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China is copying Russia’s election interference playbook

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Last week I was in Boston attending EmTech MIT, our signature annual event, and since then I’ve been thinking about all the interesting ideas I heard—from programming vaccines to work against different diseases to increasing access to prostheses in postwar Sierra Leone. You know, even as so many depressing things are happening around us, these conversations gave me a bit more hope for our future.

I also hosted three discussions about the global technology challenges facing the world. Obviously, a big focus was China—which, as you newsletter readers know, is one of the most important tech players today. My guests tackled crucial questions, like: Why are the recent chip export controls particularly significant? And how do we understand them from not just a geopolitical perspective—but a moral one? I also had a conversation focused on social media disinformation, which proved to be extremely timely given reports last week of China-based bot networks that were trying to influence US politics ahead of today’s midterm elections. 

Well, these conversations weren’t exactly the hopeful kind, but they gave me some needed clarity about what’s happening on the other side of the Pacific. The China news cycle has always been busy (that’s why this newsletter exists!), but it’s also good to take a beat, have a chat, and understand where we’re at regarding US-China relations. 

In case you missed the event this year, here are the China-related highlights I think you’ll be interested in:

What’s the strategy—and real rationale—behind US restrictions on China?

It has been several years since US-China relations took a clear dive, and academics and tech workers on both sides are now accepting that tensions will not resolve anytime soon. When I asked Matt Sheehan, a global technology fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, how he feels about US-China relations today, he said he’s “on edge” because “there’re a lot of decisions being made in rapid succession with hugely uncertain outcomes.”

One of these big decisions is the Biden administration’s escalation of restrictions on chip exports to China. While people are still trying to understand the policy in real time, it has become clear that the administration’s moves are not just a matter of adding more Chinese companies or more chip technologies to a list of targets, but a change in the US government’s mindset when it comes to containing China.

For a long time, the main question on Chinese export control was whether to “do as much damage as you can today versus to preserve your leverage on a longer time scale,” said Sheehan. 

The latter—continuing to sell chips and relevant technologies to China in hopes that the country won’t develop its own self-sufficient ecosystem—is what the US has been doing. But that’s going to change, according to Sheehan: “I think this latest control kind of firmly settles that debate within [Washington] DC on the side of doing damage today. People decided that leverage is eroding naturally over time anyway, and we have to use this leverage while we can.”

Photo from EmTech MIT showing speakers Yangyang Cheng, Matt Sheehan, and Zeyi Yang

But it’s also important to scrutinize the justifications for these export controls. Are they really based on addressing human rights concerns, as often claimed, or are they merely more political games? Yangyang Cheng, a fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, noted in the panel that the policies are “logically inconsistent and morally indefensible” if the reasoning “is not because building weapons is bad or building different types of surveillance systems is bad, but because I want to build better weapons and better surveillance systems.”

She’s seen the latter reasoning appear more often as China has risen as an economic juggernaut. This is a lasting trend from Obama to Trump to Biden, she noted. While there are real concerns about the increasingly frequent human rights abuses and authoritarian crackdowns in today’s China, “these issues have not been addressed by these technological competitions and tensions,” Cheng said. “However, they are being used as a rhetorical shield for the US government to advance domestic interests and geopolitics agendas.”

China has copied Russia’s election interference playbook—but may not be as good at it

The night before I talked to Renée DiResta—the technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, who has studied foreign influence on social media for years—she co-published a report on the latest foreign misinformation campaigns on Twitter.

She and her colleagues recently analyzed three China-based and three Iran-based networks of accounts that pretended to be ordinary Americans on the right or left of the political spectrum. According to data provided by Twitter, the platform removed the accounts at the end of October. 

The phony accounts’ strategy for stoking the political conflicts in an already polarized America closely resembled the activity of the fake Russian accounts that thrived before the 2016 elections—riling up partisans on both sides of the political aisle.

One of the three China-based account networks, containing just 300+ tweets, supported Democratic candidates in Florida and tweeted positively about gun control and abortion access. Another network pushed right-wing talking points, like the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen, and heavily retweeted Republican provocateurs like Representative Lauren Boebert. Of all these accounts, the most influential one posed as “Ultra MAGA BELLA Hot Babe”; the combination of soft porn and pro-Trump messaging gained it 26,000 followers, 400,000+ likes, and 180,000+ retweets over six months.

To be fair, even with clear models in past Russian influence campaigns, I’m impressed with how Chinese accounts pulled off this stunt. Besides language proficiency, it requires knowledge of Americans’ daily life, pop culture, and political reality to fake a believable persona. It’s a warning sign that they are getting better at more sophisticated manipulation of social platforms.

But at the same time, Chinese efforts were less effective in other ways. When compared with Russian interference, which focuses almost solely on issues already consuming American politics, China- and Iran-based actors are often more obvious in their geopolitical interests, DiResta said.

Another one of the China-based networks is a good example: through 1,872 accounts and 310,043 tweets (mainly in English and Mandarin), this network mostly talked about issues in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang. This kind of content often fails to get high engagement numbers. Sometimes, it just serves as a megaphone for state-controlled accounts. “So the point is not the bots. The bots are a tool to push forth the messaging from the real mouthpiece,” DiResta said.

So what’s the big picture? We still don’t know what Musk’s takeover will mean for Twitter, but we do know that nothing will stop foreign governments, including China, from trying to maintain their narrative on US-based social platforms. And it’s truly fascinating to identify how these governments learn from each other yet also diverge in their tactics.

Catch up with China

1. Eric Schmidt, Google’s former CEO, has become one of the most influential voices drumming up an artificial-intelligence arms race between the US and China. But he may have conflicts of interest. (Protocol)

2. Chinese officials are considering phasing out zero-covid policies, cutting down on mandatory quarantine days and the number of PCR tests required. But don’t expect it to happen overnight. (Wall Street Journal $)

  • A China correspondent for FT documented his firsthand experience over 10 days at a covid quarantine center in Shanghai. (Financial Times $)

3. China will soon approve the Pfizer/BioNTech covid vaccine (though only for expats), says German chancellor Olaf Scholz. It would be the first mRNA vaccine used in the country. (Politico)

  • The new German administration promised to be tougher on China but is divided on how far it should go. (Financial Times $)

4. The Taiwanese company Foxconn, known for making iPhones, has long said it wanted to build electric vehicles. Now it’s getting investment from Saudi Arabia to manufacture them in the kingdom. (Nikkei Asia $)

5. How the vibrant world of Uyghur-language websites and apps went silent as software developers and IT specialists in Xinjiang were taken into detention in recent years. (Wired $)

6. Lured by the promise of legitimate employment, as many as 100,000 foreigners are being held captive in Cambodia by Chinese cybercriminals and forced to run online scams. (Los Angeles Times $)

  • One of the scam products is fake LinkedIn profiles of people who pose as employees of prestigious companies and coax victims into crypto investment frauds. (MIT Technology Review)

7. China’s first message for this week’s climate summit COP27: Rich countries should give more financial aid to their developing peers. (Bloomberg $)

Lost in translation

“Zoom-bombing” is taking off in China again as Chinese classrooms move online amid local covid restrictions this year. It can have dire unintended consequences; a Chinese middle school teacher died of sudden cardiac arrest in late October after her history class was hit. The news revived discussions about a practice that was popular in 2020, in which uninvited people show up in remote meetings (sometimes serious ones!) to blast music, porn, and curses. Reporters from the Chinese publication Legal Daily joined an online community where “bombers” discuss new tactics and share information about meetings they can bomb. The majority of these members are young—born after 2000—and some volunteered access to their own remote school classes in order to disrupt them. Such activities are illegal and can be considered a criminal act, lawyers say. Digital platforms started suspending group chats for bomber communities following news of the death.

One more thing

The 1982 Bollywood song “Jimmy Jimmy Aaja Aaja” is having an unexpected cultural moment in China. Since the catchy lyric “Jimmy, Aaja” sounds similar to the Mandarin phrase “Jiemi, najia,” which means “who can lend me rice,” the song is getting dubbed under videos of people wearing Indian clothing and dancing with empty containers. You can read these videos, which received millions of views, as a satirical protest against the unpredictable local lockdowns that make basic grocery items hard to access. Or you can just appreciate this rare crossover moment between Chinese and Indian pop culture.

Coincidentally, I’m off to the grocery store, as I’m running out of rice myself. So see you next week!


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