Late last week, as most of America’s political class was transfixed by the denouement of the Kavanaugh confirmation battle, Vice President Mike Pence gave a wide-ranging address on the U.S. relationship with China, and why the Trump administration is committed to opposing its expansionist designs. For the most part, it was a familiar litany of complaints about China’s efforts to coerce its neighbors in the western Pacific, its trade abuses, its hostility to religious freedom, and its support of unsavory regimes around the world. Yet halfway through his remarks, the vice president shifted his emphasis, turning from all the various ways the Chinese party-state was acting in the world outside America’s borders to how it was seeking to influence political and cultural life inside them.
Specifically, Pence warned that “China wants a different American president,” and that Beijing was mobilizing “covert actors, front groups, and propaganda outlets to shift Americans’ perception of Chinese policies” to that end. By now, it has become routine for the heads of U.S. multinationals to condemn the Trump administration’s trade policies, and the fact that they’d do so is perfectly understandable. China’s violent labor repression and its policy of subsidizing industrialists at the expense of households have proved highly advantageous to those seeking a disciplined and relatively low-cost workforce, regardless of their citizenship. According to Pence, however, there is another layer to the politics of trade, namely that senior Chinese officials are threatening to punish business leaders who fail to denounce U.S. tariffs. He pointed to the rising sophistication with which Beijing exploits America’s domestic political cleavages, as evidenced by its targeting of retaliatory tariffs to regions and industries believed crucial to the outcome of the 2018 midterm elections, and its shrewd efforts to silence criticism of Chinese policies on university campuses desperate for Chinese money.