Mike Pence has claimed that Russian interference in US elections “pales in comparison” with Chinese meddling, which he said was aimed at ousting Donald Trump.
The vice-president’s allegation echoes a similar claim made by the president at the UN last week, but it has been contradicted by cybersecurity experts and the administration has yet to provide any supporting evidence, other than to point to instances of overt lobbying.
The administration’s own secretary of homeland security, Kirstjen Nielsen, said: “We currently have no indication that a foreign adversary intends to disrupt our election infrastructure.
“We know they [the Chinese] have the capability and we know they have the will. So we’re constantly on alert to watch. But what we see with China right now are the influence campaigns, the more traditional, longstanding, holistic influence campaigns,” Nielsen said on Tuesday at a Washington Post cybersecurity conference.
In his remarks on Thursday, Pence alleged a far more focused Chinese assault on US democracy.
“China has initiated an unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion, the 2018 elections, and the environment leading into the 2020 presidential election,” Pence said at the Hudson Institute, a Washington thinktank. “To put it bluntly, President Trump’s leadership is working, and China wants a different American president. China is meddling in America’s democracy.
“To that end, Beijing has mobilized covert actors, front groups and propaganda outlets to shift Americans’ perception of Chinese policies,” the vice-president added. “As a senior career member of our intelligence community recently told me, what the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country.”
China described Pence’s speech as “unwarranted accusations” and said it “slandered China by claiming that China meddles in US internal affairs and elections”. Any efforts to rhetorically attack China would be “futile”
“This is nothing but speaking on hearsay evidence, confusing right and wrong and creating something out of thin air. The Chinese side is firmly opposed to it,” Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokesperson, said in a statement. “We urge the US to correct its wrongdoing, stop groundlessly accusing and slandering China and harming China’s interests and China-US ties, and take concrete actions to maintain the sound and steady development of China-US relations.”
In a thinly veiled critique of US foreign policy, Hua said “the international community has already known fully well who wantonly infringes upon others’ sovereignty, interferes in others’ internal affairs and undermines others’ interests”.
Following Pence’s remarks, a senior official from the Department of Homeland Security said there was no contradiction with Nielsen’s earlier statement, adding that she had been speaking exclusively about threats to election infrastructure such as voting machines and voter registration databases.
The official said the homeland security secretary had not addressed “malign foreign influence that seeks to sow discord, undermine or advance targeted politicians”.
In July, the FBI director, Christopher Wray, said that China, from a counterintelligence perspective, “represents the broadest, most challenging, most significant threat we face as a country”.
However, Wray added that China represented “a different kind of threat” from Russia and was focused primarily on economic espionage.
Pence’s remarks – and Trump’s original claim at the UN security council that the Chinese “don’t want me or us to win because I am the first president to ever challenge China on trade” – come at a time when the Trump campaign is under investigation for possible collusion with Russia to sway the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favour. US intelligence officials have warned that Russia is also aiming to interfere in the congressional vote in November.
The justice department has so far indicted 25 Russian intelligence officers for election interference. On the same day Pence made his speech, the Dutch authorities revealed evidence that Russian military intelligence had tried to hack into the computer systems of the Organisation for Prevention of Chemical Warfare and the US justice department indicted seven Russian intelligence officers for a “lengthy and wide-ranging conspiracy” to hack into private computers and networks around the world.
In his speech, Pence did not offer any new evidence for his allegations against Russia. Like Trump, he pointed to an openly Chinese-sponsored newspaper supplement in Iowa, that argued against the administration’s policy on trade tariffs.
The vice-president made an additional allegation, saying that “China is targeting US state and local governments and officials to exploit any divisions between federal and local levels on policy”, but did not give details on how local government was being targeted.
James Mulvenon, an expert on Chinese military and influence operations and the vice-president of the intelligence division at Defense Group Inc, said: “There is some discussion … about Chinese campaign finance issues at the local and state and senate level, and I think we’re going to need to dig deeper on that, because I personally have not seen any concrete evidence of the same level of meddling, particularly directed towards the midterms.”
Cybersecurity experts said China was more engaged in industrial espionage and intellectual property (IP) theft than in attacks on the electoral system.
“We are seeing a massive amount of intrusions by China into organisations all around the US, but mainly aimed at economic targets,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, the co-founder of CrowdStrike Inc, a leading US cybersecurity firm. “It’s quite a lot different from Russia. We personally have not seen hacking of political campaigns and the release of documents. We have not seen a lot of going after political causes.”
John McLaughlin, the former acting director of the CIA, said that Pence appeared to be echoing what Wray said in July.
“But left open is the question of why the president and vice-president have not called out Russia as explicitly and forcefully. Russia’s overall effort may be less impressive but it has certainly been consequential,” McLaughlin said in an email.
Paul Pillar, a retired senior CIA analyst, said he would be “surprised” if there was a US intelligence assessment that the Russian threat to elections “pales in comparison” with the Russian threat.
“That is not from inside knowledge, but we know so much about Russian efforts. Nothing anywhere like that has come out about the Chinese,” Pillar said. “My guess is this is speechwriter’s hyperbole.”