The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is accusing China of trying to undermine it by targeting the American political system.
"China wants a different American president," Vice President Mike Pence said in a speech Thursday. He accused Beijing of "meddling in America's democracy" by employing power in more proactive and coercive ways.
Pence accused the Chinese Communist Party of "rewarding or coercing American businesses, movie studios, universities, think tanks, scholars, journalists, and local, state and federal officials. Worst of all, China has initiated an unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion, the 2018 elections, and the environment leading into the 2020 presidential elections."
The vice president said a senior career member of the U.S. intelligence community recently told him, "What the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what the China is doing across this country."
China fired back Friday, rejecting Pence's assertions as "unwarranted" and "ridiculous." According to Agence France-Presse, a statement from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Pence "made unwarranted accusations against China's domestic and foreign policies and slandered China by claiming that China meddles in U.S. internal affairs." She said Pence was "creating something out of thin air."
The remarks came a week after Trump accused the Chinese government of attempting to interfere in the U.S. midterm elections, to be held next month, and said Pence would release details in his speech.
Pence, at the Hudson Institute in Washington, said some of the information he was citing had been gleaned from intelligence assessments and some was publicly available.
Speaking to reporters later Thursday at the White House, national security adviser John Bolton said Pence's remarks relied on "previously classified and unclassified information."
Bolton said "much of what we know remains classified" and due to ongoing intelligence operations, as well as protecting sources and methods, more cannot be revealed at this time.
"I've never seen anything like the scope of the Chinese activities," added Bolton. "It's a very serious problem."
Citing U.S. intelligence community reports, Pence claimed the Chinese are targeting state and local governments and officials in the United States in an attempt to exploit divisions between federal and local levels on policy.
According to Pence, the Chinese government circulated a sensitive "Propaganda and Censorship Notice" in June that stated Beijing must "strike accurately and carefully, splitting apart different domestic groups" in the United States.
To that end, Pence said "Beijing has mobilized covert actors, front groups, and propaganda outlets to shift Americans' perception of Chinese policy."
"The current administration is willing to call a spade a spade," said Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center.
She said Pence's speech contained a lot of facts and was comprehensive on issues where China seeks to challenge or undermine American national interests. But she added that the evidence put forward by the Trump administration, such as a Des Moines newspaper supplement published by the Chinese and the tariffs targeting Trump's voter base, "might be a little thin to substantiate China's interference in U.S. elections."
Since Trump took office early last year, his administration has escalated pressure on Beijing, most recently with more than $250 billion worth of tariffs on products for which the Chinese have retaliated in kind.
"And when it comes to influencing the midterms, you need only look at Beijing's tariffs in response to ours," said Pence in his speech. "They specifically targeted industries and states that would play an important role in the 2018 election. By one estimate, more than 80 percent of U.S. counties targeted by China voted for President Trump and I in 2016; now China wants to turn these voters against our administration."
Short on specifics
Other analysts also say they wish there had been more specifics in Pence's remarks.
"He was fairly cryptic," said Rebeccah Heinrichs, a Hudson Institute senior fellow. "He made the point that the [Chinese] government doesn't like what this administration is doing and he kind of left it there. I can deduce from that they're doing something specifically to affect elections to harm Republicans."
Trump signed an executive order last month authorizing sanctions against those found to be involved in election interference.
"I hope to see other efforts by the U.S. to deter China and to come up with real responses to try to actually stave off some of what the Chinese are doing," Heinrichs told VOA.
Pence also said in his speech the Chinese are trying to project their military power farther than ever before, noting Chinese ships routinely patrolling around disputed islands administered by Japan (known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese), and Beijing's deployment of advanced anti-ship and anti-air missiles atop an archipelago of military bases constructed on artificial islands.
"China's aggression was on display this week when a Chinese naval vessel came within 45 yards of the USS Decatur as it conducted freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea, forcing our ship to quickly maneuver to avoid collision," said Pence. "We will not be intimidated, and we will not stand down."
Pence said Beijing is extending a lifeline "to the corrupt and incompetent Maduro regime in Venezuela," pledging billions of dollars in loans that can be repaid with oil.
The Chinese, according to the vice president, are "also impacting some nations' politics by providing direct support to parties and candidates who promise to accommodate China's strategic objectives."
Since last year, Pence noted, the Chinese Communist Party convinced three Latin American nations to sever ties with Taipei and recognize Beijing.
In remarks the government in Beijing likely will consider particularly provocative, Pence characterized these actions by China as threatening the stability of the Taiwan Strait and declared that Taiwan's embrace of democracy in contrast to the one-party system on the mainland "shows a better path for all the Chinese people."
VOA's William Gallo contributed to this report.