Data Is Power
Washington Needs to Craft New Rules for the Digital Age
For decades, conventional wisdom in the United States held that it was only a matter of time before China would become more liberal, first economically and then politically. We could not have been more wrong—a miscalculation that stands as the greatest failure of U.S. foreign policy since the 1930s. How did we make such a mistake? Primarily by ignoring the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. Instead of listening to the CCP’s leaders and reading its key documents, we believed what we wanted to believe: that the Chinese ruling party is communist in name only.
Today, it would be a similarly grave mistake to assume that this ideology matters only within China. In fact, the CCP’s ideological agenda extends far beyond the country’s borders and represents a threat to the idea of democracy itself, including in the United States. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitions for control are not limited to the people of China. Across the globe, the CCP aims to spread propaganda, restrict speech, and exploit personal data to malign ends. The United States, accordingly, cannot simply ignore the CCP’s ideological objectives. Washington must understand that the fight against Chinese aggression first requires recognizing it and defending ourselves against it here at home, before it is too late.
The CCP is a self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist organization, and Xi, as the party’s top general, sees himself as Stalin’s successor. Marxism-Leninism is a totalitarian worldview that maintains that all important aspects of life should be controlled by the state, and the CCP’s intent to dominate political thought is stated openly and pursued aggressively. For many years, the CCP’s leaders have emphasized the importance of “ideological security.” A 2013 Chinese policy on the “current state of ideology” held that there should be “absolutely no opportunity or outlets for incorrect thinking or viewpoints to spread.”
“Chinese leaders have always believed that power derives from controlling both the physical battlefield and the cultural domain,” the journalist and former Australian government official John Garnaut has noted. “Words are not vehicles of reason and persuasion. They are bullets. Words are for defining, isolating, and destroying opponents.” Within China, this approach means mandatory study sessions on communist ideology and the required use of smartphone apps teaching “Xi Jinping Thought.” It means heavy censorship of all media. Outside sources of information are banned—from foreign newspapers to Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp. The CCP reinterprets religious texts, including the Bible, to support its ideology and locks up millions of Muslim Uighurs and other minorities in reeducation camps, where they are subjected to political indoctrination and forced labor.
Efforts to extend this control of information and expression globally are well underway. Nearly every Chinese-language news outlet in the United States is owned by the CCP or follows its editorial line. Americans hear pro-Beijing propaganda on more than a dozen FM radio stations.
Chinese-owned TikTok deletes accounts criticizing CCP policies. Since August 2019, Twitter has removed more than 170,000 CCP-linked accounts for spreading “manipulative and coordinated” propaganda. It is no coincidence that China has expelled so many Western reporters in recent months—Beijing wants the world to get its news about China, and especially about the origins of the novel coronavirus, from its own propaganda organs.
The CCP is increasingly using its leverage to control American speech.
In addition to influencing the information Americans receive regarding China, the CCP is increasingly using its leverage to control American speech. When the general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team tweeted his support for peaceful protesters in Hong Kong, the CCP announced that Rockets games would not be shown on Chinese TV and pressed others associated with the league, including star players, to criticize the tweet. Under pressure from the CCP, American, Delta, and United Airlines removed references to Taiwan from their websites and in-flight magazines. Mercedes Benz apologized for posting an inspirational quote from the Dalai Lama. MGM digitally changed the nationality of an invading military from Chinese to North Korean in a remake of the movie Red Dawn. In the credits for its 2020 remake of Mulan, Disney thanked public security and propaganda bureaus in Xinjiang, where the CCP has locked up millions of minorities in concentration camps.
The CCP is also gathering leverage over individuals by collecting Americans’ data—their words, purchases, whereabouts, health records, posts, texts, and social networks. This data is collected through security flaws and backdoors in hardware, software, telecommunications, and genetics products (many operated by CCP-subsidized businesses such as Huawei and ZTE) as well as by theft. Beijing hacked Anthem Health Insurance in 2014; the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which holds security clearance information on millions of government employees, in 2015; Equifax in 2017; and Marriot Hotels in 2019. In these instances alone, the CCP gathered key information on at least half of all living Americans, including their names, birth dates, Social Security numbers, credit scores, health records, and passport numbers. The CCP will use this data the same way it uses data within China’s borders: to target, influence, harass, and even blackmail Americans to say and do things that serve the CCP’s interests.
The CCP also uses trade to coerce compliance. For example, when Australia called for an independent investigation of the coronavirus’s origin and spread, Beijing imposed an 80 percent tariff on Australian barley exports, threatened to stop buying Australian agricultural products altogether, and signaled it would prevent Chinese students and tourists from traveling to Australia. Most recently, the CCP reportedly ordered importers to stop buying Australian coal.
Reshaping international organizations is another part of China’s plan. China has sought leadership positions within many global bodies and now heads four out of the 15 United Nations specialized agencies, more than France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (the other permanent members of the UN Security Council) combined. Beijing uses the leaders of these agencies to co-opt international institutions, parrot its talking points, and install Chinese telecommunications equipment in their facilities. Secretary-General Zhao Houlin of the International Telecommunications Union has aggressively promoted Huawei sales; International Civil Aviation Organization Secretary-General Fang Liu blocked Taiwan’s participation in General Assembly meetings and covered up a Chinese cyber-hack of the organization. China’s membership on the UN Human Rights Council has enabled the CCP to prevent criticism of its abuses in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang. In many cases, the CCP’s reach extends to the heads of international organizations who are not themselves Chinese officials. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the World Health Organization dutifully repeated false Chinese talking points on the novel coronavirus outbreak—even opposing international travel restrictions on China while praising China’s own domestic travel restrictions.
American policymakers, under President Donald Trump’s leadership, are aware of what the CCP is doing and are taking decisive action to counter it across the board. The Department of Justice and the FBI are directing resources to identify foreign agents seeking to influence U.S. policy. The DOJ, for example, informed Chinese state media company CGTN America of its obligation to register as a foreign agent as specified under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires registrants to disclose their activities to federal authorities and appropriately label information materials they distribute. The State Department designated the U.S. operations of nine Chinese state-controlled propaganda outlets as “foreign missions”—which places personnel and property reporting requirements on them—and implemented a policy requiring Chinese diplomats to notify and, in some cases, seek permission from the U.S. government before meeting with state and local government officials and academic institutions.
The Trump administration is also working to highlight China’s malign behavior, counter false narratives, and compel transparency. U.S. officials are leading efforts to educate the American public about the exploitation of the United States’ free and open society to push a CCP agenda inimical to U.S. interests and values. That includes combating Beijing’s co-optation and coercion of its own citizens (and American citizens) in U.S. academic institutions and working with universities to protect the rights of Chinese students on American campuses, providing information to counter CCP propaganda and disinformation, and ensuring an understanding of ethical codes of conduct in an American academic environment. Chinese military researchers are no longer allowed to pursue certain advanced technological degrees in the United States. But real Chinese students, coming here to learn rather than to steal, are always welcome.
The FBI opens a new case on Chinese economic espionage every ten hours.
The administration has also countered the malign activities of Chinese companies abetting CCP efforts. It has sanctioned companies such as Huawei that answer to the CCP’s intelligence and security apparatus, including by imposing restrictions on Huawei’s access to U.S. semiconductor technology. It is blocking companies controlled by the Chinese government from purchasing American businesses with sensitive technologies and private information about American citizens; the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act signed into law in 2018 has greatly expanded the United States’ ability to screen foreign investments that put national security at risk. The Defense Department recently submitted to Congress a list of companies linked to the People’s Liberation Army that have operations in the United States so that the American people are fully informed about the companies they are doing business with.
Washington has also imposed restrictions on dozens of Chinese companies (as well as Chinese government entities) complicit in China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labor, and surveillance against Uighurs and other minorities. Officials involved in these abuses can no longer travel to the United States, and certain goods produced using Uighur forced labor cannot be imported. Meanwhile, the DOJ has concentrated resources on prosecuting Chinese technology theft—the FBI opens a new case on Chinese economic espionage every ten hours. The Securities and Exchange Commission is working to protect investors by insisting that publicly listed Chinese companies adhere to the same standard of public oversight and accounting that firms in the United States and other countries must follow. And the administration left the UN Human Rights Council in response to the travesty of its co-optation by China and terminated the United States’ relationship with the World Health Organization because its response to the pandemic showed that it, too, is beholden to the CCP.
These steps mark just the beginning of a longer process of correcting 40 years of a one-sided, unfair relationship with China, one that has severely affected the United States’ economic and, more recently, political well-being. The Trump administration has spoken with candor and shone the spotlight of transparency on the CCP’s true character and will continue to so—what Confucius called a “rectification of names,” making words correspond to reality. The CCP operates as a global influence and propaganda organization, and the United States must recognize it as such, neutralizing attempts to dominate global discourse by recommitting to our own values and reinvigorating the common terminology that binds us together with our allies and partners. In doing so, we will improve the resiliency of our institutions, alliances, and partnerships to prevail against the challenges China presents—ideologically and otherwise.
Washington must also continue to impose costs on Beijing in order to compel it to cease or reduce actions harmful to the United States’ vital national interests and those of our allies and partners. The United States can no longer let the CCP grow stronger at our expense or with our assistance. The days of American passivity and naivety are over, and we will continue to speak about and respond to the CCP as it is, not as former U.S. policymakers had wished it to be. The 2017 National Security Strategy calls this approach “principled realism.”
Lasting peace comes through strength. The United States is the strongest country on earth, and it must speak out, fight back, and above all, stay true to its principles—especially freedom of speech—which stand in stark contrast to the Marxist-Leninist ideology embraced by the CCP.