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White House pushes to combat covert Chinese influence

David Ignatius on

WASHINGTON -- A little-noticed passage in the Trump administration's national-security strategy released last month previewed a new push to combat Chinese influence operations that affect American universities, think tanks, movie studios and news organizations.

The investigations by Congress and the FBI into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign won't be affected by the added focus on China, officials say. Instead, the aim is to highlight Chinese activities that often get a free pass but can have a toxic long-term effect because of China's growing wealth and power.

A National Security Council interagency group is coordinating the administration's study of Chinese activities that are "outside traditional espionage, in the gray area of covert influence operations," a senior administration official said. The rationale, noted in the 55-page strategy document, is that "America's competitors weaponize information to attack the values and institutions that underpin free societies, while shielding themselves from outside information."

In targeting Chinese operations, the administration is walking a delicate line between helping American academics, think-tank experts and journalists resist pressure and fomenting mass public anxiety about Beijing's activities. Officials say they want to avoid the hysteria of the 1950s -- but also help American institutions push back against intimidation from a Chinese Communist Party that is rich, self-confident and seductive in a way that Russia has never been.

The administration official said in an interview Tuesday that the target "is not Chinese soft power -- the legitimate exchange of people and ideas, which is something we welcome. What we're talking about are coercive and covert activities designed to influence elections, officials, policies, company decisions and public opinion."

Kurt Campbell, who oversaw Asia policy during the Obama administration and now runs an Asia consulting group, offered a measured endorsement: "The NSC-led inquiry about Chinese influence operations, if conducted dispassionately, could be useful. We focus mostly on Russian influence operations. But the Chinese have a much more subtle and complex agenda here."

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A catalyst for the Trump administration's probe was an investigation in Australia, which revealed what that country's security chief called "unprecedented" foreign meddling that could damage Australia's sovereignty. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull proposed new controls in December.

The administration official offered examples of how American institutions can be pressured by China:

-- Universities host more than 350,000 Chinese, making up nearly a third of all foreign students here. Beijing encourages students to join local branches of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association. Sometimes, students get squeezed. The senior official cites the case of a Chinese student from a dissident family who was warned by a friend not to share personal details -- because she would report them to Chinese intelligence.

Students or universities who resist Beijing can pay a price. A Chinese graduating senior at the University of Maryland last year was shamed by social media into apologizing for a comment praising free speech. At the University of California, San Diego, an invitation to the Dalai Lama brought a protest from the local students' association and warnings that UCSD might not receive more Chinese students and that its graduates' degrees might not be recognized back home.

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