A US-funded think tank dropped a speaker working for China's secretive overseas influence arm, which shows how the nation is struggling to deal with foreign interference

VCG/Getty ImagesChinese and US flags fly on Tiananmen Square to welcome U.S. President Donald Trump to Beijing in November 2017
  • A US think tank appears to have dropped a speaker, who works for the Chinese Communist Party’s influence arm, from an event talking about China’s “exaggerated” influence.
  • The Wilson Center knew the work done by Huiyao Wang but did not disclose the information when promoting the event.
  • The change to the event line-up was noticed by Business Insider and seems to have occurred after Foreign Policy reported Marco Rubio sent a letter to the think tank about the issue.
  • Institutions and governments in the US and globally are struggling to define and identify acceptable Chinese influence and covert interference.

A member of the Chinese Communist Party’s covert influence arm invited to speak at a US think tank appears to have been dropped from the event.

The US-funded Wilson Center is hosting an event on Wednesday titled “Chinese Influence Operations in the US: Shedding Some Light on All the Heat”. One of the panelists, according to a cached version site from May 6, was Huiyao Wang. But Business Insider noticed Wang’s name had disappeared by Monday evening.

Early Monday, Foreign Policy‘s Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian reported Senator Marco Rubio sent a letter to the nonpartisan think tank on Friday requesting the organisation disclose Wang’s affiliations with United Front, the CCP’s secretive arm trying to promote the party’s policies overseas.

The event’s description stated the panelists were going to discuss the work of United Front and how the issue of “influence” is “often poorly defined, exaggerated, and abused”.

On the same page Wang is described as the founder and president of the Center for China and Globalization, but leaves out his role, which he lists on his website, as the standing director of the United Front’s China Overseas Friendship Association. Wang was also previously an advisor for the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, which was merged with the United Front Work Department in a restructure earlier this year.

The Wilson Center told Foreign Policy it was aware of Wang’s role and it was part of the reason he was invited to speak. But it is unclear why Wang is no longer listed on the event site, and the panel doesn’t appear to have replaced him.

The United Front is so powerful, and pervasive in its covert influence campaigns, that President Xi Jinping has described it as one of the CCP’s “magic weapons.”

The difference between influence and interference

The Wilson Center’s situation is not unique. Organisations, councils, governments, and universities across the world are currently struggling with how differentiate between the CCP’s attempts to, like many countries, influence others and covertly interfere.

For instance, there are over 1,500 Confucius Institutes and Classrooms, which aim to promote Chinese language and culture, in universities, primary schools, and high schools in 142 countries.By China’s own admission these are part of the country’s soft-power and propaganda, but have also been deemed a “trojan horse” as the CCP retains control over institutes’ budgets, activities, and curricula.

Part of the difficulty in making a distinction between influence and interference is China’s style of interference, particularly in comparison to Russia.

China is “strategic, patient, and they set down foundations of organisations and very consistent narratives over a long period of time,” John Garnaut, a former adviser to Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, told the US House Armed Services Committee in March. “They put an enormous amount of effort into making sure we don’t talk about what it’s doing.”

“So, often its quite incremental in the way that China behaves, whereas Russia tends to do these focused, sharp strikes,” Garnaut said.

On Monday, speaking during a tour of Australia and New Zealand, Hillary Clinton said China’s interference needs to be taken “seriously.

Australia’s federal government has drafted a bill outlawing foreign interference and political donations.

Business Insider reached out to the Wilson Center for comment and this post will be updated if and when a response is received.

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