various types of propaganda, including paid advertising in the mainstream and Chinese media, and social media manipulations that are relatively easy to expose and ridicule.

The authors themselves admit that this kind of boorish propaganda is counterproductive to Beijing’s aims. But their selective focus on the counterproductive elements of Beijing’s influence operations, rather than its highly successful elite capture and economic influence, unfortunately becomes a soporific background noise because if China’s influence operations are truly counterproductive, the public can yawn, roll over, and go back to sleep.

One of the authors’ more controversial assertions is that Beijing is engaged in global election “interference,” rather than just “influence.” Much is made in academic circles of the difference between election influence and election interference, with the assumption that open influence is not as harmful to democracy as covert interference.

The authors posit a continuum of “benign” influence in the form of public diplomacy, to the malign influence of clandestine interference. But in the case of election contests, a vote is a vote, however Beijing acquires it, and when it uses taxes from Chinese citizens who have no say in how their taxes are spent, and spends that tax money abroad on an electoral outcome, the result is similarly illiberal.

That said, the new French study rightly tends to use the stronger term interference. Influencing voters influences how they vote, which is, after all, an “interference” in the result of an election. The public diplomacy of a totalitarian power, like the CCP, should not be described as benign in the same manner as the public diplomacy of a democracy like France, Germany, or the United States.

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French President Emmanuel Macron (C) gestures next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and Chinese leader Xi Jinping (L) following their meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris on March 26, 2019. (Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)

The authors also controversially claim that the CCP’s election interference particularly targets Chinese-ethnicity populations in democratic countries. Given increasing legitimate concerns about anti-Asian racism and the use of these concerns by the CCP for its own illiberal purposes, the authors reasonably predict that Beijing’s apologists will opportunistically accuse their analysis of racism. They rightly stress at the very beginning of the report that they are not against China or Chinese people.

It always bears repeating that the Chinese that the CCP targets with interference are the victims of the CCP. Those who point out this victimization are then added, through additional propaganda, to the CCP’s victim list.

The authors’ discussion of Beijing’s global election interference addresses the issue in Australia, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Canada, and the United States, among other countries. Their point that election interference is most evident in constituencies that are “les plus ‘sinicisées’“ (the most Chinese) is a particularly French perspective, though it can also be found in Australia and Canada.

Charon argued in an email that “the Chinese diaspora in France is the largest in Europe, slightly larger than in the United Kingdom, but still behind those in the United States and Canada. Another reason for the relative[ly] low level of [clandestine influence] operations in France is that the country has long been perceived by the Chinese as a soft target, in other words, one that is easy to break.”

The CCP deploys its resources according to other metrics as well, and does not only try to influence the Chinese diaspora in an attempt at election interference, he wrote, noting that the CCP’s deployment of resources among the Chinese diaspora “is not always done in order to instrumentalise the diaspora, but mainly to protect against what the party calls ‘cultural infiltration,’ in other words, the import of liberal ideas into China.”

To my argument that elite capture and economic influence should have appeared more prominently in the taxonomy and analysis, Vilmer provided a quick response, including that these issues were relatively obvious, having been adequately addressed elsewhere. But I haven’t seen much attempt to connect President Emmanuel Macron’s personal interests, as well as those of his elite supporters, whether financial or political, to his lack of a real China policy.

The authors of the report argue that, conversely, France’s resistance to China’s compellence has become so effective of late, that Beijing has had to resort to more underhanded forms of influence.

“In France and until recently, the economic lever was enough,” Vilmer wrote in an email. “See the example we give … of President Sarkozy in 2008-9: first conditioning his participation in the opening ceremony of the Olympic games to a resumption of dialogue [between] Beijing and Tibetans (and announcing that he would meet the Dalai Lama), he finally renounced after the CCP deployed an arsenal of political and economical threats. For a long time, France was seen as a soft target: applying economic pressure was enough to make us give in, so there was literally no need for more complex/clandestine influence ops. Since 2019-2020, it is changing. This is what we call ‘The French awakening’ in the conclusion. … French awareness is growing (as this report itself shows).”

Let’s hope that when France wakes up, if it wakes up after this anodyne study, that it does a better job of joining with truly focused U.S. allies, like Britain and Australia, in decisively defeating the CCP.

Correction: This article has been corrected from its previous version, which inaccurately stated that 50 researchers contributed to the report. The Epoch Times regrets the error. 

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Anders Corr
Anders Corr has a bachelor's/master's in political science from Yale University (2001) and a doctorate in government from Harvard University (2008). He is a principal at Corr Analytics Inc., publisher of the Journal of Political Risk, and has conducted extensive research in North America, Europe, and Asia. He authored “The Concentration of Power” (forthcoming in 2021) and “No Trespassing,” and edited “Great Powers, Grand Strategies.”