Moscow and Beijing’s toolkit for influencing democratic societies has evolved. Using Germany, the UK, Japan, and Australia as case studies, CSIS explores what traits made these democracies vulnerable to foreign influence as well as the sources of their resiliency.
The impact of Russian and Chinese malign influence activities within democratic states has come into sharp focus in recent years. In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has created new opportunities for Moscow and Beijing to advance geopolitical goals through disinformation and other influence activities. Despite greater public awareness of the challenge, governments have struggled to respond.
The “3 Cs” framework, coined by former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, defines “malign” influence activities as covert, coercive, or corrupting. These influence activities disrupt the normal democratic political processes in a targeted country by:
- Manipulating public discourse;
- Discrediting the electoral system;
- Biasing the development of policy; or
- Disrupting markets for the purpose of advancing a political or strategic goal.
These activities are typically non-transparent, outside the rule of law, and run counter to liberal democratic norms. Activities that are covert, coercive, or corrupting differ from legitimate or benign public diplomacy efforts conducted in a transparent and open manner.
A growing body of research details and scrutinizes the strategies and tactics behind Russian and Chinese influence activities. Our research focuses on understanding how these activities play out in democratic polities and how governments and societies respond. What are the factors that make countries particularly vulnerable to Chinese or Russian malign influence activities? What are the sources of resilience that enable democratic governments and polities to mitigate, fend off, or push back on malign efforts to distort public debate and political processes? To what degree have China and Russia been successful in influencing political outcomes through their activities?
Foreign influence activities pose a common threat to democracies, but in different ways. CSIS examined Russian influence activities in Germany and the United Kingdom and Chinese influence operations in Japan and Australia. The cases highlight the different goals and tactics of Moscow and Beijing, as well as some common features in their approaches. They also demonstrate which methods and tactics are most effective in particular countries and why.
Russian Objectives and Tools
As a cost-effective means of preserving its relative strength, Russia seeks to undermine its competitors by creating division both within and between democracies and by promoting policies and positions that are favorable to Moscow. To accomplish these goals, the Kremlin has enhanced its capabilities in the information space while continuing to utilize other long-standing influence tools such as illicit financing and corruption.
Russian activities are not orchestrated by a single actor but by numerous, often competing entities with varying degrees of autonomy from the Kremlin. Sputnik and RT, state-owned media outlets, engage in state-sponsored messaging. This messaging is then amplified by online bots and trolls—some officially state-sponsored and some operating as independent actors in service of the state. Russian intelligence services, such as the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces (GRU), plant “hacked-and-leaked” stories and false information in fringe publications with the aim of infiltrating mainstream democratic discourse. The resulting narratives are amplified on social media by entities such as the Internet Research Agency (IRA) as well as online networks in the targeted countries.
Russia’s Malign Influence Activities in Germany
Germany’s centrality to the project of European integration, its economic and political weight, and its long-standing historical and cultural ties with Russia have made it a natural target for Russian influence activities. Activities such as a distorted 2016 report of a young ethnic Russian raped by migrants (the infamous “Lisa case”), interference in the 2017 Bundestag election campaign, and the August 2019 murder of a Georgian-Chechen militant named Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin all provide powerful examples of Russian malign influence activities.
Social Cohesion and Partisanship
Germany enjoys comparatively high levels of political and social cohesion and consensus, which make it less vulnerable to disruptive Russian influence. In both the 2016 Lisa case and the 2017 Bundestag election, specific Russian information operations sought to capitalize on preexisting political divisions about migration, but these narratives gained limited traction.
Germany’s population of 3 million Soviet-born immigrants and their children retain a distinct “outsider” identity and engage more with Russian media and culture. Citizens from the former German Democratic Republic, while not a formal “diaspora,” are dissociated from mainstream political discourse in similar ways. They tend toward Euroskepticism, are more hostile to ethnic and religious minorities and migration, and are more supportive of far-left and far-right parties. These demographics were a primary target in the Lisa case.
Germany’s reliance on Russian energy, its role as a distribution hub for European gas, and the concentration of Russia-related business among major German companies are primary avenues for Russian economic influence, even if overall trade volumes are small. These asymmetries can result in “captured” elites whose own interests lead them to promote Russia-friendly policies. The best known example is former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder negotiating the Nord Stream pipeline before becoming chairman of the firm that went on to construct both Nord Stream 1 and 2.
Germany has comparatively strict laws on political party financing, and there has been little evidence of direct financial support to German far-left and far-right parties.
Social Media Regulation
Germany’s stringent Network Enforcement Act adopted in 2017 requires social media platforms with more than 2 million users to remove extremist content and “junk news” or face heavy fines.
Russia’s Malign Influence Activities in the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom’s political, economic, and military strength, along with its close relationship with the United States, make it a prime target for Russian influence activities. In the United Kingdom, Russian influence activities have focused on amplifying societal divisions around the Brexit referendum. There have also been efforts to deflect Russian state culpability in the Skripal novichok poisoning and deepen ties with British political figures where possible.
Social Cohesion and Partisanship
While the United Kingdom is a vibrant democracy, political polarization stemming from cultural and societal divisions have become more pronounced, particularly around Brexit. Russia used this to exploit anti-elite sentiments and magnify fears about immigrants and the erosion of British (particularly English) “culture.” Separatist sentiment in Scotland and tensions within Northern Ireland present further opportunities for Russian information operations.
Compared to Russians in Germany, Russians in the United Kingdom are generally better off and more highly integrated into UK society, making them a less ripe target for influence operations.
The city of London and the United Kingdom’s offshore tax centers attract considerable Russian funds. However, the UK-Russia economic relationship is much smaller than the one between Germany and Russia and has not resulted in a business lobby advocating for better relations with Moscow. Instead, it has centered upon individual political figures who have voiced pro-Russian stances.
The UK campaign finance law covering donations to political parties has a significant loophole. The law prohibits contributions from foreign companies and individuals. However, it does not require disclosure of political donations from the beneficial owners of non-British companies that are incorporated in the United Kingdom. There are indications that Russian funds have flowed into UK political parties through industry lobby groups and venture capital funds through this loophole. However, there is little evidence of political donations actually shifting party positions on Russia.
Social Media Regulation
UK statutory regulations require impartiality in public broadcasting and are enforced, but no legislation regulates non-public online news. There are no prohibitions on false or misleading information in political advertising either. Commercial print journalism outlets in the United Kingdom are also highly partisan.
In both Germany and the United Kingdom, high public trust in traditional media is a source of immunity to foreign information operations. Close to one-third of Germans watch the state-run ARD network evening news, while in the United Kingdom nearly 50 percent of adults from across the ideological spectrum rely on the BBC as their main source of news. Private media outlets have a clear charter and oversight mechanism. Russian state-sponsored outlets such as RT and Sputnik are present in both countries and target specific segments of the population but have little influence on mainstream political discourse. However, in both countries an increasing reliance on less-regulated social media as a source for information presents a growing challenge.
While on the whole Russia exercises less influence in the United Kingdom than in Germany, Russian information operations in the United Kingdom have proven more disruptive. This outcome is less a result of Russian actions than of sharp societal divisions around Brexit as well as a less regulated online media and tabloid environment. In Germany, Moscow’s efforts to exploit cultural fissures and promote extreme political actors have largely fallen flat.
The United Kingdom increasingly views influence activities through a security lens. It has deployed a robust “whole-of-government” response that makes use of the full range of the United Kingdom’s capabilities, including economic levers, military resources, and wider diplomatic efforts.
However, rather than respond to each instance of disinformation, the United Kingdom focuses its efforts on those malign influence efforts—such as election interference—that are likely to have the greatest impact and has also implemented an extensive media literacy program.
Berlin’s response to Russian information operations is less securitized and centers on producing counter-narratives that emphasize factual information. This approach benefits from Germans’ high levels of trust in their government and the premium placed on societal consensus, which allows Germany to more comfortably coexist with some level of disinformation.
Chinese Objectives and Tools
China has primarily used influence activities to cultivate a positive image of its rise on the global stage and to diminish public criticism. Unlike Russia, its activities in the information space traditionally consist of censorship through economic leverage and coercion rather than disinformation.
Chinese influence operations are conducted by the United Front Work Department (UFWD), the proclaimed “magic weapon” of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The UFWD guides a network of civic and business associations, student groups, Chinese-language media, academic institutions, and politicians, which is used to intimidate, surveil, and co-opt the overseas Chinese community. The UFWD also works to build relationships with Western enablers in academic and media spheres.
China’s Malign Influence Activities in Japan
Japan is a natural target of Chinese influence given its geographical proximity, economic weight, geopolitical rivalry, and long-standing alliance with the United States. Japan has proved resilient to influence activities aimed at creating a positive image of China: a 2019 Pew Research poll found that 85 percent of those polled in Japan hold an unfavorable view of China, the most negative views of China among all 34 countries surveyed. This likely reflects a deep bias against China among the Japanese public based on centuries of animosity.
Social Cohesion and Partisanship
Japan’s political stability, reinforced by an apathetic public and low civic engagement, narrows the space for election interference and largely inoculates Japanese politics to foreign influence. With only two short hiatuses, the ruling LDP has controlled the government since 1955, minimizing the return on foreign political meddling efforts.
The legacy of moderating Japan’s exposure to globalization is slowly ebbing under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but this still remains a major source of protection against Chinese influence. Inbound foreign direct investment (FDI) in Japan was about $10 billion in 2017, placing it outside of the top 20 countries. Japan is increasingly dependent on China as its top export market but remains relatively unexposed to Chinese FDI.
There is a growing number of Chinese students and tourists in Japan, and Chinese students represent the largest portion of the country’s tiny foreign population. However, Japan’s overwhelming cultural and demographic homogeneity presents fewer opportunities for China to exert influence through diaspora communities.
Japan derives resiliency from its media environment, in part though its exclusive press clubs. It is also protected by its restraints on the free press via the influence and enactment of the 2013 State Secrecy Law, which punishes leaks of sensitive information. Five Japanese media conglomerates dominate mainstream print and broadcast media. This centralized, oligopolostic press environment creates few openings for foreign media to influence political discourse.
Strict campaign finance restrictions against foreign funding based on the 1948 Political Funds Control Act in Japan are another source of resiliency that prevent elite capture.
China’s Malign Influence Activities in Australia
Like Japan, Australia is an attractive target for Chinese influence operations because of its strategic value as a U.S. ally in the increasingly contested Indo-Pacific region. Beijing’s ultimate goal is to peel Australia away from its alliance with the United States. Neutralizing Australia on a key issue such as the South China Sea would pay huge dividends for Beijing by reducing American regional leadership. Australia’s economic dependency on China and its large Chinese diaspora create points of leverage for Beijing to exploit.
Social Cohesion and Partisanship
China has sought to divide Australia’s multicultural society by trying to unite the Chinese diaspora in support of Beijing while also exploiting racial sensitivities. Australia’s competitive party system has proven resilient to Chinese efforts to buy political influence, with political elites largely unified in their approach to China. The spirit of bipartisanship on dealing with China has solidified in recent years as China’s influence activities have received greater public visibility.
Australia is more economically dependent on China than any other advanced democracy. China is by far Australia’s largest customer for its exports of iron ore, gas, coal, and agricultural products. China is also the largest source of tourists and students to Australia. This creates a natural constituency of support in the Australian business community and among university leadership for a cooperative relationship with China.
Nearly 5 percent of Australian residents have Chinese ancestry, and a proportionally higher number live in several key battleground electoral districts. These communities have long been a prime target of CCP and UFWD influence operations.
Australia’s free and vibrant press has been a key driver in shining a light on Chinese malign influence activities in Australia. It has helped launch public debate on the broader Australia-China relationship as well. However, Chinese-language media in Australia has largely been co-opted or purchased by Beijing-linked interests. The growing use of WeChat and other Chinese-language social media further limits access of Chinese-speaking Australians to information and perspectives that fall outside of the Beijing-controlled narrative.
Until recently, Australia was one of the few advanced democracies that did not prohibit campaign donations from foreigners. This loophole allowed wealthy Chinese businessmen with close ties to the CCP to gain access to the major political parties through large campaign donations and seek to influence their policies toward China. Media revelations of these attempts to buy political influence led to legislative reforms which banned foreign political donations.
Japan has proven resilient to Chinese influence due to a variety of factors. These include strict campaign finance rules, political and cultural homogeneity, relative historic isolation, an oligopolistic media landscape, and popular suspicion toward China stemming from a long history of conflict.
Australia has more leverage points, which China has skillfully exploited. These include strong economic ties, a large ethnic Chinese community, and ongoing strategic debates about Australia’s relationship with China and the United States. However, similar to the United Kingdom, a wave of highly publicized scandals focused attention on the threat of malign foreign influence and ignited a robust public response. Legislation to crack down on foreign interference has passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Despite its vulnerabilities, Australia’s democratic political culture has proven resilient to China’s growing attempts to influence its political environment.
Both Russia and China attempt to disrupt the cohesion of democratic countries and their alliances with the United States, but they do so differently. The Kremlin attempts to sow discord and confusion from within alliance structures, while the CCP works primarily to cajole and co-opt U.S. allies into strengthening ties with China and distancing themselves from U.S. efforts to constrain China.
Russian and Chinese malign influence efforts have had minimal impact on the foreign policies of the targeted countries examined in this research. Despite clear Russian efforts to exploit instability and divisions, there is no evidence that these influence activities had direct impact. In some cases, efforts have backfired, resulting in negative opinion swings in the targeted countries.
Why Have Efforts Backfired?
The historical relationship between China and Russia to the target country has a significant impact on the success or failure of their influence operations.
Japan’s history of conflict with China creates natural suspicion toward China and reduces the potential for influence building. In Germany, a more sympathetic diaspora amplifies Russian influence. The size and degree of integration into democracies of diaspora communities affect their susceptibility to foreign influence and manipulation. The diaspora community is an important element of social cohesion and political polarization. A high level of polarization and social division opens opportunities within a democracy to exploit. It is for these reasons that Russia and China target diaspora communities.
A country’s regulatory environment is critical to deter and mitigate the effects of influence activities. These regulations have increasingly been viewed through a national security lens rather than simple domestic compliance. Strict and transparent campaign finance regulation shielded democracies against foreign political influence and minimized opportunity for elite capture. Regulation with greater transparency and monitoring of social media platforms also mitigated influence activities.
However, openness can serve as a double-edge sword. Russia and China have exploited democratic free speech requirements to pursue their influence activities. One such instance occurred when a UK regulator imposed restrictions on RT, with RT then suing to protect its “free speech.” Similarly, an overly regulated media space, such as strict libel laws in the United Kingdom, can give foreign influence actors legal ground to sue those calling attention to malign influence activities.
Public trust of media also impacts a country’s resilience against foreign influence in the information space. Democracies with high trust in traditional media appear less vulnerable to information manipulation. Germany and Japan have higher trust and more uniformity of view in their media sector; the United Kingdom and Australia have a diversified media ecosystem that is more open to outside influence.
Finally, asymmetric economic relationships also have an impact. The greater the economic assymetry that exists with China and Russia, the more opportunities there are for influencing key political players in the target country, who may be vulnerable to both coercive and soft forms of influence.
Government countermeasures, social cohesion, and more balanced economic relations mitigate malign influence activities within democracies. But China and Russia continue to adapt and mutate their efforts by leveraging new technologies and techniques to exploit democratic vulnerabilities. Early evidence suggests that China is emulating Russian tactics in the information space, including creating fake social media accounts to propagate false messages, particularly related to the U.S. administration’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic.
Every democracy has unique vulnerabilities but also unique strengths. From transparency and rule of law to a free press and democratic norms, hallmarks of democratic states foster resilience against malign foreign influence. Some of the vulnerabilities being exploited by foreign actors, such as open information environments, are also vital to democratic national character and are worth protecting. Democracies should therefore focus on building up their strengths as much as reducing vulnerabilities.
Just as China is learning from Russia, democracies under threat can learn from one another. Increasing this cooperation and finding common approaches to countering malign influence activities are the best ways to ensure those activities continue to fall short of their goals.
Listen to CSIS experts Heather A. Conley, Amy Searight, and Michael J. Green go deeper into this issue:
About the Authors
Heather A. Conley
Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic; and Director, Europe Program
Heather A. Conley is a principal lead on this project and co-author of the executive summary. Prior to joining CSIS, Conley served four years as executive director of the Office of the Chairman of the Board at the American National Red Cross. From 2001 to 2005, she was deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. From 1994 to 2001, she was a senior associate with an international consulting firm led by former U.S. deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage. She began her career in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Conley received her B.A. in international studies from West Virginia Wesleyan College and her M.A. in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Deputy Director and Senior fellow with the Europe Program
Rachel Ellehuus authored the case study examining Russian influence activities in the UK. Her research at CSIS focuses on the future of NATO; the transatlantic relationship; U.S.-European Union relations; and regional security and defense dynamics, particularly in Northern Europe and the Arctic. Before coming to CSIS, she served as principal director for European and NATO Policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense at the U.S. Department of Defense. From 2009 to 2012, Ms. Ellehuus was assigned to the Strategy Unit in the UK Ministry of Defense. Prior to her work at the Department of Defense, Ms. Ellehuus was a researcher at the Danish Institute of International Affairs and lived in Prague, Czech Republic, where she worked at the EastWest Institute. She holds a B.A. in international relations and German from Colgate University and an M.A. in political science and European affairs from the College of Europe (Bruges/Natolin).
Research Assistant, Russia and Eurasia Program
Tim Kostelancik was a research assistant with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program focusing on Russian and Chinese influence operations and a co-author of the executive summary. His interests lie at the intersection of technology, economics, and governance, and he has written on Russian disinformation surrounding the Covid-19 crisis and AI-enabled information manipulation in democracies. He holds a M.S. in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and a B.A. in political science from Middlebury College.
Non-Resident Associate of the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program
Jeffrey Mankoff authored the case study examining Russian influence activities in Germany. His areas of expertise include international security, Russian foreign policy, regional security in Eurasia, ethnic conflict, and energy security. Dr. Mankoff’s forthcoming book, Empires of Eurasia: How Imperial Legacies Shape International Security (Yale, 2021), examines the impact of the imperial past on Chinese, Iranian, Russian, and Turkish politics and foreign policy. Until May 2020, Mankoff was a senior fellow with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program. He previously served as an adviser on U.S.-Russia relations at the U.S. Department of State as a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow, and was from 2008 to 2010 associate director of International Security Studies at Yale University and an adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mankoff received BA degrees in international studies and Russian from the University of Oklahoma, and an MA, MPhil, and PhD in diplomatic history from Yale University.
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program
Cyrus Newlin is a principal author of the Executive Summary. His research at CSIS focuses on Russian domestic politics and political economy as well as U.S.-Russia relations. From 2019-2020, he lived and worked in Moscow as an Alfa Fellow with Bank of America, analyzing geopolitical risk in the Commonwealth of Independent States region as part of a team of equity and fixed income analysts. From 2017-2019, he was research associate and program manager with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program. Cyrus received his B.A. in political science and Russian studies from Swarthmore College, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
Senior Associate (Non-resident) for Asia
Amy Searight authored the case study examining Chinese influence activities in Australia and was a co-author of the executive summary. She served as director of the CSIS Southeast Asia Program. From 2014 to 2016, Searight worked in the Department of Defense as deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia. Prior to that appointment, she served as principal director for East Asian security at DOD and as senior adviser for Asia in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). She has also served on the policy planning staff and as special adviser for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in the State Department. Before entering government, Dr. Searight was an assistant professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and Northwestern University. She holds a Ph.D. in political science and an M.A. in East Asian studies from Stanford University, and she graduated magna cum laude from Williams College with a BA in political economy.
Senior fellow, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs
Devin Stewart authored the case study examining China's influence activities in Japan. He founded and directed the Asia program at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Stewart has taught courses on international affairs at Columbia University and New York University. He served as senior fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation, a Truman Security Fellow, and a fellow and assistant director of studies at CSIS from 2004 to 2006 and affiliated CSIS as an adjunct fellow until 2010.
Special Thanks to:
- Roksana Gabidullina, Research Associate and Program Manager, CSIS
- Sarah Grace, Producer, and Multimedia Content Lead, CSIS iDeas Lab
- Andreyka Natalegawa, Research Assistant and Program Coordinator, Southeast Asia Program
This publication was made possible by the Global Engagement Center at the U.S. Department of State, through the Information Access Fund (IAF) administered by the DT Institute. The opinions, conclusions, or recommendations contained herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the view of the U.S. government or the IAF.
A product of the Andreas C. Dracopoulos iDeas Lab, the in-house digital, multimedia, and design agency at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.