Geopolitics Watch: The CCP’s Propaganda War on Trump’s China Policy

The Trump administration signaled a shift in the United States policy on China from engagement to competition with the 2017 National Security Strategy. The passing of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (several provisions target the pernicious behavior of the People’s Republic of China while providing greater assistance to the Republic of China; see our earlier analysis) by wide margins in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives indicates strong popular support for the China policy shift. Recent measures and statements by the U.S. government and officials suggest that the Trump administration has acknowledged that a new Cold War has long been waged unilaterally by the PRC against the U.S., and is preparing to counter PRC influence operations.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), however, appears to be already countering Trump’s China policy for some time. We have observed that CCP propaganda assets have been spreading targeted propaganda narratives to influential individuals and organizations in the U.S. in recent months. These include America’s business and ethnic elite, as well as in media outlets, think tanks, and academic institutions. Some popular narratives include:

  • The Trump administration is waging a new Cold War against China. This rivalry has the potential to result in “hot” conflicts;
  • Xenophobia drives the Trump administration’s trade war and new Cold War. Sinophobia eventually follows xenophobia;
  • America’s rivalry with China could lead to racial profiling and discrimination, like what happened to Japanese-Americans in the Second World War;
  • The Trump administration’s targeting of PRC industrial policy (Made in China 2025, forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft) is an unwarranted and unfair attempt to stifle China’s development. Racist notions could also be the fundamental reason for America’s uncompromising stance;
  • Trump is trying to wreck the post-WWII order which America built and China has integrated into because China has become more successful than America in competing within the system;
  • China’s economy and policies are robust enough to withstand and win a trade war with America. Hence, America’s trade war with China is “doomed to fail”;
  • “Chinese” influence operations are targeted only at overseas Chinese. CCP propaganda is risible and hardly has any effect in shaping the thinking of an ideologically robust Western society like America;
  • A strong China is ideal for the stability of the Indo-Pacific region and the world;
  • The Chinese people tolerate the CCP because they fear instability, war, and “foreign oppression.” Besides, there is no viable alternative to the CCP;
  • America should not support Taiwan or use Taiwan as a “bargaining chip” with Beijing. Otherwise, the U.S. is intruding into a “family quarrel” between the ROC and the PRC, and is crossing a foreign policy “red line.”

CCP narratives tend to present false choices and are powerful because they contain a “kernel of truth,” according to Bilahari Kausikan a retired top Singapore diplomat. He believes that the propaganda efforts work because targets are not aware of the psychological operations being used against them, and hence “exposure is therefore the best countermeasure.”

Kausikan’s solution, however, might be less effective in an increasingly partisan America that is divided on crucial issues like what constitutes “fake news.” Moreover, mainstream American media outlets have been actively pushing the narrative that President Trump is “racist” and “xenophobic,” which provides fertile ground for the CCP to root and spread its own “Sinophobic” narratives and disinformation.

The backdrop:
After President Donald Trump announced the first wave of tariffs on Chinese imports in June, we wrote: “The U.S. tariffs represent a major diplomatic defeat for Xi Jinping and a huge loss of face … Xi may take the defeat in his stride, but the CCP’s political culture dictates that he has to retaliate or face serious challenges to his rule from rivals and the system … Now with the U.S. tariffs confirmed, the CCP no longer needs to roll out risible propaganda, and would likely voice out strongly in less ambiguous terms what it thinks of America and the trade conflict.”

In August, we noted that while the CCP is likely gambling on changes in domestic U.S. politics at the midterm elections to create “favorable conditions for the PRC to renegotiate trade with America.” To that end, the CCP would mobilize its overseas propaganda assets to spread false narratives and interfere in America’s democratic processes.

According to recent news reports, Trump plans to go ahead with 25 percent tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods immediately after a public comment period closes on Sept. 6. In late July, Trump threatened to impose tariffs on all $500 billion of Chinese exports to America.

Our take:
1. The escalation of the Sino-U.S. trade war and the Trump administration’s recognition of the PRC’s unilateral Cold War represent an existential crisis for the CCP. In response, the CCP would very likely intensify its external propaganda efforts to counter and discredit Trump’s China policy.

When the CCP feels that it is up against the wall, it will seek to mobilize American society to exert pressure on the White House to end the trade war and cease a Cold War-style confrontation. Influential Chinese-American organizations, such as the Committee of 100 (C-100), could come to play a pivotal role in CCP’s all-out propaganda war. Conceived by Henry Kissinger and founded by prominent Chinese Americans in the late 1980s, the C-100 “publicly promotes increased Chinese-American relations and understanding while, in reality, toeing the Chinese Communist Party line to America’s cultural, business, and political leaders,” according to New Zealand author and researcher Trevor Loudon.

2. We wrote earlier about the coming ideological turn in Trump’s China policy. Based on our observation, the U.S. is still in the early stages of the fact-finding, “know the enemy” phase of mapping out the CCP’s overseas influence operations. CCP propaganda assets, however, has been spreading false narratives that seem designed to counter a Cold War-style Sino-U.S. rivalry for at least several months. We believe that the CCP did not escalate its propaganda war with the U.S. earlier because it was still optimistic about Sino-U.S. trade talks and was expecting to see goodwill from the Trump administration for its help in sanctioning North Korea.

3. Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese strategist, ranked offensive stratagems into four levels. Ranked highest is the use of strategy and stratagems to subdue the enemy. Second highest is countering the enemy using diplomacy. Third highest is to attack the enemy in the field. The worst stratagem is to besiege walled fortifications. [1]

We believe that the Trump administration’s trade strategy adheres to Sun Tzu’s third-best stratagem for offense. Trump would be observing the second-best stratagem if he is indeed seeking to reshape the global world order by renegotiating bilateral trade deals and enacting tariffs. At present, we believe that the odds of a Sino-U.S. “hot” conflict, the worst stratagem per Sun Tzu, breaking out is extremely low.

Sun Tzu also wrote: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

The CCP has been infiltrating America and its allies for decades. In contrast, the U.S., which has long had a policy of engagement with China, appears to have lacunae of in-depth knowledge about CCP elite politics and its downstream operations. A 39-page report on CCP overseas United Front work by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission published in late August draws heavily on media reports, and recommends “continued research and investigation” to “effectively counter CCP influence operations.” Per Sun Tzu, if America knows itself but not the CCP, then one step forward would also be one step back.

America’s China policy has changed and is heading for an ideological turn. But without adequate knowledge of CCP operations and political culture, any strategy to counter CCP ideological subversion and infiltration would be ineffective.

What’s next:
The CCP’s refusal to compromise on trade or admit to its predatory economics in the latest round of trade discussions in August suggests that it is indeed gambling on the outcome of the U.S. midterm elections in November as we previously analyzed. To “stack the deck” in its favor, the CCP would not hesitate to subvert the U.S. political process by encouraging American business and Chinese American elites to oppose the Sino-U.S. trade conflict and reject a “Cold War 2.0” on the grounds of “racial discrimination.”

We believe that the CCP has ultimately misread the shifting mood against its pernicious behavior in America and the unity of the U.S. political elite on the China issue to its disadvantage. Still, CCP propaganda mischief, when prolonged and intensified, could potentially leave a lasting and very damaging impression of the Trump administration and America at home and abroad (think accusations of “racial McCarthyism”).

The Trump administration must utilize creative measures to counter the CCP’s propaganda trap and dispel worries of “Sinophobia” in local and overseas Chinese communities. To win the new Cold War, the Trump administration must introduce policies and a strategy that exposes CCP weaknesses while countering its ideological assaults (Sun Tzu’s first-ranked offensive stratagem). Differentiating between China and the CCP is one way to address the CCP propaganda challenge. Acquiring thorough knowledge of CCP elite politics, including factional struggles and other personality politics, would aid in the formulation of more targeted solutions.

Notes

[1] We paraphrased Sun Tzu’s writings to a meaning which we feel is closer to the original Chinese. A common English translation is: “The highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.”