◎ The list of China topics Secretary Pompeo discussed in Wisconsin is “disastrous for Beijing.”
On Sept. 23, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech on Chinese Communist Party interference in U.S. state and local politics at the Wisconsin State Capitol.
Highlights of the speech, titled “State Legislatures and the China Challenge,” include:
- Pompeo brought up the case of how the People’s Republic of China consulate in Chicago tried to get the Wisconsin legislature to praise the CCP’s response to the coronavirus and “collectively whitewash” its “culpability for a global pandemic.” Instead of taking the CCP’s bait, Wisconsin state senator Roger Roth issued a resolution stating that “the Communist Party of China deliberately and intentionally misled the world on the Wuhan coronavirus.”
- Pompeo said that while there is “nothing wrong” with countries trying to influence American politics and culture, what normal countries do differs fundamentally from the CCP’s engagement. “The Party and its proxies aim to make Americans receptive to Beijing’s form of authoritarianism,” Pompeo said.
- Pompeo drew a distinction between “the Party and the people of China, between the leaders of China and those who want to live in China as free peoples in peace and prosperity and take care of their families in the same way that we all do here in the United States.”
- Pompeo noted that CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping, aware that the U.S. is pushing back against the CCP’s malign influence domestically and abroad, is using “subnational entities to circumvent America’s sovereignty.” Pompeo believes that Xi “thinks local leaders may well be the weak link” and notes that the CCP has “co-opted elites all around the world.”
- Pompeo gave a concise rundown of the CCP’s struggle doctrine. “The Chinese Communist Party views itself as the true vanguard of Marxist-Leninist thought, which proposes that communist countries like theirs must struggle, must struggle and prevail against capitalist nations like ours,” he said.
- Pompeo said that the U.S. has been watching the CCP’s efforts to influence state and local officials, PTA meetings, and “press state governments not to recognize, trade with, or otherwise engage with Taiwan.” He cited the example of a successful CCP operation in 2017 where the PRC consulate in San Francisco got the California State Senate to shelve a bill expressing support for Falun Gong practitioners in America and in China.
- Pompeo said that states must scrutinize their pension funds for China investments. “Wisconsin Retirement System is invested in China Mobile and China Telecom. Both are state-owned giants and they’re an integral part of the Chinese Orwellian surveillance system,” he said.
- Pompeo advised states to ensure that their local colleges are not “improperly influenced by CCP-linked organizations like the Confucius Institutes” and that pro-democracy students do not suffer harassment by pro-Beijing individuals and groups.
- Pompeo noted that the CCP is trying to “shape the storyline” of the pandemic on racial terms. “They want you to believe that America’s righteous anger at the CCP over its handling of the coronavirus has something to do with race … The CCP thinks it can drown out American cries for accountability with shouts of racism … The CCP wants to foment the kind of strife we’ve seen in Minneapolis and Portland and Kenosha.”
- Pompeo said that the Trump administration “rejects the idea that Beijing is destined for hegemony” and will not allow the CCP to “interfere in our domestic politics.” He added that the State Department is reviewing the activities of the U.S.-China Friendship Association and the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification, two United Front Work Department organizations in the United States.
- When asked about whether the U.S. government is “contemplating issuing an atrocity determination” for Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, Pompeo said, “We’re considering the language we’ll use and how we’ll describe it … But make no mistake, what’s happening in those places the world is awakening to, and all we ask is that the Chinese Government cease that kind of activity and treat these people with the respect which they have earned by nature of their humanity.”
Despite Pompeo having covered a list of China issues that most definitely crossed Beijing’s “red lines”—Falun Gong, Uyghurs, Hong Kong, Marxist-Leninist ideology, disinformation, political interference, etc.—the CCP has kept its criticism of the Secretary of State and his speech to a bare minimum, at least at the time of publication. When asked to comment on Pompeo’s warning to U.S. state and local politicians about CCP interference during a regular press conference on Sept. 24, PRC foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin merely rolled out the usual propaganda tropes: Pompeo’s remarks are “shameless lies with no respect for facts” and expose a “Cold War mentality and ideological bias,” while “some U.S. politicians” are “suffering from an anti-China paranoia.”
Wang’s muted response stands in stark contrast to vicious attacks on Pompeo in Party media just a week prior to his speech. In a commentary piece, Beijing Times labeled Pompeo a “veteran anti-China element” (老牌反華分子) and referred to him as “Fat Pig Pompeo” (肥豬蓬) throughout the article. Previously, CCP propaganda outlets slammed Pompeo for “spreading political viruses” and described him as the “worst Secretary of State in modern times.”
‘Disastrous for Beijing’
As a journalist with The Wall Street Journal correctly observes, the list of China topics Secretary Pompeo discussed in Wisconsin is “disastrous for Beijing.” The CCP heavily censors many of the “sensitive” items on the list, particularly Falun Gong, because their discussion directs unwanted attention to the evils of the regime. For example, the CCP regime does not want people talking about its live organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience, the bulk of whom are Falun Gong practitioners, while today’s discourse on Xinjiang revolves around the mass internment of Uyghur Muslims. Previously, the CCP sidelined international outcry over gross human rights abuses by spreading propaganda and disinformation about its victims—the persecution of Uyghurs is reframed as “counterterrorism,” while Falun Gong is smeared as an “evil cult” to justify persecution. The CCP’s disinformation campaigns, however, have found waning purchase in recent years as the U.S. and free countries wake up to its influence and interference operations. “Communists almost always lie,” said Pompeo at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. “When it comes to the CCP, I say we must distrust and verify.”
The increasingly hostile international environment and worsening Sino-U.S. ties almost certainly influenced Beijing’s decision to “clam up” about Pompeo’s Wisconsin speech, at least for the moment. When getting tough on China was still a largely unpopular view a little more than a year ago, the CCP saw fit to unleash a wave of propaganda against those who signed an open letter supporting the Trump administration’s robust China policies in an effort to drown out those views and intimidate those who share them. The CCP even sought to discredit the open letter and its views by pointing out that it was signed by “some Falun Gong cult members.” But with the “tough on China” position now becoming the orthodoxy in the U.S. and elsewhere, and with the Secretary of State publicly calling out the CCP’s effort to extend its persecution campaigns abroad, the CCP dares not risk rolling out the usual propaganda tactics lest they backfire.
Based on our understanding of CCP characteristics and operations, we believe that Beijing will definitely respond to Pompeo’s Wisconsin speech. To kill the Trump administration’s momentum and take advantage of short media attention spans, the CCP could wait until several weeks have passed before issuing a lengthy “fact-check” of what Pompeo said, similar to what it did with releasing a 33,000 word rebuttal of Pompeo’s Nixon Library speech a full month after he delivered it. The CCP’s response will almost certainly rehash familiar propaganda tropes and disinformation about Secretary Pompeo and all the China issues mentioned in his remarks. The CCP could even seize the opportunity to double down on its coronavirus and racism narratives. Finally, the CCP could incorporate negative coverage of Pompeo’s speech in Western media to further discredit it; mainstream news outlets have framed Pompeo’s Wisconsin trip as a cynical effort at “stumping for Trump ahead of election.”
The Trump administration has hit the CCP’s Achilles Heel with Pompeo’s Wisconsin speech. To control the momentum of the news cycle and press home the advantage, the administration could step up the frequency of highlighting the list of China topics raised by Secretary Pompeo, including “nuclear” human rights issues like Falun Gong, the persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and the virulent nature of the CCP’s Marxist-Leninist ideology. Repeated spotlighting of those “sensitive” China issues by senior U.S. officials or the White House is newsworthy in and of itself, and media outlets have ample motivation to report on the latest Trump move. This drives even more attention to China issues that the CCP does not want people discussing, prevents Beijing from controlling the news cycle, and puts the regime on the defensive in terms of the propaganda front.
The Trump administration could also continue going on the offensive in countering CCP propaganda and influence operations. For instance, Pompeo calling out the CCP’s still relatively subdued attempts to frame America’s demand for coronavirus accountability as racism is an excellent move that preempts even more boisterous propaganda efforts from Beijing. Being proactive in countering CCP propaganda and disinformation in the lead up to the U.S. presidential election is crucial because Beijing will definitely exploit the politically charged environment to advance its interests. As Pompeo said in an interview with Washington Times, “the Chinese Communist Party will operate differently than other countries in trying to affect the outcome of our election but they are no less serious in their intention to have an impact, to exert their influence, to have an outcome that’s consistent with China’s goals and not those of the voters here in the United States.”
We wrote in August that the CCP could seek to leverage U.S. domestic turmoil over race relations to explosive effect. To counter the CCP’s “racism” card effectively, we recommended that the Trump administration can consider strengthening the cultural component of its strategic approach to the PRC.