How Our Culture Wars Make Us More Vulnerable to Chinese Influence

Exposing the truth about China is difficult when U.S. interests are so adept at self-censorship.

This July marks the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party’s founding and is a sobering reminder that Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history,” where liberal democracy becomes universal, is nowhere in sight. Not only has the CCP’s grip on China remained strong, but its multifaceted influence operations continue to erode liberty around the world. The most concerning part is that America is not ready to combat a China challenge that has stealthily and firmly arrived on our soil—not with the cultural war that’s also tearing up this country.

I don’t mean that “canceling” each other over a host of social issues consumes us—it does—but that our battle for righteousness reveals a political culture that lacks the tolerance and pluralism to deal with a threat as complex as China’s influence. America’s best path to counter the CCP at home is to refocus on building a truly democratic culture.

The China challenge is unique because the CCP’s influence campaign, often operating within legal boundaries in the United States, touches upon many aspects of Americans’ lives, from politics and business and education to culture and sports. Consequently, when civil society lacks healthy fora for sharing dispersed information and diverse views, the public’s knowledge about CCP assaults on our liberties falls behind the curve.

Consider the U.S. higher education system. China’s Confucius Institutes on American campuses have triggered legitimate concerns about academic freedom in recent years. But these partnerships started as early as 2004. Last year, under the Education Department’s scrutiny, 12 top universities disclosed a whopping $6.5 billion in previously unreported funding from China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. And that doesn’t include the Chinese government’s funding to individual U.S. researchers, which, according to a State Department report, even compels some recipients to conceal such funding.

Are China’s financial involvements in American higher education a problem? Some may be, and some may not. Understanding the difference is precisely what policymaking needs. But when the public is largely unaware, it’s harder to correctly identify the problem, let alone find a solution.

Today’s cultural war in America exacerbates the information problem. The emergence of social media has  made it easier than ever to invalidate other people over their unpopular views or things they said years ago, and our polarization has made it more tempting for many people to do so. Americans even disagree on whether these “cancellations” hold others accountable or suppress them. But exposing the truth about China’s influence is hard enough with U.S. interests, pressured by China’s government and lured by its markets, so adept at self-censoring. The mob culture at home not only distracts us but can also deter Americans from sharing important information or expressing critical views about China.

Take, for example, the debate on the origin of COVID-19. Over the past year, a group of amateur sleuths have been uncovering mounting evidence that suggests the coronavirus pandemic could have been triggered by a lab accident at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology. But mainstream media and scientists refused to entertain this hypothesis until very recently. Did they fear displeasing the Chinese government? Drawing the ire of Twitter mobs? Being associated with politicians like former President Donald Trump or Sen. Tom Cotton, who were lambasted for such speculation? In any case, without their reluctance, we may have known how plausible the lab-leak theory was a year ago.

Imagine how differently apartheid in South Africa might have ended if the country had attempted the same mob cancelations, rather than patiently allowing its Truth and Reconciliation Commission to hold thousands of public hearings, lasting for seven years, from victims and perpetrators to bring out the truth. Many of those hearings, which in some cases provided a path forward for a harshly divided country, would not have happened if coming forward meant nothing but inviting oneself to harsh punishments inside and outside of court.

Countering China’s influence operation is ultimately a matter of the strength of American democracy. There’s no question that the increasingly interconnected U.S. and Chinese economies will continue to provide new venues for China’s authoritarian influence. Equal to the challenge would be a more vibrant U.S. culture of free speech, tolerance, and transparency—not a 21st-century Red Scare to further divide us.

Weifeng Zhong is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a core developer of the open-sourced Policy Change Index project, which uses machine-learning algorithms to predict authoritarian regimes’ major policy moves by “reading” their propaganda.