As China Anxiety Rises in U.S., Fears of New Red Scare Emerge

Those findings -- that China is waging a “covert, coercive or corrupting” influence campaign inside the U.S.

As China Anxiety Rises in U.S., Fears of New Red Scare Emerge
Scaffolding used for installing a suicide net is seen on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California, U.S. (Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)  

(Bloomberg) -- The setting was inauspicious: an auditorium at Stanford University, founded by a railroad tycoon who made his fortune off the backs of Chinese immigrants. The subject: a report describing China’s efforts to manipulate American universities, corporations and media 150 years after Leland Stanford celebrated the completion of the first transcontinental line.

The 200-page report, published by Stanford’s Hoover Institution with the Asia Society in November 2018, was well received in Washington. Not so by Chinese Americans, especially at Stanford three months later, when the report’s co-editors presented its findings, the work of a panel of 23 China experts that included Stanford professor Francis Fukuyama and Winston Lord, a former ambassador to China.

Those findings -- that China is waging a “covert, coercive or corrupting” influence campaign inside the U.S. -- have provided intellectual validation for many of the worst fears about China’s activities. The study has already been cited 19 times in academic articles. At the same time, it has reinforced an image of Chinese Americans as a potential fifth column, vulnerable to blandishments and coercion by the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. This depiction has provoked outrage from Chinese Americans, becoming a flashpoint in a national argument that may frame the next decade of U.S.-China relations.

Animating the debate is the fraught question of dual loyalties, a stigma that has beset waves of American immigrants in the past two centuries, including Japanese Americans interned during World War II, and is now helping propel an aggressive U.S. crackdown on suspected Chinese industrial spies.

Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has called China “the broadest, most challenging, most significant” counterintelligence threat the U.S. faces and says his agency is investigating more than 1,000 cases of suspected theft of U.S. intellectual property, with “almost all” of them leading back to China. “China has pioneered a societal approach to stealing innovation in any way it can from a wide array of businesses, universities and organizations,” Wray said in a speech in April. “Put plainly, China seems determined to steal its way up the economic ladder at our expense.”

Fine Line

The Hoover-Asia Society report, originally titled “Chinese Influence & American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance,” constitutes the most audacious attempt to date to address a fundamental challenge: How to confront China’s global ambitions and avarice for U.S. technology without inciting a backlash against 5 million U.S. citizens of Chinese ancestry. Americans’ prosperity, and civil liberties, could hang in the balance.

As China Anxiety Rises in U.S., Fears of New Red Scare Emerge

That was the fine line that Orville Schell, one of the report’s co-editors, tried to walk at the Hoover Institution’s plush, 400-seat theater on Valentine’s Day. “There’s not a person on this panel who isn’t worried about America’s history when turning against racial groups,” Schell said. “That would be a horrendous outcome for this report.”

Schell is testament to the ideological sweep of today’s China anxiety. The author of 10 books about China, a former dean of the journalism school at the University of California at Berkeley and now director of China programs at the New York-based Asia Society, he was an anti-Vietnam War tax resister in the 1960s. He wrote about Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in the mid-1970s for the New Yorker from work camps in China’s countryside, lamenting in one 1977 piece how Mao’s writings and speeches, after editing for the masses by the Communist Party, were gutted of their “great vitality.”

Forty-two years later, Schell sat on the Hoover stage telling the audience that he’d just flown in from meetings with government officials in Washington. He described a bipartisan common front on the question of China and said he was glad he had a seat at the table. It was up to him and the other panel experts, he said, to expose China’s subversion efforts while working to prevent any backlash against people of Chinese ancestry.

‘Yes, But’

Some in the audience didn’t buy it. Buck Gee, a former Cisco Systems Inc. executive and a Chinese-American community leader, read aloud one of the report’s many warnings against stigmatization and racial profiling, immediately followed in the text by the word “however” and a passage about China’s threat to Americans’ basic freedoms.

“I see that as personally offensive, because what it says is we should not stereotype, although there may be reason to do so,” Gee said. “That flows through most of the paper -- a framing of ‘yes, but.’” Gee looked at the report’s other co-editor, Larry Diamond, a senior Hoover fellow, to illustrate his point. “Larry,” he said, “I would never call you a racist, however ....”

The largely Asian audience erupted in laughter -- nervous recognition, perhaps, of an unsettling reality. Senior national security and trade officials from both the Obama and Trump administrations say Beijing’s “Made in China 2025” plan to become self-sufficient in strategic technologies by 2025 poses a dire threat to U.S. economic and military primacy. This bipartisan alarm, backed by expanding federal efforts to catch scientists and engineers filching U.S. know-how for China, have stirred widespread concerns among Chinese Americans that they’re being unfairly targeted as suspected spies.

The U.S. has cast a wide counterespionage net in the field of biomedical research. Investigators at the National Institutes of Health, with help from the FBI, have initiated 180 probes of researchers at more than 70 hospitals and universities for undisclosed ties in China, according to Ross McKinney, chief scientific officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges. Earlier this year, MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston ousted four ethnic-Chinese researchers who had collaborated with colleagues in China, after voluntarily sharing the office network accounts of 23 employees with the FBI, Bloomberg Buinsessweek reported.

While some research institutions have declined government requests for cooperation, the Department of Justice recently signaled that it will not tolerate efforts to hide researchers’ collaborations in China. On Dec. 19, federal prosecutors announced that Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, agreed to pay $5.5 million to settle charges that two of its scientists didn’t disclose to the NIH their grants from China.

‘Sharp Power’

The Hoover-Asia Society report argues that Beijing is devoting enormous resources to controlling what Americans write, say, learn and think about China. The initiatives range from the conventional -- highly paid Washington lobbyists and sister-city trade missions -- to the more sinister: visa denials to writers and researchers deemed unfriendly to China; donations to universities and think tanks with oblique restrictions on probing sensitive topics like Tibet and Chinese Muslims; and buyouts of independent Chinese-language media platforms to monopolize the narrative on China available overseas.

The efforts defy traditional categories of soft power and hard power, according to the task force, which settled on the term “sharp power.”

The report’s most inflammatory claims are in a section about the Chinese-American community. Praise of immigrants and the stated imperative to protect them from indiscriminate suspicion alternate with accounts of how many have been coaxed and cajoled into becoming propagandists or even foreign agents for Beijing. The nexus is China’s so-called united front, a loose assemblage of Communist Party-linked groups spread throughout the Chinese diaspora to promote China’s interests.

Organizations such as the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification and the China Overseas Friendship Association ply Chinese Americans with honors, titles and free trips to induce their active support of Beijing’s political line, according to the report. Besides emoluments and ethnic pride, Communist Party leaders command Chinese-American loyalty based on ethnic identity, the panel says. “They do not view overseas Chinese as simply citizens of foreign countries,” the report says, “but rather as ‘overseas compatriots’ who have both historical connections and responsibilities as ‘sons and daughters of the Yellow Emperor.’”

A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry in Beijing said the report was based on “inexplicable paranoia and fear.” He said U.S. think tanks should “abandon the outdated Cold War zero-sum thinking, stop hyping the ‘China threat,’ take an objective and rational view of the normal exchanges between China and the United States and do more to facilitate mutual trust and cooperation between China and the United States.”

‘Possibly Bogus’

The report recommends that U.S. groups linked to the united front be required to register as agents of a foreign power, as should Chinese Americans who accept positions with similar organizations in Beijing. “Americans should, of course, be free to participate in whatever organizations they see fit, since freedom of association is hardwired into the constitutional DNA of the United States,” the report says. “However ….”

There’s no footnote or evidence in the report for the assertion that China’s leaders presume Chinese Americans’ loyalty based on ancestry, said Gordon H. Chang, a Stanford history professor and senior associate vice provost, who called the claim “exaggerated and possibly bogus.”

As China Anxiety Rises in U.S., Fears of New Red Scare Emerge

Chang, whose most recent book tells the story of Chinese laborers who built the first transcontinental railroad, spoke in stark terms at another event at Stanford in February. The panel’s report, he said, disparaged Chinese Americans with “unsubstantiated allegations, guilt-by-association argument, inaccuracies, innuendo, and confused history and contextualization.” As he spoke, a slide projected over his head flashed an article headlined, “The Next Internment: Would Chinese in the U.S. be rounded up during a War?”

George Koo, identified in the report’s footnotes as a director of the China Overseas Friendship Association and someone “openly sympathetic to the goals of the Chinese Communist Party,” was in the audience and said the report “feeds this country’s paranoia of China and by extension the bigotry” toward Chinese Americans. Koo, 81, immigrated to the U.S. in 1949, earned a Ph.D., and spent most of his career helping U.S. companies do business in China. He would often brief the FBI and Central Intelligence Agency when he got back, Koo said in an interview -- “anything I could do to help.”

As China Anxiety Rises in U.S., Fears of New Red Scare Emerge

Chang said the report’s references to Koo and other Beijing sympathizers amount to “ethnic McCarthyism,” a charge Schell rejected. “Recognizing a challenge does not equal inviting a witch hunt,” Schell said in an interview at a Berkeley café.

As recently as five years ago, when China still appeared to embrace engagement and reform, its efforts to insinuate its influence overseas raised little alarm, Schell said. But under President Xi Jinping, “China has changed its whole perspective on its role in the world and its level of antagonism with the U.S.,” he said. “We’re back to a collision of political systems and values, and that matters.”

Ethnic Loyalty

The report criticizes China for putting a target on the backs of Chinese Americans by expecting ethnic loyalty. Yet by naming suspected Chinese-American collaborators, the authors take aim at the very targets they decry, resonant of the Cold War, critics contend.

Another speaker at the Hoover event, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Wayne Lin, described his dismay at seeing what he called a false rumor about him in the report. Lin, a U.S. citizen who emigrated from Taiwan almost 30 years ago, owns the most popular Chinese-language website in the U.S., Since purchasing it in 2000, he has struggled to maintain its independence against cyberattacks, political intimidation and online bullying from China, Taiwan and the Falun Gong, a religious group banned in China, he said in an interview.

So he was baffled, after the report was released, when hate mail from readers started arriving calling him a Communist Party lapdog. The report’s media section cited as an example of Beijing’s move to take control of online and social media outlets, with a footnote naming Lin. “There is even an unsubstantiated rumor that the purchase of the website was subsidized by $1 million from the [Chinese Communist Party] Propaganda Department,” the report said.

“How do you derive this research?” Lin asked the panel members. He said some readers had stopped posting on Wenxuecity because of the claims. “I have never received any penny from the government of China,” Lin said.

John Pomfret, a former Washington Post reporter responsible for the report’s media section, said from the stage that he’d be happy to correct any errors, and a few weeks later the $1 million rumor was deleted from a revised edition. Other tweaks were made as well, including one to the title, which was changed to “China’s Influence” from “Chinese Influence.”

Pomfret said in an email that Lin didn’t return phone calls before the report’s publication. Lin said in an interview that he never heard from Pomfret or anyone else connected with the report before its release and that the damage may be indelible. “There’s no way I can reclaim my reputation,” Lin said. “China says I’m working for the Americans. Americans think I’m working for China. What am I supposed to do?”

(The media section of the report also cites, as an example of China’s alleged pressure tactics paying off, a 2013 decision by Bloomberg News not to publish a report about connections between one of the country’s richest men and its top leaders. A Bloomberg spokesman said at the time that the reporting wasn’t ready for publication.)

Questionable Sources

Chang, the history professor, said two Stanford graduate students researched some of the report’s footnotes and found sources that would be questionable in journalism and impermissible in academia. Some citations didn’t support the corresponding passages in the report, he said. The report makes “egregious exaggerations” based on “unverifiable” claims from chat rooms, “highly politicized” websites and “spurious rumor-mongering,” all of which are used “to paint Chinese Americans in a terrible light,” he said in an interview.

Schell defended the research. “How you construe each footnote does not change the overall thrust of the report, which I believe is as accurate as a writing of contemporary history can be about a closed society that denies all interviews and closes major archives,” he said in an email. “Our report was done by some of the world’s most respected scholars as accurately, fairly, temperately and justly as we knew how.”

At the Hoover meeting, Schell, whose wife is Chinese, acknowledged his conflicted feelings. “Please believe us, we’re on your side,” Schell said. “We don’t want to see a pogrom.” He said America faces a challenge: “Can it be judicious enough and temperate enough to answer a problem without demonizing people? Maybe we can’t.”

For Susan Shirk, who wrote the lone dissent, it came down to an assessment of relative risk: the threat of subversion by China versus fueling an anti-Chinese Red Scare. Shirk, who helped oversee China policy at the U.S. State Department from 1997 to 2000 and is now a professor at the University of California at San Diego, wrote that the report overstates the threat China poses: “Right now, I believe the harm we could cause our society by our own overreactions actually is greater than that caused by Chinese influence-seeking.”

The panel’s sole Chinese American member, Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California, reinforced that idea in an op-ed published in the South China Morning Post last December. “What is most notable about China’s efforts to spread its influence abroad is not their success, but the ease with which they are exposed,” Pei wrote. “Portraying them as a genuine threat to the world’s democracies not only betrays the West’s own insecurity, but also gives China more credit than it deserves.”

--With assistance from Dandan Li and Lin Zhu.

To contact the reporter on this story: Peter Waldman in San Francisco at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robert Friedman at, John Voskuhl

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