China is trying to undermine Western elections

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For more than a year, Canada has been convulsed with allegations of Chinese-sponsored interference into the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. Spurred on by anonymous leaks from the Canadian security services, and despite the Trudeau government’s initial reticence, Ottawa has convened a comprehensive public inquiry into foreign interference.

Ten days of hearings on this question recently concluded, featuring witnesses from Chinese diaspora groups; submissions from targeted members of Parliament, including the shadow minister for foreign affairs; and culminating with live testimony from the prime minister himself. Following the hearings, the inquiry posted an interim report concluding that China is the “most persistent and sophisticated foreign interference threat to Canada” right now.

China’s election interference against Canada is not a singular activity. Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan and the United Kingdom have all reported Chinese-backed efforts to ferret into their political systems.  A recently declassified assessment of the American 2022 midterm elections noted “China’s greater willingness to conduct election influence activities than in past cycles,” and posited that “the involvement of more foreign actors probably reflects shifting geopolitical risk calculus, perceptions that election influence activity has been normalized, the low cost but potentially high reward of such activities, and a greater emphasis on election security in [intelligence] collection and analysis.”

The White House has seen fit to try and recalibrate China’s expectations. Warning China to stay out of the 2024 elections was reportedly on the agenda for President Joe Biden’s most recent call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Not a moment too soon — the Microsoft Threat Analysis Center reported in April that “China is using fake social media accounts to poll voters on what divides them most to sow division and possibly influence the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in its favor.”

When hostile foreign governments meddle with the electoral process of the United States and allied democracies, they are threatening the fundamental legitimizing function of the polity itself. While the severity of an attack may ratchet up or down — posting memes on X or buying small-dollar ads on Facebook is not the same as recruiting candidates or laundering Chinese Communist money to campaign committees — the West needs to recognize these efforts for what they are: political warfare waged by a foreign adversary.

Such efforts need not be “successful” — in the sense of installing a preferred candidate — to diminish the legitimacy of a targeted democracy. Rumor and innuendo are friction enough, as anyone who paid attention to how Americans handled whispers of Russian conspiracy with one president or the false, manufactured claims of fraud against the current incumbent. We can expect the Chinese and other hostile actors to have picked up on these not-so-subtle cues. In these circumstances, just asking the Chinese not to interfere in Western elections is likely to be an insufficient countermeasure.

Since the revelation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, much of the dialogue in the U.S. around foreign meddling has focused on defensive measures designed to insulate American civil society itself from adversary “electioneering.” There is some value to this: hack-and-leak operations might be best avoided through heightened cybersecurity measures, just as a missile defense system can shield the target from a hostile launch. Likewise, removing social media apps controlled by geopolitical foes might be as useful as issuing persona non gratanotices to a foreign power’s intelligence operatives presenting as diplomatic personnel.

But too often, our defensive posture seems to run towards decreasing the margins of political conversation in civil society. Zapping so-called misinformation, restricting microtargeting or forcing onerous disclosure on American speakers in the hope of exposing a nefarious foreign national campaign inevitably involves disproportionately imposing burdens on the speech and association of U.S. citizens and organizations.

Not only is this one-sided, but it risks placing America’s posture regarding an adversary’s political warfare measures in a precarious constitutional space. The First Amendment reflects, as the Supreme Court held in New York Times v. Sullivan, “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” Putting aside the question of whether limiting First Amendment freedoms would outweigh the costs, or even achieve its stated aims, a strategy that is enjoined by a federal court may ultimately be self-defeating.

Thus, establishing deterrence against potential Chinese foreign influence must involve a more proactive and preventative stance. Deterrence works best when an adversary knows that there is a credible risk that it will be unsuccessful or caught, and a credible risk that it will incur a retorsion against something of value.

Plainly, China does not have free and fair elections in which the U.S. could threaten to reciprocally meddle. But presumably there are other aspects of the Chinese system that America and our allies and partners could identify and hold at risk. And since China appears to be implementing a strategy of meddling in elections throughout the Western alliance system, the Five Eyes countries of the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand (all scheduled to hold elections within the next two years) need to come together on a common framework for how to respond.

In short, it ought to be communicated to the relevant organs of the Chinese Communist Party that we consider democracy to be critical infrastructure — the integrity of an election is akin to the integrity of a Western bridge, financial system or communications network. An attack will bring consequences.

Zac Morgan is an attorney specializing in First Amendment and campaign finance law. He serves as counsel to Commissioner Allen Dickerson of the Federal Election Commission. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not express an official view of the U.S. government.

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