In the battle over coronavirus pandemic propaganda, the Trump administration might have just dropped The Big One — at least domestically. On Thursday, the Department of Justice sent a letter to the FCC urging the revocation of access for China Telecom to US facilities. The DoJ letter never mentions propaganda or Beijing’s COVID-19 public-relations campaigns, but FCC commissioner Brendan Carr can read between the lines well enough.
“The fundamental question for us at the FCC is, is this company [China Telecom] going to be subject to exploitation and control by the communist regime in China?” Carr told Bream. “And if anything, we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks with this coronavirus pandemic, the Chinese communist regime is willing to take any action to further their geopolitical agenda.
“They are disappearing their own doctors [and] citizen journalists to hide the truth,” Carr added. “So I think there’s a fundamental problem right now with our relationship with China in terms of their trustworthiness. I think that carries over into our work at the FCC, about the vulnerabilities of our network, when companies owned and controlled by China are connecting to that network.”
What were the DoJ’s allegations? They cited some technical violations of the extant 2007 agreement with Beijing, but also accused China of “malicious cyber activity targeting the United States”:
In its recommendation, the Executive Branch agencies identified substantial and unacceptable national security and law enforcement risks associated with China Telecom’s operations, which render the FCC authorizations inconsistent with the public interest. More specifically the recommendation was based on:
- the evolving national security environment since 2007 and increased knowledge of the PRC’s role in malicious cyber activity targeting the United States;
- concerns that China Telecom is vulnerable to exploitation, influence, and control by the PRC government;
- inaccurate statements by China Telecom to U.S. government authorities about where China Telecom stored its U.S. records, raising questions about who has access to those records;
- inaccurate public representations by China Telecom concerning its cybersecurity practices, which raise questions about China Telecom’s compliance with federal and state cybersecurity and privacy laws; and
- the nature of China Telecom’s U.S. operations, which provide opportunities for PRC state-actors to engage in malicious cyber activity enabling economic espionage and disruption and misrouting of U.S. communications.
Some of the foregoing relate to China Telecom’s failure to comply with a 2007 Letter of Assurance, which was a basis for the existing FCC authorizations. The Department’s National Security Division, Foreign Investment Review Section, identified those compliance issues through its mitigation monitoring program. As a result, the Executive Branch agencies concluded that the national security and law enforcement risks associated with China Telecom’s international Section 214 authorizations could not be mitigated by additional mitigation terms.
China’s malicious targeting has been known for years, both in the private and government sectors. We’ve been talking about it for seven years, even before we found out about their hack into the Office of Personnel Management and possibly the Juniper breach, too. Even more recently — and perhaps a part of this push — the DoJ declared in February that China had been behind the Equifax hack in 2017. Neither the Obama administration nor (until now) the Trump administration chose to make such a dramatic move in retaliation, although it certainly would have been warranted.
Had the coronavirus pandemic never occurred, the administration would probably have allowed that status quo to continue, too. After all, Trump went out of his way to rescue Chinese telecom producer ZTE as part of a trade deal with Xi Jinping two years ago, even with this track record of intrusion and espionage. The administration has taken a much tougher line with Huawei, but the idea of disconnecting China Telecom had never come up. Until now, anyway.
Carr sounds very sympathetic to the DoJ’s suggestion, and that’s also clearly more about the COVID-19 propaganda war than any of the other issues. It won’t stop China’s hackers, but it will make it tougher for China to conduct its propaganda campaign here in the US. Next up, the DoJ should look into whether reporters for media outlets owned by PRC-linked firms have filed the proper paperwork under the Foreign Agent Registration Act in a symmetrical action in regard to China’s expulsion of Western reporters last month. If we’re going to get serious in pushing back against Beijing’s propaganda, let’s make sure we stay serious.
Or perhaps Donald Trump just enjoys depantsing China’s media plants too much. There’s no way these are accidents. Trump’s clearly got information on these outlets and he’s making sure the rest of the media covers it.