Austin Bay, China knows how to curry below-the-radar favor with international political figures, bureaucrats and opinion leaders, then, when a problem develops threatening Chinese Communist Party interests, use covert influence to stifle criticism or delay a response.
The most pernicious example of Chinese covert influence in action is the World Health Organization’s failure in January and February 2020 to demand Beijing provide a full and accurate accounting of the COVID-19/Wuhan virus epidemic in China, including its origin. Instead, WHO spouted medical nostrums and accepted China’s evasions (lies).
China ego-stroked WHO officials and created sympathizers by funding “research trips.” The tactic is called “elite capture.” Beijing developed a close relationship with WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and supported his appointment, even though he isn’t a medical doctor. In late January 2020, Tedros was still praising “China’s commitment to transparency.”
China’s elite capture of WHO gave the CCP time to deflect blame and callously let the disease spread globally so that China didn’t suffer its consequences alone.
Washington, D.C. is now the scene of an overt Chinese influence operation that compliments CCP covert operations. Their overtness gives us an opportunity to do two things: First, stop the overt operation and penalize China, then demonstrate the broad reach and integration of CCP “influence” operations.
On June 25, the Washington Post reported that the Chinese tech company Hikvision had hired Mercury Public Affairs, a “prominent” Washington lobbying firm. Hikvision will pay former U.S. Representative Toby Moffett, D-C.T., former Senator David Vitter, R-L.A., and their staffs to “engage with members of the State, Treasury and Commerce departments” and address “issues related to the National Defense Authorization Act” that worry Hikvision.
Lobbying in Washington, D.C. is like gambling in Las Vegas: a big business generating big money for big shots, usually at the expense of small rollers (Vegas) or American taxpayers (D.C.).
Hikvision is overtly paying big bucks to powerful and connected names because the U.S. government is cracking down hard on its highly suspect operations, for several reasons.
One is humanitarian: Hikvision confronts accusations of aiding the CCP’s genocidal campaign targeting the Uighur ethnic minority in western China’s Xinjiang province.
Preventing Chinese intelligence penetration is another reason. In early June the Biden Administration affirmed and broadened a Trump Administration order banning American investment in Chinese companies that support the Chinese defense sector. That ban affects Hikvision, which makes surveillance technology, and firms like Huawei Technologies, which makes communication and surveillance equipment.
The stiff U.S. sanctions rile the companies’ most powerful investor, the CCP-controlled Chinese government.
For years, U.S. security agencies have warned that Chinese intelligence can use Chinese-manufactured digital technology to spy worldwide. The Trump Administration bluntly accused Huawei corporate officials of espionage activities and sought to remove Huawei tech from communication networks.
Though banned from federal contracts in 2018, the Washington Post article cited a source estimating “hundreds of thousands” of Hikvision devices continue to operate in camera networks throughout the U.S.
Hikvision facial recognition cameras monitor oppressed Uighurs in Xinjiang. New York City has around 20,000 Hikvision cameras. Would Beijing monitor tourists in Central Park? Maybe not, but perhaps Uighur activists, Chinese citizens whom the CCP considers disloyal and Chinese students in New York would be of interest.
Article 7 of China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law states that organizations and citizens “shall support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work according to law.”
By law, Huawei and Hikvision are part of the CCP’s spy and influence apparatus.
It’s legal to lobby the U.S. government. But would a genuinely “prominent” Washington firm lobby federal agencies to give a powerful and increasingly inimical adversary the chance to spy on and undermine America?
Expect the Hikvision lobbying effort to include a public relations campaign as well as campaign fundraisers for legislators (legal bribery?). Chinese digital “content farms” may seed Hikvision-favorable information that, like a virus, spreads into more mainstream media. Beltway think tanks will offer mitigating analyses; elite university professors will speak on Hikvision’s behalf.
Did ego-stroking, research trips and money shape the analyses and opinions? The American public deserves full disclosure.