Source: Timon Cline

In February 1946, George Kennan, then-deputy chief of mission in Moscow, responded to a request from the Treasury Department to detail the Soviet situation. The USSR had recently declined to take its supposed place in the postwar international order by declining to endorse the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, among other things.

Kennan’s response was as unexpected as it was prescient. In a telegram that exceeded 5,000 words, now justly known as the Long Telegram, Kennan outlined the character of Stalin’s regime: its “neurotic view of world affairs,” its “instinctive Russian sense of insecurity,” its Marxist-Leninist outlook — “the fig leaf of their moral and intellectual respectability” — that formed its fear of “capitalist encirclement” and justified the brutality of the five-year plan, and so on. Most importantly, Kennan predicted Soviet efforts to destabilize western nations via the exploitation of preexisting domestic conflicts and thereby erode trust in political institutions and processes. Kennan warned,

Efforts will be made in such countries to disrupt national self-confidence, to hamstring measures of national defense, to increase social and industrial unrest, to stimulate all forms of disunity. All persons with grievances, whether economic or racial, will be urged to spelt redress not in mediation and compromise, but in defiant violent struggle for destruction of other elements of society. Here poor will be set against rich, black against white, young against old, newcomers against established residents, etc.

This should sound familiar. China is now evidently adopting this playbook described by Kennan. Through well-timed social media blasts and carefully tailored opinion pieces, Beijing is both spreading its Communist message, (artificially) improving its international image, and exacerbating domestic fissures — especially racial tensions — in the American sociopolitical landscape.

One distinction between Cold War 1.0 and Cold War 2.0 is the advent of the internet and network platforms. Propaganda has only gotten easier, faster, and cheaper. On this, China has been upping the ante over the past few years. Lenin, Stalin, and all the rest could have only dreamed of the digital surveillance state now managed by Beijing; nor could they have imagined the way the internet (and social media) would expedite and democratize not only communication but propaganda and disinformation too. Given the immediacy of social media, adversarial governments like China are equipped to pour gas on any cultural and political fires, fanning the flame of the imbedded antagonism that Kennan described, and diminish confidence in America’s ability to moderate the same.

Back in November of 2019, Jake Novak, writing at CNBC, drew attention to this tactic from the Chinese. It was then, as it is now, clear that, to distract from their own human rights abuses, Beijing was mounting a concerted effort to paint America as irredeemably racist — something homegrown propaganda like the 1619 Project has paved the way for free of charge.  

The first signs of the campaign were exhibited by Lijian Zhao’s Twitter feed. Zhao is the deputy director general of the information department at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In a short thread, Zhao feigned concern for “the living condition of African-Americans,” calling them “worrisome,” and invoking unattributed statistics regarding the racial wealth-gap. The thread was retweeted over one thousand times and “liked” even more.

Zhao’s comments were clearly meant to be a cheap shot at Donald Trump, who had just declared support for the Hong Kong protests, but also coincided with an explosive expose by the New York Times on the mass detention of Muslim Uyghurs in the northwest of the country. Trump’s State Department later officially declared it genocide — a designation that the Biden administration has not officially endorsed. More egregious still, when Biden was confronted about the crisis earlier this year, he chalked it up to “different norms.” Walter Duranty could not have conjured up better spin. Of course, China has consistently denied the existence of detention camps, dubbed any reporting on the Uyghur crisis disinformation, and reassured western ears that Chinese-Muslim women are now being “emancipated.”

But Zhao’s thread killed two birds with one stone. It was expertly posted to stoke tensions surrounding the Jussie Smollett case then still heating up. The Smollett incident in particular divided politicians and celebrities alike. Zhao knew what he was doing. He was exploiting a wedge issue or, rather, in Novak’s words, “he’s tapping into a live wire,” distracting from real news about real oppression, and landing a jab on the leader of the free world. All in a day’s work.

The same strategy was executed last summer amidst nationwide, racially charged social unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s death. As Javier C. Hernández discerned, China was reveling in the moment, “seizing on the unrest to tout the strength of its authoritarian system and to portray the turmoil as yet another sign of American hypocrisy and decline.” Chinese officials began trolling their American counterparts online with “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe” posts. Even NPR had to agree. The editor of the CCP-funded Global Times called out Mike Pompeo for not standing with Minneapolis as he had with Hong Kong. Eva Xiao has reported for the Wall Street Journal that researchers uncovered roughly 174,000 Twitter accounts that promoted Chinese-backed propaganda, both race and coronavirus related, during the summer of 2020. China did the same thing again in the wake of the Capital Hill riot.  

This all may seem rather juvenile and ineffectual, but like it or not, social media is the new public square and printing press wrapped into one. Whoever harnesses network platforms possesses real power, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal and a host of other revelations over the past few years has made clear. The platforms that were used to organize demonstrations against Beijing in Hong Kong and Taiwan were employed to dissipate the same.

In any case, it did not stop with the tweets. Just last month, China announced an upcoming report on U.S. human rights violations that would, among other things, demonstrate a decline in American democracy, the aggravation of social inequality, political unrest, and the like. U.N. ambassadors from each country traded blows with Dai Bing, China’s representative, stating, “If the U.S. truly cared about human rights, they should address the deep-seated problems of racial discrimination, social injustice and police brutality, on their own soil.”

This all goes well beyond name-calling and U.N. squabbles, however. Beijing is better at fanning the flames than that, namely, by mimicking progressive, woke commentary on current events. As Josh Glancy of the Times of London phrased it, “Now China has found America’s woke spot, it is turning the screw.” For example, in March of this year, the Global Times ran an op-ed that offered up an intersectional approach to the Atlanta salon parlor shootings. Citing Kimberlé Crenshaw, the piece humbly instructed Americans that the violence was a result of both misogyny and anti-Asian racism. Of course, the same state-funded paper has failed to apply such analysis to the situation in Xinjiang.

Not everyone heeded Kennan’s wisdom at the time. But if the U.S. has any interest in confronting America’s greatest foreign rival, then it will focus on both countering Chinese propaganda and promoting domestic stability. This cannot be accomplished by kowtowing to Chinese alternative narratives nor by acquiescing to the demands of the critical social justice movement, which contributes to fanning the flame (literally) in America’s major cities. Anything else will play right into the hands of the old Communist playbook.