Near the end of September, before the United Nations, President Donald Trump leveled an extraordinary charge: China was attempting to “meddle” and “interfere” in the upcoming US election. A senior intelligence official repeated the claim on a subsequent call with reporters. And on Thursday, in a speech at the Hudson Institute think tank, Vice President Mike Pence made the implication explicit: “What the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country, and the American people deserve to know it.”
It’s a standout “big, if true” moment in an administration full of them. Russia, after all, launched a coordinated, well-funded, years-long covert assault on US democracy. It spread disinformation and sowed division, posing as US citizens online, violating laws and geopolitical norms. Russian intelligence agents hacked into the email accountsof multiple high-profile Democratic individuals and institutions, and timed their release for maximum disruptive effect. It was an unprecedented attack on the US electoral process. It’s hard to imagine what a more aggressive version of that would even look like. Especially because it does not yet exist.
China absolutely tries to exert its influence in the US. It has carried out several high-profile cyberattacks, generally focused on gleaning intelligence. But to say that China’s actions are anything remotely like Russia’s in 2016 and beyond isn’t just wrong—it distorts the threats the US faces, potentially making it harder to counteract them.
“They feel like substantively different things. China seeks to influence foreign actors, and does use influence operations, but they really differ in important ways from what Russia does,” says Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former senior intelligence officer currently at the Center for a New American Security think tank. “I actually think that the Chinese probably view Russia’s approach as ineffective and counterproductive.”
Pence at least articulated a fuller picture of what the Trump administration means when it castigates China. He cited the country’s efforts to promote its interests in the United States through tough interactions with business leaders, retaliatory tariffs that target districts that voted for Trump, and an advertisement in The Des Moines Register, designed to look like authentic news articles but clearly labeled as paid content. “There can be no doubt,” Pence said. “China is meddling in American democracy.”
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