China Seeks to Influence US Politicians Ahead of Midterm Elections: Former Intelligence Officer

Just weeks before the midterm elections, the FBI issued a warning, to some of the Democratic and Republican state party headquarters, of possible attack by Chinese hackers. The hacking might be part of Beijing’s political espionage efforts or to influence the nominees’ positions on China according to Nick Eftimiades, a former senior intelligence officer and author.

“And we’ve seen this actually come to light in a number of cases in the United States and the UK and Italy, elsewhere in Sweden, where they actually work very, very aggressively to try and shape any opinions that can be formed towards China,” Eftimiades told “China in Focus” program on NTD. 

This kind of attack, he said, might be used for information collection.

According to the expert, the monitoring work would help them to observe which way the elections are going to go, which candidates have advantages, and party strategies.

“So that they can better prepare for it. So they can shape  the international environment for which they’re gonna have to deal,” he said.

In Eftimiades’ opinion, this approach is just a portion of a broader scheme pushed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

As author of the book “Chinese Intelligence Operations,” Eftimiades pointed out that the influence operation is conducted through two formats: propaganda and covert agents.

In relation to the first format, the regime spends billions every year to advance its propaganda through news broadcasting on thousands of different forms of media globally and its diplomacy, he said.

Covert Influence Operations

“And then there’s a whole covert dynamic of this, where China will try and influence political leaders, business leaders, the Chinese diaspora to not vote for certain candidates, for example, to assume certain positions on China,” he added.

The covert operations are coordinated by various bodies of the regime, Eftimiades pointed out, including the China Friendship Associations, United Front Work departments, and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

According to the U.S.-CHINA Economic and Security and Review Commission, the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD) guides key affiliated organizations abroad to conduct influence operations targeting foreign actors and states.

“They are all geared towards shifting opinion or controlling or directing foreign opinion on China,”Eftimiades said.

He singled out the case of Christine Fang, the alleged CCP spy who, according to an Axios report, built up an extensive network of contacts with up-and-coming politicians in the San Francisco Bay Area, including Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.)

Encirclement Strategy 

“One of the more interesting aspects of China’s strategy in this regard is encirclement,” Eftimiades noted. 

With this strategy, the regime tends to exert influence on individuals around the targeted politician, rather than directly on the person, according to the expert. 

They can take aim at “the academics that will be supporting that person; the cyber operations to understand who has pro- China views, and who doesn’t; to a business person, to whom they will say, ‘Look, if you really want to do business in China, you need to go back with this message.’”

This kind of “orchestrated campaign” has been deployed at both local levels as well as national levels, in his opinion.

Self-Censorship

The regime has used material interest as a tool to trap American individuals into facilitating its infiltration, he said.

“There was greed, greed on the part of government officials, on the part of corporate officials and, on the part of universities, who don’t want to give up the the money that they’re making, even if it means violating their own personal beliefs on freedom and academic freedom, and freedom of speech,”Eftimiades said.

Those who are lured into dealing with the regime, he pointed out,  have to play by China’s rules, which means “your liberty, your freedom as an American or in liberal democratic societies globally, is restricted … by China.”

For anyone who breaks the rules, he noted, China will cut that person’s access to dealings in China. 

“They’ll cut business deals for business persons the same way they’ll cut Hollywood, from showing films in the world’s largest market in China, if there’s anything that they find offensive,” he said.

“It’s an often imposed form of self-censorship,” he added.

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Hannah Ng is a reporter covering U.S. and China news. She holds a master’s degree in international and development economics from the University of Applied Science Berlin.

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Tiffany Meier is a New York-based reporter and host of NTD’s “China in Focus.”

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