Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Election 2020: Russia Cares, China Doesn’t
Election 2020: Russia Cares, China Doesn’t

Election 2020: Russia Cares, China Doesn’t

Foreign influence: What America should worry about this year and next

July 15, 2020

Post by Clint Watts

In September 2018, President Trump claimed that China had been interfering in the 2018 elections. “They do not want me or us to win because I am the first president to ever challenge China on trade,” he said during a United Nations Security Council meeting. The assertion came without evidence and has since elicited an endless string of queries, all centered on the same question: What is China doing to interfere in the election?

However, the claim of Chinese election interference and subsequent focus on China in 2020 is a distraction from Russian election interference, which remains a clear and present danger to American democracy. In short, when it comes to November’s election, Russia cares and China doesn’t.

That’s not to say that China doesn’t pursue information warfare against the U.S. They most certainly do—they’ve accelerated their social media operations during the COVID-19 pandemic and will be a formidable opponent to all Western democracies in the future. But the objectives of these two authoritarian regimes and the data and evidence on their influence efforts show Russia to be the immediate threat from now to Election Day and China to be the greater challenge in 2021 and beyond.

In anticipation of Chinese interference claims ahead of Election Day in November, the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s (FPRI) Foreign Influence Election 2020 (FIE 2020) project included Chinese outlet the Global Times alongside its analysis of the Kremlin’s Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik News. Our analysis of Global Times content from January 1, 2019 to present day shows China has published significantly less English-language content than Russia regarding the presidential election. Chinese state-sponsored articles about the 2020 election, either observed by the FIE 2020 team or viewed on the Alliance For Securing Democracy’s Hamilton 2.0 dashboard, hardly travel into the U.S. audience space when compared to RT and Sputnik News.

Furthermore, an examination of the paltry Chinese election coverage shows they spend remarkably little time seeking to elevate one candidate over another. The trade war, Huawei, COVID-19, and the Hong Kong protests dominate Global Times headlines—not the 2020 election. Of 1,211 mentions of the 2020 candidates over a 15-month period, more than 85% discussed President Trump. Trump’s mentions were far more negative than positive, and most always in the context of China’s foreign policy goals vis-à-vis the U.S. rather than the presidential election. When China discusses the 2020 election, it’s not about capturing a victory, but undermining the integrity of the American democratic process.

Conversely, Russia’s outlets talk about internal U.S. politics and the election all the time, with their state-sponsored news outlets authoring a high volume of stories and mentioning the candidates more than twice as much as China. It is clear the Kremlin prefers a second term for President Trump heading into the fall and strongly opposes the election of former Vice President Biden. Russian President Vladimir Putin has openly said he wanted Trump to win in 2016, and Russia’s overt propaganda portrays Trump far more positively than Biden. Although they’ve soured a bit on the president in recent months, taking the opportunity to bash him with respect to America’s failed COVID-19 response and the administration’s authoritarian response to racial justice protests in D.C., nothing Russia says negatively about Trump compares to how derogatory the Kremlin is toward Biden. Headlines trash Biden continuously, and Russian derision of Biden will hit full swing this summer when a curiously timed movie out of Russia-occupied Donetsk, Ukraine, titled “Alpha R” hits theaters warning of a “New Cold War” if Biden wins the election.

The Kremlin’s strategy since 2016 has remained consistent—“secure the base, split the opposition.” Facebook takedowns of the Kremlin’s troll farm in 2019 showed Russian content promoting President Trump, denigrating Biden and elevating Sanders. In March of this year, Facebook closed a Russian troll farm cutout operation in Ghana that sought to infiltrate American minority groups on Facebook and Instagram, presumably hoping to divide the political left and influence voters headed into Election Day.

While that effort failed to endure, the Kremlin’s less covert but still subtle efforts to infiltrate America continue, and recently received a boost during the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. Redfish, a Kremlin-funded “grassroots” video production company out of Berlin, doubled its posted content on Instagram during the protests and saw its reach into American audiences skyrocket with presumably unwitting social media influencers amplifying Redfish content on Twitter and Instagram, resulting in millions of interactions cumulatively. The Kremlin has burrowed into America’s political poles, but how much will it matter headed into Election Day? 

To meddle or not to meddle: Russia’s decision for the 2020 election

Trump has been pretty great for Russia. The President nearly always comes to the Kremlin’s defense, he’s solidified Putin’s positions in Crimea and Ukraine, surrendered Syria, ignored aggressions in Libya, turned a blind eye to GRU assassinations in Europe, denied electoral interference in 2016, and allegedly overlooked bounties placed on American troops in Afghanistan while pushing for Russia to re-enter the G7 (formerly the G8).

But the polls don’t look good for President Trump at the moment, and a Biden victory will most assuredly result in backlash toward Russia. Despite the Kremlin’s infiltration into the left and right of American politics, there’s so much American-made disinformation this summer it’s been difficult for Putin’s minions to break through the noise. Fake news alone may not produce a meaningful impact on November’s outcome. This leaves but two options: hacking and subversion.

Allegations of Russia hacking of Ukrainian gas company Burisma surfaced this past January. From the Kremlin’s perspective, it was a smart play. Cyberattack a Ukrainian company outside of U.S. defenses during the impeachment hearing to confirm a narrative already being advanced by Putin’s preferred candidate. Any kompromat uncovered at Burisma could be dumped into the media ecosystem—President Trump and the U.S. mainstream media would do the rest of the work for the Kremlin. The scheme hasn’t played out as of yet, although Putin’s team will continue trying to advance this anti-Biden narrative until votes are cast. Now, post-impeachment—and amid a flurry of disinformation related to the pandemic and protests—it’s difficult to conceive of a hack-and-dump operation by Russia that would change the outcome of the election. It’s probably too late and the polls too far apart to make such a risky gamble.

The Kremlin’s more appealing strategy appears to be the pursuit and sustained subversion of the upcoming election and American democracy as a whole. On the propaganda and disinformation front, they’ve already ramped up predictions of widespread election rigging and fraud via mail-in balloting, building on the election rigging narratives they’ve promoted since the Iowa caucuses. GRU hackers might, like 2016, take shots at voter rolls and election machines, but this seems less likely in the face of an American cyber response this time around.

This leaves Election Day. If the polls aren’t close, and a Biden victory seems likely, the Kremlin could get really evil. Having watched the chaos in the Iowa caucuses and recent Georgia primaries, Russia could conduct pin-prick hacks in key battleground states to muddy the voting results either at polling places or amongst reporting media outlets. Maybe shut off the power, disabling poll sites in key battleground states. Simultaneously, they could instigate witting and unwitting allies in America to storm polling places, incite violence or contest election results—Kremlin operatives were connected to a similar scenario during Montenegro’s 2016 parliamentary election. Meanwhile, the Kremlin may overtly encourage President Trump to remain in the White House post-inauguration even if defeated in November. Kremlin trolls would amplify all such chaos on social media and confuse the American public, helping to shatter voter confidence in the true outcome of the election.

For Russia, this would be a bold maneuver, one that would necessitate an American response that could be very costly over the long term. But Putin might feel just emboldened enough to pursue it, depending on a mix of domestic and international factors. In the latter doomsday scenario, if 2020 goes like 2016, we should watch for the Kremlin to signal its chosen course of action in early October, roughly a month before votes are cast.

China: Why worry about an election when you can have the world?

Those advancing theories that China seeks to tip the 2020 election don’t understand how foreign influence works. Russia’s active measures approach, designed by their Soviet forefathers, seeks to defeat its adversaries through the “force of politics” rather than the “politics of force.” The entire concept hinges on the Kremlin’s ability to elevate U.S. political candidates and officials that are sympathetic to Russia’s foreign policy goals. Since 2016, Russia has sought to engender and amplify populist segments across America’s political spectrum with a particular emphasis on “traditional values.” Putin has built a bridge into America. Crossing this bridge into American hearts and minds and winning elections is central to his long-term strategy.

China has no such political bridge, and thus has no preferred candidate to elevate in 2020. As the source of the COVID-19 pandemic and chief American economic rival, no elected official—Republican or Democrat—will rise to the White House and seek to advance Chinese interests in the next term, or most likely for the rest of the century. China’s bridge to America is economic: connecting with and influencing American corporations dangling access to the largest consumer market and labor pool in the world. The NBA’s bowing to Chinese pressure last year and Zoom’s recent censorship of activists at the behest of Beijing demonstrates the power of Xi Jinping and the Communist Party of China (CCP) in the global business sector.

China’s derisive rhetoric towards President Trump focuses on the CCP’s desired outcomes in the trade and tech war they continue to fight with America. China is no fan of former Vice President Biden either, someone with a history of supporting and winning the backing of American labor unions that despise Chinese competition. In the last month, we learned Chinese hackers targeted Biden campaign accounts, perhaps to influence the election, but more likely to understand how the candidate might behave toward China should he win. Amongst social media accounts believed to be connected to China, it’s not uncommon to encounter the hashtag #NeverTrumpNeverBiden and assertions there’s only an illusion of choice in U.S. democracy. In sum, there’s more to be gained abroad for China than in the 2020 election. This may change this summer as the Trump administration intensifies its pressure on China regarding human rights, Uyghur detentions, Hong Kong and trade to bolster its domestic presidential campaign, but it’s unlikely.

A divided America makes for a strong China. The CCP may be overtly and covertly harsh toward President Trump, but they’ve come to see his reign as a boon for their influence globally. Domestically and internationally, China has never seen America so weak. As the U.S. has fallen into infighting and withdrawn from the world, Xi Jinping has stepped into American voids to assert Chinese influence. The CCP cares about advancing its Belt and Road Initiative, reframing world opinion of China and replacing democracy as the preeminent system of governance with the CCP’s notions of meritocracy. 

Chinese social media discussions note that American nationalism helps Chinese nationalism and turns the world away from D.C. and toward Beijing. Furthermore, China suppressed 2019 democratic protests in Hong Kong with little push back from the West, largely contained the COVID-19 outbreak at home, and now moves around the world unimpeded by American competition in many places. In Belgrade, Serbia, billboards of Xi Jinping line streets. Italy has welcomed pandemic aid from China. Australia alleges cyberattacks from China with the U.S. nowhere to help. CCP-backed media companies are partnering with outlets in Europe, Latin America and even on the Mexican border to deliver pro-China messaging. Regardless of this election’s outcome, the president inaugurated in January 2021 will be facing stiff global competition from China powered by an ever-growing influence campaign on the ground and online.

Finally, Russia and China will collectively undermine confidence in U.S. democracy, but headed into the polls in November, the biggest threats on election day 2020 will be domestic rather than foreign. As noted last year, what could Russia or China do at this point that America is not already doing to itself? For Putin and Xi, it’s easier to ride the American tide of democratic destruction than make the wave.