A new US intelligence report published on Tuesday said that China did not interfere in the 2020 presidential election, but blamed Russia and to a lesser extent Iran for state-sponsored interference in the race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
“We assess that China did not deploy interference efforts and considered but did not deploy influence efforts intended to change the outcome of the US presidential election,” the unclassified report from the National Intelligence Council said.
“China sought stability in its relationship with the United States, did not view either election outcome as being advantageous enough for China to risk getting caught meddling, and assessed its traditional influence tools – primarily targeted economic measures and lobbying – would be sufficient to meet its goal of shaping US China policy regardless of the winner,” it said.
The report comes after a tumultuous presidential election in which both candidates accused each other of being soft on China. During the campaign, then-president Trump and some of his top advisers had explicitly said that Beijing wanted Biden to win.
Trump said last April that Beijing “will do anything they can” to undermine his re-election chances, citing the spread of the coronavirus as an example of this objective. He made this claim a regular refrain throughout his campaign.
Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien went further in indicting Beijing, saying in August that the Chinese government was engaged in cyberattacks on the US election infrastructure.
“China – like Russia, like Iran – they’ve engaged in cyberattacks and phishing and that sort of thing with respect to our election infrastructure, with respect to websites and that sort of thing,” O’Brien said in a CBS interview.
The intelligence report published on Tuesday contradicted those statements, referring instead to China’s “belief that the election of either candidate would present opportunities and challenges for China”.
“Beijing probably judged risk of interference was not worth the reward,” it said.
The document also included a “minority view”, written by one of the authors who dissented slightly from the report’s overall conclusions about China.
Beijing “took at least some steps to undermine former President Trump’s re-election chances, primarily through social media and official public statements and media,” the National Intelligence Officer (NIO) for cyber policy wrote, adding: “The NIO agrees that we have no information suggesting China tried to interfere with election processes.”
Russia, meanwhile, conducted “influence operations aimed at denigrating President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party, supporting former President Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral process, and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the US.”
Paul Heer, a former US national intelligence officer for East Asia, called the report’s findings on China “persuasive”.
“It’s largely consistent with the way I would expect Chinese to be thinking and behaving,” he said. “It’s quite clear the Chinese didn’t want to be painted with the same brush the Russians were.”
Additional reporting by Robert Delaney