July 19, 2018

China Built an Army of Influence Agents in the U.S.

The Daily Beast


07.18.18 4:49 AM ET


In May, a classified Australian government report revealed that the Chinese Communist Party had spent the last decade attempting to influence every level of that nation’s government and politics.

“Unlike Russia, which seems to be as much for a good time rather than a long time, the Chinese are strategic, patient, and they set down foundations of organizations and very consistent narratives over a long period of time,” said the author of the report in March.

“They put an enormous amount of effort into making sure we don’t talk about what it’s doing.”

Commissioned by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the wake of a series of Chinese influence scandals that rocked Australian politics last year, the report, compiled under the auspices of an intelligence agency, examined Chinese attempts to influence politicians, political donations, media, and academia.

But such a report could easily be written about the United States—and may soon be. U.S. intelligence agencies have long tracked Beijing’s clandestine attempts at political influence inside the United States.

And they don’t like what they see. One former CIA analyst put it bluntly: Beijing’s agents in this country aim “to turn Americans against their own government’s interests and their society’s interests.”

Unlike Australia, however, American society has yet to engage in a broad public debate about the issue. Most Americans have never even heard of the main conduit of such influence, an obscure but sprawling Chinese Communist Party agency known as the United Front.

The organization has been around in one form or another since the World War II era. Mao famously referred to the United Front as one of the Communist Party’s “magic weapons.” These days, United Front operations sometimes resemble the CIA’s soft attempts to buy off, co-opt, or coerce influential community leaders. Sometimes it functions like a booster club for pro-party locals, or like an advocacy group trying to sway public opinion. Sometimes it works in concert with China’s traditional intelligence agencies, such as the Ministry of State Security, to gather information or apply pressure. And United Front networks may sometimes play a role in facilitating intellectual property theft and soft intelligence collection, though that role isn’t always clear.

What is clear is that the United Front is active in dozens of U.S. cities and has been for years, with almost no one the wiser.

Standing in front of a ruby-red backdrop, a Chinese diplomat’s hand resting lighting on her lower back, He Xiaohui looked radiant. The Chinese-American woman, a local activist in Maryland politics, had just been appointed president of the National Association for China’s Peaceful Unification in Washington, D.C., which describes itself as a non-profit for Chinese-Americans dedicated to the eventual unification of China with Taiwan.

He Xiaohui posed for a photo with the previous president, who was symbolically handing over an object to her. Presiding over the January 13 handover was Li Kexin, a high-profile minister at the Chinese embassy in Washington. Li stood between two, a hand on each of their backs.

“No matter the time, no matter the situation, the Chinese government and 1.4 billion Chinese people will always have your back,” said Li in his remarks. “I believe that this new cohort of leadership will continue… to unite the power of overseas Chinese, and hold high the banners of anti-independence and peaceful unification.”

On paper, peaceful reunification associations, such as the Washington, D.C. branch, are independent from both the Chinese government and, largely, each other. But functionally, these associations are the United Front’s most ubiquitous outposts in the United States. And as the leader of one of the oldest such associations in the world, He, who also goes by Helen, serves as a top point of contact between the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing and the Chinese-American community in greater Washington, D.C.

“Peaceful reunification associations”—the term refers to Beijing’s intent to obtain sovereignty over Taiwan—have a close relationship with the United Front Work Department, in some cases functioning almost as an extension of its Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, the government agency that focuses on outreach to the Chinese diaspora. (Sun Chunlan, who until 2017 directed the United Front Work Department, simultaneously served as the executive vice president of the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Unification in Beijing.)

The peaceful reunification association has established chapters in over 70 countries, according to the organization’s website. In the United States, there are more than 30 chapters in cities across the country, including San FranciscoChicagoHoustonNew York, and Washington, D.C. And while “peaceful reunification” was one of the original aims of United Front work, the associations in different countries may engage on many issues, including territorial integrity flashpoints such Tibet, Hong Kong, and maritime claims in the East and South China Seas.

Peaceful reunification associations serve as one of the CCP’s main connection points with Chinese-American communities. They function as welcome centers for visiting government officials, as platforms for the dissemination of party propaganda, as hubs that allow Beijing to identify and potentially co-opt prominent community members, and as centers for local community organizing, such as hosting cultural events.

The Washington branch is particularly illustrious. Founded in 1973, it was one of the earliest such organizations, and Beijing has praised its accomplishments. The organization sent a delegation to Beijing in 2015, where they met Tan Tianxing, the deputy director of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office. Tan praised the organization, saying that since its founding in 1973, the Washington branch has “done a lot of useful work” to “fight Taiwanese independence and promote unification.”

“After the Tiananmen Square massacre, the party launched a decades-long expansion of United Front activity abroad. The aim was to build party-linked networks in overseas Chinese communities, keep them connected to Beijing, and quash any anti-party organizing.”



At its heart, United Front strategy involves amplifying friendly voices and suppressing critical ones. After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the CCP realized that it had a major global image problem, and it feared that the pro-democracy movement would flourish in overseas Chinese communities and then seep back in China. So the party launched what would become a decades-long expansion of United Front activity abroad, particularly among diaspora communities. The aim was to build party-linked networks in overseas Chinese communities, keep them connected to Beijing, and quash any anti-party organizing.

These overseas efforts have targeted independent Chinese-language media outlets, Chinese student and community groups, Chinese businesses and organizations, and increasingly, prominent non-Chinese individuals and organizations, including campaign donors and politicians, with the goal of convincing them to promote Beijing’s policies and interests in their host countries.

Anne-Marie Brady, a fellow at the Wilson Center who researches the United Front’s activities in New Zealand, describes the goal of United Front work among overseas Chinese communities as “[getting] the community to proactively and even better, spontaneously, engage in activities which enhance China’s foreign policy agenda.”

Peter Mattis, a former CIA China analyst and a research fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, takes it a step further.

“The purpose of this department is to turn Americans against their own government’s interests and their society’s interests,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s undermining the integrity of our democracy and it’s getting Americans to do it themselves.”

And by targeting Chinese-Americans, “it foments discord and encourages racial divisions. And what’s worse is, I think the party knows it.”

“They’re essentially taunting foreign governments like the United States to turn on their Chinese populations,” Mattis added.

United Front activity creates discord within the Chinese-American community as well. It actively creates pro-Beijing groups and pits them against Taiwanese and Tibetan groups, dissidents, and Falun Gong practitioners. As one Taiwanese-American told The Daily Beast, “It’s like everyone is in a faction and they’re trying to gauge what faction you’re in.”

In Australia, a major scandal unfoldedlast year after it was revealed that Huang Xiangmo, a top political donor and president of the country’s peaceful reunification association, had attempted to use his donations to sway Australia’s position on the South China Sea, a hotly contested region that China claims as its own. In New Zealand, the peaceful reunification association organizes Chinese community members to fundraise and block-votefor China-friendly politicians.

Less public scrutiny has been applied to peaceful reunification associations in the United States, so less is known about their activities. But according to former Western intelligence officials, the United Front and its U.S-based proxies actively cultivate ties to campaign donors in America. And the United Front has made it clear that it wants overseas Chinese to get involved in their respective countries’ politics to sway things in China’s favor.

And that’s exactly what He Xiaohui, the newly appointed head of Washington’s peaceful reunification association, has said Chinese-Americans ought to do.

“Helen” He came to the United States in 1988. In the 2000s, she became politically active in Maryland, lobbying the state government to make Chinese lunar new year an official holiday, founding an umbrella group for Chinese hometown associations called the Coordination Council of Chinese American Associations, and organizing voter drives in the Chinese community. In 2010, she was awarded the Governor’s Volunteer Service Award. She has also donated to the campaigns of local and state-level politicians.

Or at least, that’s what her English-language online footprint says. Chinese-language sources paint a different picture.

In 2005, He said in an interview with official party mouthpiece People’s Dailythat Chinese people in America should get involved in civic spaces to oppose Taiwan independence and to “fight for the support of American people for China to achieve unification.” Unification with Taiwan, which has ruled itself since 1949, is one of the party’s top core interests.

In April, in an interview with the pro-Beijing newspaper Qiao Bao, for example, He criticized the recently-passed Taiwan Travel Act, which makes it easier for government officials from the U.S. and Taiwan to visit each other, and the 2018 National Defense Authorization act, saying they “interfered in China’s internal affairs” and “seriously violated the One-China Principle.”

Statements such as these are a window into He’s views, but also demonstrate a specific United Front strategy. When the United States adopts a policy that Beijing doesn’t like, official news outlets and website can approach people like He for comment, then tout those statements as evidence that Chinese-Americans don’t approve of Washington’s latest move. One intended audiences for this evidence is Chinese people in China -- it serves to bolster the party’s image as receiving support from Chinese around the world, not just at home.

He has worked for years in local-level community and political organizing in Maryland, and has become known among Maryland politicians for her ability to reach the Chinese community. Lily Qi, a current Democratic nominee for Maryland state delegate, described He as “one of those great connectors to pay attention to local level.” If you need to reach out to the local Chinese community, Qi told The Daily Beast, “she would always step up, more than most people, and follow through.” (Helen He did not respond to a request for comment).

That level of influence is just what United Front officials look for as they scout out potential recruits.

In 2009, while serving as president of the Chinese hometown associations group, He was invited to Beijing to serve as an overseas delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), one of China’s two rubber-stamp legislatures and another important United Front body that identifies influential overseas Chinese and aims to incorporate them into the party’s overseas goals.

Being chosen as a CPPCC delegate means that “these people are recognized by the [Chinese] party-state,” said Gerry Groot, who researched the United Front and serves as head of the department of Asian studies at the University of Adelaide in Australia. “The United Front department has seen these people as being influential and important in their communities, and is seeking to increase or deepen their ties to China, as the ancestral land.”

“In rewarding them, those people get status in their communities back home,” continued Groot, “and in many cases it increases their influence back home. And that means that these people go back much more committed to supporting the party than they were.”

A common thread runs through much of the United Front’s related activities in the United States and other Western democracies. It uses the freedoms guaranteed in liberal democracies to promote Beijing’s own ends. At times it resembles the tools that democracies such as the United States use to promote their own interests—funding friendly media outlets, recruiting sympathetic locals—but Chinese influence operations often employ elements of secrecy, coercion, and repression that the United States usually does not.  

It also means that any response to the United Front must be carefully calibrated to preserve the rights and freedoms of Chinese-Americans.

“It is tempting to frame all party-state encroachment as a national security issue,” wrote Mattis and Samantha Hoffman, a research fellow at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, in May. But “bringing national security tools to bear risks what makes America exceptional. As the CCP tightens its grip, the United States should extend an open hand. It means ensuring Chinese students, scholars, and perhaps future Americans do not have their right to liberty impeded on American soil.”

“Rising to China’s challenge, however, is as much about being a better America as it is finding the appropriate strategic response.”

Whenever Chinese President Xi Jinping makes high-profile visits to cities abroad— whether Washington, Prague, or Auckland—he is almost invariably greeted by crowds of enthusiastic Chinese students wearing red t-shirts and carrying signs proclaiming their support. They line the streets outside of the meeting venue, sometimes for days, and local media outlets tend to be impressed with the level of committed patriotism that Chinese students display for their country’s leader, who has overseen a sweeping ideological crackdown on Chinese society and higher education.

But such demonstrations are often organized by Chinese consular officials, who work through the Chinese Student and Scholar Associations, or CSSAs, that exist on the campuses of universities around the United States and many other countries. CSSAs are another good example of United Front strategy at work in the United States. There are between 100 and 150 CSSAs at universities around the United States, and many of them are quite large and influential on campus. These are not the only Chinese student groups in the U.S., but unlike other groups, CSSAs typically consider themselves to be under the “official guidance” of the consulate—language they often include on their websites in Chinese but not in English. Many or most CSSAs receive funding from the Chinese embassy.

In return for their assistance and funding, Chinese consular officials make occasional political “asks” of CSSAs. These asks include quiet political mobilization campaigns. Any time a top Chinese leader visits a U.S. city, consular officials will direct student groups to wear red t-shirts, carry Chinese flags, hold enthusiastic signs, and fan out onto the streets to welcome the visiting leader. Sometimes the consulates offer cash compensation to students, up to $60 per day in some cases. They often provide the t-shirts and flags, may pay for transportation, and may provide food and snacks.

“At times they resemble the tools that democracies like the United States use to promote their own interests. But Chinese influence operations often employ elements of secrecy, coercion, and repression that the United States usually does not.”

Chinese students are joined by delegations from other Chinese community organizations such as hometown associations who have received similar directives from the consulates, creating sizable crowds that easily drown out small groups of Chinese dissidents or other protesters. The resulting reports in both Western and Chinese language media typically portray these activities as “patriotic” demonstrations by “supporters of Beijing.”

There’s another reason the party wants to organize such large crowds. As participants have told The Daily Beast, one goal is to take up as much space as possible in prime locations in front of meeting venues so that would-be dissidents simply have no room to lodge their protests against the CCP.

This isn’t organic patriotism, though certainly many Chinese are patriotic. But it is intended to look like it. And the scale and scope of this covert political mobilization is striking. Embassies have been able to organize large pro-Beijing demonstrations in major cities all over the world for at least 15 years, and mainstream media coverage almost without exception portrays such events as evidence of organic grassroots support for Beijing—precisely the goal of United Front work.

A United Front policy which has become increasingly prominent in the past two decades is to encourage “huaren canzheng,” or Chinese participation in the politics of the countries they live in. Qiu Yuanping, the current director of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, which is under the direct oversight of the United Front Department, regularly encourages Chinese living in the United States and elsewhere to get involved in politics and to vote.

It’s a policy that by nature is tricky to discuss. In the United States, Chinese communities have traditionally been politically marginalized, and efforts to get more Chinese-Americans to vote and run for office are sorely needed. “Of course it is completely normal and to be encouraged that the ethnic Chinese communities in each country seek political representation,” the New Zealand scholar Brady writes in her report.

But the United Front efforts to encourage overseas Chinese to participate in politics are not “spontaneous and natural development,” writes Brady.

“This policy encourages overseas Chinese who are acceptable to the PRC government to become involved in politics in their host countries as candidates who, if elected, will be able to act to promote China’s interests abroad,” says Brady, “and encourages China’s allies to build relations with non-Chinese pro-CCP government foreign political figures, to offer donations to foreign political parties, and to mobilize public opinion via Chinese language social media; so as to promote the PRC's economic and political agenda abroad.”

Here’s an example of what that can look like. Yang Chunlai, a Chinese engineer, came to the United States in 1990. He later became the president of the Association of Chinese Scientists and Engineers, a U.S.-based group founded in 1992. In his role as ACSE president, Yang traveled to China in 2007 to participate in a conference for overseas Chinese organizations hosted by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office.

At a speech he gave at the conference, Yang said that Beijing views overseas Chinese political participation in host countries as a means to serve China.

“China has gone through three stages regarding its approach to overseas Chinese making contributions to China,” said Yang. “The earliest stage was emphasizing that overseas scholars should return home to serve China. Later, we realized that serving China doesn’t necessarily require returning to China. Now, China is placing an emphasis on our development in foreign countries, paying close attention to whether or not we can enter local mainstream society and play an active role in the politics and debate of our host countries.”

Yang added, “Next year is a big election year in America; voting is hard logic. ACSE hopes to take advantage of this opportunity to further expand our influence on American mainstream society.”

Perhaps Yang’s name rings a bell. That’s because he was arrested in 2011, accused of stealing trade secrets in a scheme to set up an exchange in China. He pleaded guilty, was convicted in 2015, and sentenced to four years probation. In the reporting on his arrest, trial, and conviction, his participation in United Front-related activities in China was not mentioned.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian

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‘60 Minutes’ Boss Hired Law Firm Over #MeToo Story


07.19.18 9:00 PM ET

One of television’s most powerful men,60 Minutes Executive Producer Jeff Fager, hired a law firm that boasts about “killing stories” for a Washington Post investigation into him, three sources familiar with the matter told The Daily Beast.

The story was a deep dive into what CBS managers knew about former anchor Charlie Rose’s alleged sexual misconduct, but due to the aggressive tactics of law firm Clare Locke, the sources said, the story was “effectively neutered.”

Clare Locke also did work for former Today show host Matt Lauer and current New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush, three sources say. Both men were accused in news publications of sexually harassing women. The law firm was also recently hired by David Pecker, the CEO and chairman of American Media Inc., parent company of the National Enquirer, to try and shut down a negative story from a newspaper, according to two sources.

Clare Locke is the creation of husband and wife team Tom Clare and Elizabeth “Libby” Locke. “Some of Libby’s biggest defamation ‘wins’ are stories the public will never hear about,” her website says. They have litigated against Rolling StoneThe New York Times, Katie Couric, CNN, and Gawker, to name a few.

And despite being retained by some of the biggest names in media, Locke has publicly backed President Trump’s call to “open up” libel laws and attacked shield laws that protect journalists from disclosing their sources in court. “How are you supposed to prove as a defamation plaintiff that the journalist knew what they were writing was false if you don’t have access to the identities of their sources? It’s really problematic,” she said in a speech last year to the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.

Locke continued, saying she wanted to “talk a little bit about why the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of freedom of the press.”

Last November, The Washington Postbroke the story that eight women had accused CBS News anchor Charlie Rose of sexual harassment, going back decades. Reporters Amy Brittain and Irin Carmon weren’t done when that was published, though, and went back to dig on who knew what and when at CBS, three sources say.

By April, Fager and other CBS News executives were “all terrified about a looming Washington Post investigation that’s now been in the works for months,” the New York Post’s Page Six reported.

On May 3, The Washington Postreported Rose’s alleged harassment was more widespread than first reported and that three managers were told. Fager, who installed Rose on the 60 Minutes roster in 2008 and tapped him for the CBS morning show in 2011, was barely mentioned. He told the Post he hadn’t learned of the allegations against Rose until the first report emerged in November.

Multiple sources say the follow-up story as filed had included more reporting about Fager.

Clare Locke was “able to slow it down and in effect change the dynamic,” a person with knowledge of the situation told The Daily Beast. The law firm sent The Washington Post several letters threatening litigation, the sources said. As a result, other reporting about Fager was left out of the published story, three sources said.

An investigative journalist who has been on the receiving end of a Clare Locke letter said it’s effective: “They slow it down. It’s just annoying. It spooks you which can then spook your sources.”

Brittain and Carmon were so irate their investigation had been watered down they made their displeasure known to Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron, a source told The Daily Beast, adding, “They were pissed.”

The Washington Post said in a statement it “devotes enormous resources to investigative journalism. Each of the many stories we publish must meet longstanding standards for publication. Outside pressures, legal or otherwise, do not determine what we publish.”

Carmon made an apparent reference to such “outside pressures” last month when she and Brittain accepted a Mirror Award for “Best Story on Sexual Misconduct in the Media Industry.”

“The stories that we have been doing are about a system. The system has lawyers and a good reputation,” Carmon said in her acceptance speech. “Indeed, the system is sitting in this room. Some more than others. The system is still powerful men getting stories killed that I believe will one day see the light of day.”

Fager was present at the award ceremony to accept a special honor for 60 Minutes’ work. Fager and CBS declined to comment for this story.

Clare told The Daily Beast: “We’re proud of the pre-publication work we do to make sure that media reports about our clients are truthful and accurate.”



The powerhouse law firm started with a romance, former coworkers say.

Tom Clare was an equity partner at Kirkland & Ellis based in Washington, D.C. in 2006 when he met Libby Locke, a lawyer who had just joined the firm’s litigation unit as an associate after graduating from Georgetown Law School in 2005, four former Kirkland & Ellis employees said.

By 2011, Libby was a non-equity partner. “To break through the noise you need a good sponsor and Tom was that for her, definitely,” a former co-worker said.

Tom and Libby left Kirkland to set up their own firm, Clare Locke, in Alexandria, Virginia, in 2014, according to business records. (They got married in 2017 and recently welcomed a baby girl into the world, Libby’s third child. They even own a private plane together, according to FAA records.) “Our clients include CEOs, hedge-fund managers, professional athletes, celebrities, high net worth and prominent individuals, consumer products companies, and even professional journalists,” they boast on their website.

One of those professional journalists is Glenn Thrush of The New York Times. Tom Clare sent a letter on behalf of Thrush to Vox when he was accused of sexual harassment by several women, including journalist Laura McGann. Clare “suggested that the company look into McGann’s ‘relationships’” at Politico, where McGann and Thrush had worked together,” Jezebel reportedafter obtaining the letter.

“We didn’t know the extent to which she would be reporting on her own experiences and the experiences of others in the same story,” Clare told The Daily Beast about the letter. “It was in no way victim-shaming. We thought it was a fair question. We thought it was an issue that needed to be disclosed.”

At the same time Clare Locke was working with Thrush, one of the Times’ most recognizable journalists, they were also representing Sarah Palin in a appeal against the Times. Palin accused the newspaper of libel over a opinion piece saying the Republican’s rhetoric led to the assassination attempt on Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in 2011. (Thrush and the Times declined to comment.)

“There’s is a new spin on defamation practice. They are bragging about killing stories. They are not focusing on litigation but the pre-publication element to squash a story,” saidTheodore J. Boutrous Jr., partner at the Gibson Dunn law firm and a vocal First Amendment advocate.

Boutrous was surprised to learn that journalists had retained Clare Locke.

“That is extraordinary and it is really playing with fire. Once you start as a journalist engaging in those sorts of tactics, it’s almost certain to fuel others to engage in those tactics even more and that’s bad for journalism.”

Clare said, “We take it as a great compliment that, in a small fraction of our matters, professional journalists have retained our firm.”

The roll call of lawsuits involving Clare Locke reads like a list of some of the biggest names in media in recent memory.  

Clare Locke won a $3 million judgment for University of Virginia’s dean of students in a defamation case against Rolling Stone over a retracted story that said the campus administrator dismissed a woman’s allegation she was raped on campus.

Clare Locke has also sued on behalf of a gun-rights group against Katie Couric(they lost that case, but plan to appeal); the former investigator of the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal on behalf of Pennsylvania State University’s former president (dismissed by a judge. The judge had compared a complaint in that case to a “James Patterson novel”); a heart surgeon against CNN (the case is continuing); a Muslim activist against the Southern Poverty Law Center (won a $3.4 million defamation judgment); and the U.K.’s Daily Mail against Gawker (settled with a more detailed correction, according to a source).  

“They are very good. They know where to press and what will have an effect,” one lawyer who has tangled with the firm on multiple occasions told The Daily Beast. “They are pretty successful in managing to have a story framed to suit their clients’ interests.”

A top lawyer at a national media organization was less impressed: “I don’t think this strategy is very effective. You have to look at how many suits are filed to letters sent. You’re in the ratio of elbow cancer.”

One journalist told The Daily Beast about his own experience with Clare Locke, who represented a Zambian businessman.

David Marchant, who runs the website OffshoreAlert.com, published a court document showing the government of Zambia had requested assistance from the U.S. Department of Justice as part of an investigation into Rajan Lekhraj Mahtani. Clare Locke wrote to OffshoreAlert in March a demand letter for the “immediate removal” of the document. (Another website, Zambia Reports, which has reported on Mahtani, caved to the legal threats. A person with knowledge of the situation said “They were bullied and intimidated into pulling those articles down.”)

Marchant, whose work was profiled by The Wall Street Journal after 11 people exposed by OffshoreAlert were charged with fraud and money laundering, refused the demand.

“When I responded, I never heard from them. It speaks for itself. I secretly say bring the lawsuit. My message to them is ‘I’m going to whip down your pants and bend you over my knee and give you a damn good spanking and it’s going to be in public.”  

“They are banking on me being a wimp or ignorant. I’m neither of those two things. I’m a trained journalist. A lot of people will cave to a slightest bit of pressure,” Marchant told The Daily Beast. “No one wants to be sued. They knew they didn’t have a legal basis. It was not the most professional letter. You can tell who is serious and who isn’t. It was nonsense in there. It was absurd. It was Mickey Mouse.”

Boutrous said letters like that are oftentimes meant to “intimidate publication of newsworthy information.

“They rarely sue, but seek to deter publication—but threatening to do so and that can have a real chilling effect on First Amendment rights. That’s especially true when the threats are being made to small publications and websites where they don’t have a legal team in place to deal with those issues.”

But Tom Clare added “It’s easy (but flat wrong) for critics to mischaracterize our work as ‘making threats’ and ‘chilling speech’ when, in reality, we promote accurate reporting by presenting the facts and evidence that journalists need to make informed decisions about the stories they are considering for publication.”

For her part, Locke told The Federalist Society she is a fan of the First Amendment.

“It is what separates this great democratic republic from many of the other nations around the world. We have the freedom to go online to speak our minds to criticize our government and to criticize businesses and individuals and we are not going to be locked up and thrown in jail as a result of that. But this hysteria about the war on the press is incredibly overblown.”

July 17, 2018

Networked Press Freedom: Creating Infrastructures for a Public Right to Hear

If freedom of speech guarantees the right to speak, what about the right to hear?

A new book by Mike Ananny, CPD Summer Institute instructor and USC Annenberg assistant professor of communication and journalism, re-examines the notion of a free press: beyond an individual's right to share information, the book focuses on the public's access to it. 

Networked Press Freedom: Creating Infrastructures for a Public Right to Hear is a timely contribution in the realm of public diplomacy as the need to counter disinformation and combat the spread of fake news increases.

Publisher MIT Press explains, "Ananny challenges the idea that press freedom comes only from heroic, lone journalists who speak truth to power. Instead, drawing on journalism studies, institutional sociology, political theory, science and technology studies, and an analysis of ten years of journalism discourse about news and technology, he argues that press freedom emerges from social, technological, institutional, and normative forces that vie for power and fight for visions of democratic life."

The book can be found on the MIT Press website here.


USC Public Diplomacy


Jul 16, 2018

Corneliu Bjola

In the introductory chapter to the edited volume on Digital Diplomacy: Theory and Practice that Marcus Holmes and I published four years ago, I asked the question of whether digital technologies could be seen as a harbinger of change for diplomacy by revolutionizing the way diplomats perform their traditional functions of representation, communication and negotiation.

As the question remains valid today, it might be useful to take stock of the common conceptions and misconceptions of digital diplomacy so that we can get a better picture of how digital technologies have shaped expectations about diplomatic practice in the past decade and how digital diplomacy may continue to evolve in the coming years.

The Superman Myth

The first and surprisingly common misconception about digital diplomacy is the Superman myth, which claims that digital technology can grant extraordinary powers to those using them, and in so doing, it can help them increase their diplomatic clout to levels they might otherwise not be able to reach.

It is largely for this reason that small- and medium-sized states (e.g., Sweden, the Netherlands, Mexico, Israel, Australia) have proved so keen adopters of digital diplomacy, as it presented itself to them as a great opportunity to “punch” diplomatically above their political or economic weight. It is thus assumed that by being able to directly reach and engage millions of people, MFAs and their network of embassies could positively shape the views of the global public about the country of origin, and in so doing, they could increase the diplomatic standing of the country in bilateral or multilateral contexts.

The argument has a seductive logic, not least because of the scope, scale and reach that digital diplomacy affords MFAs to pursue. At the same time, it suffers from a structural flaw, namely, that digital technologies constitute a distinct source of power, which, if properly harnessed, can offset deficiencies in hard or soft power. In fact, the way in which digital technologies operate is by creating a platform through which other forms of power can be projected in support of certain foreign policy objectives. In short, the digital cannot give MFAs Superman strength, but it can help them channel the strength they already have more efficiently and productively.

The “Walk in the Park” Myth

The second and fairly entrenched misconception is the “Walk in the Park” myth, which supports the view that “going digital” is easy and that MFAs can successfully pursue their digital diplomatic ambitions with relatively modest investments in training and resources.

The speed by which the global public has migrated to the digital medium reinforces the idea of accessibility of social media platforms and the notion that anyone with basic technical skills can take part, shape and influence online conversations. What this view neglects, however, to acknowledge is the fact that with no clear direction or strategic compass, the tactical, trial-and-error methods by which MFAs seek to build their digital profile and to maximize the impact of their online presence cannot demonstrate their value beyond message dissemination. In other words, the adoption of digital tools without an overarching strategy of how they should be used in support of certain foreign policy objectives runs the risk of digital diplomacy becoming decoupled from foreign policy.

With 3.02 billion people or 38% of the world population expected to be on social media by 2021, a fast-growing rate of global mobile penetration and the anticipated launch of 5G technology in the next few years, the potential for positive and meaningful digital diplomatic engagement is strong and substantial.

The strategic use of digital platforms imposes order on digital activities through the definition of measurable goals, target audiences and parameters for evaluation. The goals determine the target audience, which in turn, determine the platforms, methods and metrics to be used. This implies that training cannot be limited to the art of crafting messages, but it must professionalize itself and focus on developing skills by which digital diplomats can strategically harness the power of digital platforms toward achieving pre-defined and measurable goals.

The Extinction Myth

The third and growing misconception is theExtinction myth, according to which digital diplomacy will gradually replace or make redundant traditional forms of diplomacy.

On the weaker side of the myth, there is the perception that digital technologies have the capacity to fundamentally change how diplomats perform their traditional functions of representation, communication and negotiation to the point that they may even put an “end to diplomacy,” as Lord Palmerstone once similarly quipped when he took notice of the arrival of the telegraph.

Stronger versions of the myth go a step further and acknowledge the possibility of having physical embassies and even diplomats replaced at some point by virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI), respectively. While digital technologies have demonstrated clear potential for revolutionizing how diplomats conduct public diplomacy, deliver consular services or manage crises, one should nevertheless be mindful of the fact that the core function of diplomacy that is relationship-building and management cannot be accomplished without close and sustained human contact.

The myth may thus be right about the fact that by increasing efficiency, digital technologies would likely reduce the number of diplomats required to perform certain routine functions. At the same time, the “extinction” hypothesis is hardly credible as the negotiation of human values and interests cannot be delegated to machines, and the amount of trust and mutual understanding that makes the “wheels” of diplomacy turn cannot be built without humans.

The Darth Vader Myth

The fourth and rather dark misconception of digital diplomacy is the Darth Vader myth, which sees the positive potential of digital platforms for engagement and cooperation at risk of being hijacked by the “dark side” of the technology and redirected for propaganda use.

The digital disinformation campaignsattributed to the Russian government, which has allegedly been seeking to disrupt electoral processes in Europe and the United States in recent years, offer credible evidence in support of this view. More worryingly, the digital medium operates in such a way that makes it an easy target for propaganda use.

Algorithmic dissemination of content and the circumvention of traditional media filters and opinion-formation gatekeepers makes disinformation spread faster, reach deeper, be more emotionally charged, and most importantly, be more resilient due to the confirmation bias that online echo chambers enable and reinforce. That being said, one should be mindful of the fact that any technology faces the problem of double use, as the case of nuclear energy clearly illustrates.

Trends are also important to consider. With 3.02 billion people or 38% of the world population expected to be on social media by 2021, a fast-growing rate of global mobile penetration and the anticipated launch of 5G technology in the next few years, the potential for positive and meaningful digital diplomatic engagement is strong and substantial. As long as the prospective benefits of digital diplomacy outweigh the risks, the pollution of the online medium by the “dark side” would likely stay contained, although its pernicious effects might not be completely eliminated.

As we look forward to the digital transformation of diplomacy in the next decade, it is also important to keep in mind the technological context in which MFAs are expected to operate. The 3G mobile technology made possible, for instance, the development and spread of social media networks. The 5G technology, which is due to arrive in just a few years, will likely usher in a whole new level of technological disruption, which could lead to the mass adoption of an entire range of tech tools of growing relevance for public diplomacy, such as mixed reality, satellite remote sensing or artificial intelligence.  

To a certain extent, the future is already here, as the appointment of the first-ever ambassador to the Big Tech industry by Denmark in 2017signaled the arrival of a new form of diplomatic engagement between state and non-state actors and the key role that technology is playing in this transformation

July 15, 2018

China's AI plan lays foundation for long-term strength


China's AI plan lays foundation for long-term strength

Monday, July 9, 2018

China is ploughing money into a nationwide multi-billion-dollar programme to gain the lead in artificial intelligence

China's artificial intelligence (AI) industry received investment of 28 billion dollars last year, according to the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology. The government last July issued a Next generation artificial intelligence development plan, which sets a 1-trillion-renminbi (151-billion-dollar) 2030 target for China's core AI industry and a 10-trillion-renminbi target for related industries. A Three-year action plan for promoting development of a new generation artificial intelligence industry followed in December, setting numerous quantitative targets for 2020.

What next

Firms and public institutions will enjoy generous public funding for AI-related initiatives. There is a danger of a policy-induced investment bubble but even if most of these individual investments fail in narrow financial terms, the combined effect on the national level will still upgrade China's AI-related infrastructure and human resource base significantly, laying a foundation for long-term strength in the field.

Subsidiary Impacts

Foreign AI professionals will be able to find well-paid employment in Chinese firms and institutions.Foreign firms working in AI will find eager partners and investors in China.Chinese experts will participate in international standard-setting and debates about ethics and safety.Close cooperation with the military on AI development will feed suspicion of Chinese technology firms overseas.


China's national-level AI development plans are aspirational, doing little to establish priorities or allocate resources and clearly define responsibilities (see CHINA: Artificial intelligence could transform China - September 21, 2017).

However, they establish AI overall as a high national priority, explicitly state an ambition to lead the world in the field by 2030 and signal that initiatives in AI by subsidiary levels of the state system will be rewarded.

Decentralised implementation

Concrete policies are left to ministries, local governments and public institutions such as universities and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

By mid-April this year, 18 provinces and cities had their own AI development plans, with a combined target output of 400 billion renminbi in 2020.

For example, Beijing municipality announced in January a 13.8-billion-renminbi AI development park, and Tianjin announced in May a 100-billion-renminbi fund to subsidise AI research institutions to set up in the city and attract top talent with salaries of up to 2 million renminbi.

The real figures will probably fall short of those announced in many cases but will be very significant nevertheless.

Decentralisation allows local experimentation and innovation, but it also carries risks

Investment bubble?

Local governments will follow political signals by ploughing resources into AI projects. Inter-regional competition will inflate the costs of incentives to attract businesses and talent as regional centres vie to become 'China's Silicon Valley' (China has no one leading technology hub). Private firms will leap into an area they know enjoys government favour and funding.

The result may be overcapacity and the collapse of many unviable investments (see CHINA: Monopolies and abuses hold back tech sector - February 12, 2018).

A possible warning sign is the seemingly opportunistic entry of firms with no relevant experience. For example, real estate conglomerate Evergrande announced in April a 100-billion-renminbi investment in three cutting-edge technology centres, with AI as one focus.

However, even investments that miss their desired objectives may create capacity that can be recycled for other, more successful innovative activities. This occurred in the United States after the end of the space race, when thousands of laid-off engineers built much of the US tech industry.

Government funding

Enterprises will carry out the majority of R&D, but often in partnership with public institutions or with state funding.

The central government will directly fund some projects. For example, the first half of 2018 saw the Ministry of Science and Technology allocate 2.73 billion renminbi to eight AI-related research projects.

However, 'government guidance funds' could be a much larger source. These are established mainly by provincial and city governments, and function like venture capital funds, raising private capital and adding public money to invest in start-ups in priority sectors. By end-2016, around 1,000 such funds had raised 1.9 trillion renminbi. Their two top priorities now are healthcare and AI. Most recently, Shanghai municipality launched on July 4 a 100-billion-renminbi AI investment fund.

The rapid launch of new funds could contribute to an investment bubble, and to its collapse if too many funds reach maturity simultaneously and M&A or stock market demand falls short of this supply.

Public procurement

China's AI industry will benefit from government procurement, with domestic firms having exclusive access in sensitive areas such as security. For example, SenseTime, which in April raised 600 million dollars to become the world's highest-valued AI start-up, valued at 4.5 billion dollars, derives at least one-third of its business selling real-time facial recognition surveillance systems to Chinese police forces.

The scale of military research and procurement is undisclosed but will be significant. The government promotes 'military-civil fusion', in which the military forges links with civilian research institutes, universities and private firms to pool resources and personnel, develop dual-use technologies, adopt shared standards and avoid duplication.

AI is a particularly attractive field for military-civil fusion because the private sector is on the cutting edge, rather than the state-owned defence firms that traditionally supply the military.

Private sector pivotal

The technology sector is unusual among China's major industries in that large private firms dominate it, namely Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. These will be the preferred partners and major beneficiaries of public spending on AI. For example, the National Development and Reform Commission will fund Baidu's national deep-learning lab.

China's tech giants will come under heavy political pressure to contribute their resources to state objectives. Two months after the publication of the national AI strategy last year, Baidu launched a 1.5-billion-dollar fund to invest in AI companies. The month after that Alibaba announced a 15-billion-dollar programme to build seven labs in four countries focusing on AI and quantum computing. Such moves are not necessarily taken simply to please powerful politicians; state and commercial objectives will often converge.

The private sector is at the heart of China's AI plans

These private firms are also crucial to China's AI development because they collect the huge datasets necessary for training machine-learning algorithms. They will come under pressure to share them, for example, through partnerships with universities such as that announced between Alibaba and Tsinghua University in March.

The Ministry of Science and Technology last November designated the three largest private firms, Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, as 'national champions' in developing self-driving cars, smart cities and computer vision for medical diagnostics respectively, and a fourth firm, iFlytek, the leader in speech recognition. These designations may indicate the central government's priority areas.

The national champions have good prospects. They are already world-class firms and can expect state support in their efforts to compete overseas and play a policy role domestically (such as assisting urbanisation through 'smart cities'). That means a huge captive market.

Technology transfer

The most controversial elements of China's AI policies will be its promotion of inward and outward foreign investment as a means to catch up with the world leader, the United States.

China has had some success in attracting foreign firms. Google announced plans last December to open an AI research centre in Beijing. Microsoft last month revealed plans to cooperate with four Chinese universities to create an open AI platform.

However, China will have to calibrate its efforts carefully. US firms may be deterred if Chinese partners apply too much pressure to share technology. For example, AmCham China reported last year that 36% of US firms held back investment because of technology transfer requirements. These requirements also risk political backlash; they are among the major grievances cited in the 'Section 301' report that underpins the Trump administration's tariffs on Chinese exports.

Overseas acquisitions

Chinese investments in the United States will sometimes face barriers too.

Baidu opened an AI lab in Silicon Valley in 2014 and plans another in the near future. Tencent set up an AI lab in Seattle in May, led by a former Microsoft scientist. Eleven Chinese 'accelerators' in San Francisco provide assistance to technology start-ups, some of them using government funding. Such initiatives give Chinese firms access to talent unavailable in China, including Chinese graduates of US institutions who do not wish to return.

US politicians and officials cite AI as a field with implications for national security when arguing for restrictions on Chinese investments in the US technology sector. Legislation now going through Congress would expand the powers of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which screens incoming foreign investment.

Fears will deepen when the cyberespionage and conventional espionage that will form an unspoken part of China's AI strategy are occasionally exposed.

Human resources

The Ministry of Education in April issued an 'AI Innovation Action Plan for Colleges and Universities' and a programme to train 500 teachers of AI and 5,000 students at top universities. The previous month it approved 2,311 new majors in high-technology subjects, including data science, robotics and AI. The first school textbook specifically on AI was published in April and pilot classes have been introduced in 40 high schools. A scholarship programme will fund Chinese postgraduate students to study AI in North America.

Training new talent in China will be a slow process because it requires hiring qualified instructors who must either be trained themselves or attracted from overseas.

Chinese recruiters visit US universities to head-hunt experts. The AI plan calls in particular for the recruitment of world-class scientists through the 'Thousand Talents' programme and similar initiatives, which offer scientists grants, higher salaries and more generous perks than they can get overseas.

The decentralisation of foreign talent recruitment makes definitive totals impossible, but state news agency Xinhua last year claimed that 40,000 "high-end professionals" have been recruited through the Thousand Talents programme since its launch in 2008. The US government in April put the current number at 2,629.

Overseas recruitment efforts struggle against the disadvantages of living in China compared to US industry centres such as California. These include pollution, poor choice of schools for children, censorship and conflicting political values or loyalties. Higher salaries cannot always compensate.

China may have more success attracting professionals from the Global South, for whom the pay hike may be relatively greater and the drop in living standards less severe.

The Trump administration's moves to restrict visas for Chinese science and technology students and restrict Chinese nationals from projects deemed sensitive could aid China's efforts to retain and repatriate talent.


China's government eyes a leading role in setting technical standards for AI, which is still in its early stages.

The Standards Administration of China issued a white paper on AI standardisation in January to coordinate the national effort. In April, Beijing hosted the first ever meeting of 'Subcommittee 42', established under the International Organization for Standardization and the International Electrotechnical Commission to coordinate AI standard-setting internationally.

Setting standards will help the industry by promoting interoperability and allowing the pooling of data. It will also reduce the risk of accidents or scandals that turn public opinion against AI.

Participating in setting global standards provides the opportunity to push for Chinese patents to be incorporated, bringing royalties to Chinese firms, and ensures that global standards are not crafted in a way that disadvantages China's large firms (or the Communist Party).

International exchange

Institutions and local governments in China organise academic and commercial conferences and forums in China. Such events do not always live up to their grandiose names, but do attract international participation. Microsoft attended the 'World Intelligence Congress' hosted by Tianjin in May, and Intel is supporting a competition related to the central-government-backed 'AI World 2018' conference in Shanghai in September.

Chinese firms and institutions also pursue partnerships with Western institutions, such as the five-year research agreement signed between Chinese voice-recognition firm iFlytek and MIT's AI lab in June.

Many in the West are keen to cooperate with China

Chinese researchers are encouraged to participate in international conferences. Last month, China's AI Industry Alliance co-hosted a 'US-China AI Tech Summit' with the AI Alliance of Silicon Valley and the Future Society, attended by academic researchers and representatives from major US and Chinese tech firms.

Such exchange is likely to be well received in the West, not just because of the advanced technical content China contributes, but because some researchers fear that a country or group that reaches a major AI breakthrough might deploy it without adequately considering the ethical and safety implications (see INTERNATIONAL: The singularity is distant - October 11, 2017 and see INTERNATIONAL: Regulating AI - December 5, 2017). This concern is greater vis-a-vis states with opaque and authoritarian political systems such as China's.

Baidu's robot, Xiaodu (L) (Reuters/Kim Kyung)