Elite Capture, Why America Is Losing in the Political Warfare Arena, and What Can Be Done

Countering CCP Influence

Elite Capture, Why America Is Losing in the Political Warfare Arena, and What Can Be Done

Elite capture threatens to separate the interests of leaders of American institutions from the American citizens who make these institutions possible. Congressional action can get us back on track.

Apr 5, 2023 11 min read

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The Elephant in House Homeland Security Subcommittee Hearing Room

At a recent House Homeland Security Subcommittee meeting on “Chinese Threats and U.S. National Security,” there was an elephant in the room. When representatives asked questions about the recent spy-balloon episode, the C-SPAN cameras caught a glimpse of the elephant’s ears. When they asked about cyber intrusions, theft of intellectual property and theft of personal information, the cameras gave viewers a peek at the elephant’s tusks. And when the representatives asked about the effects of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) influence operations, the viewers, representatives, and witnesses came closest to discerning beast's full outline. However, among the representatives and witnesses present, only freshman Rep. Eli Crane (R-AZ) addressed the elephant directly.

Beginning with a request that the expert witnesses define elite capture, Crane quickly directed attention from the nebulous, broad, and future threats that the U.S. national security establishment likes to prepare for, to concrete examples of a primary mechanism by which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has successfully shaped political, cultural, and economic conditions in the U.S. The contrast between the line of questioning of the populist Crane’s and those of other representatives, along with the muddled responses of expert witnesses to Crane’s questions, illuminate a yawning gap between America’s citizens and its political and economic class on the issue of domestic influence and elite capture by the CCP. In order to prevail against this time-tested political warfare technique the U.S. needs more congressmen and women like Rep. Crane who, through meaningful oversight, can force the federal government to address America’s elite capture problem.

Rep. Eli Crane (R-AZ) asks a panel of expert witnesses to define "elite capture"

Elite Capture Definition

So, what is elite capture? Elite capture, as used by the CCP, is a form of political warfare that seeks to control the actions of political, academic, business, and cultural leaders outside of China to benefit the CCP. The means of control take a variety of forms including financial incentives, financial dependence or compromise, business entanglement, offers of access to opportunities within China, ideological appeal, and even blackmail. By incentivizing elites to act according to personal interests that have been aligned with those of the CCP rather than according to the interests of stakeholders in institutions which the elites represent, this strategy threatens to separate a country’s elites from its citizens. This, in turn, degrades the ability of the targeted country to chart a course that is in its own best interest rather than in the interest of the CCP.

Why Does This Matter?

Elite capture, Rep. Crane’s line of questioning, and the lack of attention that this issue received from other committee members and witnesses matters for at least two reasons. First, it matters because elite capture in the United States by the CCP is ongoing. Second, it matters because senior government officials that are responsible for guarding against this threat are largely either unable to define or unwilling to address this issue.

Examples at the Highest Levels of Government

Examples of elite capture in the U.S. are too numerous to list exhaustively here but a few of the most startling examples demonstrate the extent of the problem. The foremost example and the terminus of Rep. Crane’s line of questioning is the Hunter Biden laptop. Despite the suppression of this story, itself aided by former top-intelligence officials, the broad outline of this scandal is now familiar to the public. It is known that Hunter and other members of the Biden family received millions from the Chinese conglomerate CEFC, which acted as an arm of the PRC government’s Belt and Road Initiative. Further, it has been demonstrated that Hunter’s value to his foreign partners varied in proportion to his father’s political influence, that Hunter’s finances were intermingled with that of his father, and that, while his father was vice-president, Hunter organized meetings between Joe and foreign politicians whose families Hunter sought to cultivate as business partners [1]. These financial arrangements created both the financial/business entanglements and the possibility of blackmail which can be used for control in an elite capture scheme. It is left to the reader to decide the extent to which those lines of control are influencing the current administration. However, it is worth noting that shortly after Biden’s election in 2020, a political scientist in the PRC remarked to an audience “we have our old friends who are at the top of America’s core inner circle of power and influence” and asked rhetorically “who helped [Hunter] build [his] foundations? Got it?”[2]

Robert Biden discusses money for introductions with CEFC
Robert Biden discusses money for "introductions" and joint ventures with CEFC affiliates.
Reproduced from New York Post, "Emails reveal how Hunter Biden tried to cash in big on behalf of family with Chinese firm" By Emma-Jo Morris and Gabrielle Fonrouge

Another startling example concerns the decision by leaders of America’s scientific community to actively undermine the lab-leak hypothesis for the origin of Covid-19 during the early months of the pandemic. Email communications among then-directors of NIH and NIAID Drs. Francis Colins and Anthony Fauci, current WHO chief-scientist Dr. Jeremy Farrar, and a small group of American, European, and Austrian scientists show, not only, an unsubstantiated shift in hypothesis from lab to natural-origin, but also that these scientists were sensitive to the risks that a bolstered lab-leak hypothesis would pose to “international harmony” and to “science in China”[3]. These latter considerations were clearly outside the scope of responsibilities that Americans had entrusted to these leaders and to those funded by their institutions. In fact, the same considerations were likely top of mind for CCP leadership. Nevertheless, former CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield has testified that Fauci, Collins, and other scientists who participated in this small group were more interested in crafting a “narrative paper” than in an unbiased consideration of the evidence. The resulting paper, combined with the power of its proponents to allocate scientific grants and the CCP’s stonewalling of further investigations, allowed the lab-leak “conspiracy” narrative to prevail at the highest levels of America’s health bureaucracy and much of the scientific community for years – an ideal outcome for the CCP.

Former CDC director Robert Redfield testifies to efforts to "squash debate" of a lab-origin theory.

The significance of the cascade of events set off by this choice and their benefits to the CCP are hard to overstate. As with the case of the Bidens, we cannot decipher how these elites weighted competing factors in their final decision-making process. Yet, also like the Bidens, an elite capture mechanism — in this case the opportunity to skirt U.S. law by funding gain of function research in China — served to align the interest of top officials in the U.S. and the CCP.

There are plenty of other examples of captured U.S. elites, many which are familiar to the average citizen. More examples are provided in Peter Schweitzer’s book Red Handed and in Alex Joske’s book Spies and Lies. Published in 2022, both books provide up-to-date examples of the CCP’s efforts to capture and influence key players in both political parties in the United States as well as in other countries and international organizations. The episodes described in these books show definitively that the partition of U.S. society engendered by elite capture is not a partition of political ideology but rather a partition based on economic class and political power.

Why Can’t the Federal Bureaucracy Define and Address the Problem?

A prime reason is that acknowledging that the problem exists calls into question the integrity of the institutions that are responsible for obtaining a solution. Just as the revelation of the authenticity of the Biden laptop has caused many Americas to question the judgment and politicization of the letter-signing-former-intelligences officials, so acknowledging the severity of America’s elite capture problem would lay bare that this threat has been mismanaged by the upper echelons of government [4]. [5] [6]

Such an admission would create a host of problems for the leadership of these bureaucracies. For example, it would shift the discussion on the threat posed by PRC from a discussion of how many more resources congress should allocate to the bureaucracy to address future problems, to a discussion of what oversight actions congress should take to address and correct past and current failures. Further, this admission would turn Americans against the practice of elites hopping between China-funded think tanks or businesses that engage with China on CCP’s terms, on the one hand, and high-level US government positions, on the other [7]. This would impact career trajectories of key players with trickle down effects in various agencies. For these reasons and others, it is unlikely that the federal bureaucracy will, of its own volition, be able to seriously address America’s elite capture problem.

What Can Be Done?

To meet this pressing challenge Congress needs to reassert its oversight powers. If more funding is allocated to address threats that agency heads eagerly recite in hearings, these funds must be coupled with serious questions. Agency heads must explain how they plan to change their strategies to prevent repeating previous lapses. And, to demonstrate the seriousness of reforms, there must also be meaningful investigations of the most egregious past mistakes.

For example, the former-senior officials who signed the infamous “earmarks of Russian information operation” letter should be called before Congress and asked to give an after-action report on their decision to bring the weight of their combined decades of leadership of U.S. intelligence agencies into the arena of domestic politics. They should be asked what degree of confidence is warranted before former leaders of some of the U.S. government’s most august agencies invoke those agencies and their expertise in a way that directly influences the votes of Americans. They should be asked to disclose any financial ties to institutions that profit from doing business in the PRC or that would be harmed by a change in America’s economic relationship with the PRC. They should be asked if America has an elite capture problem. They should be asked about recent allegations of the FBI’s double standard in handling corruption related to foreign influence [5]. And, they should be asked how they got the call on the Biden laptop so wrong. Finally, in the spirit of reconciliation, they should be asked to recommend how the federal bureaucracy can be reformed: first, so that political appointees and civil servants make decision solely based on the interest of America’s citizens, and second, so that citizen’s trust in the information from the government can be restored.

A bipartisan theme of the recent House Hearing on the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan was that for a decade executive branch agencies failed to acknowledge a lack of progress and Congress failed to raise this issue through meaningful oversight. When combined, these twin failures allowed America’s Afghanistan policy to spiral towards disaster. Had uncomfortable issues been forced by Congress rather than by the events in Kabul in August 2021, it is likely that lives would have been saved and that the United States would find itself better positioned strategically in Central Asia and around the world. To prevent repeating these failures in America’s next great national security undertaking, Congress needs more members like Rep. Crane who will ask important but unconformable questions, drive for reforms to address issues like elite capture, and help chart a course where the actions of government officials represent, above all, the interest of America’s citizens.

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[1] Laptop From Hell Ch 17, 6, and 10, respectively

[2] As reported in by the Daily Caller and South China Morning Post

[3] The Intercept “Evolution of a theory: Unredacted NIH Emails Show Efforts to Rule Out Lab Origin of Covid”

[4] See Deceiving the Sky by Bill Gertz Ch. 3

[5] RealClearInvestigations’ article "Feds’ Foreign Corruption Double Standard” shows that the DOJ selectively used evidence collected in its investigation of Patrick Ho for money laundering and bribery on behalf of the Chinese energy conglomerate CEFC. At Ho's trial prosecutors argued that Ho traveled "around the world paying bribes to advance the interests of" CEFC, but, behind the scenes, they petitioned the judge to redact mentions of Hunter's name from evidence.

[6] Indeed, one of the hearing’s expert witnesses is affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIC) — a Washington-based think tank that continues to employ Michael Hayden. Hayden, a former director of both the NSA and CIA, is among the letter signers who lent the credibility of their previous offices to the effort to dismiss the serious allegations associated with the infamous Hunter Biden laptop.

[7] See Red Handed by Peter Schweitzer chapters 2,3,6,8