As explored in previous pieces in this series, the New York State Legislature has numerous connections to the PRC government, both directly through the Consulate General and indirectly through United Front groups. Those ties culminated in an ongoing bid to make the PRC’s National Day, October 1, a public holiday in New York state, at a time when China-U.S. tensions were (and are) riding high.
For the past two years, a group of New York state legislators has been seeking to pass a bill that would declare “October 1st, China Day, a public holiday” in the state. A08892 was first introduced on December 30, 2019 by Assemblyman William Colton and co-sponsored by Assembly members Nader Sayegh, Ellen Jaffee, and Peter Lawrence, with Assemblywoman Vivian Cook being a multi sponsor. On February 1, 2021, A04061, with the same language and intent, was introduced by Colton and Sayegh, with Cook again being a multi sponsor (Jaffee and Lawrence left office in 2020 and were no longer listed as sponsors).
A04061 has not made further progress since it was referred to the Government Operations Committee, but Colton plans to continue to push it forward. “We… hope to gain more support in the Assembly, as well as seeking a Senate co-sponsor… and try to move it forward,” Deepa Balkarran, Colton’s legislative director, told The Diplomat on July 27.
In justifying the China Day bill, Colton wrote, “Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans have contributed significantly to the prosperity of our state and our nation … As the Chinese population continues to grow and make substantial contributions to our society, it is important that we commemorate China Day in New York State.”
The decision to to recognize Chinese Americans through a public holiday pegged to the PRC’s National Day, rather than another holiday more significant to ethnic Chinese worldwide (such as the Lunar New Year, which is already a public school holiday in New York City), raises questions. The conflation of Chinese ethnic identity and the PRC state is a hallmark tactic of the United Front.
Balkarran told The Diplomat that “The idea [for the bill] came about from local constituents from the neighborhood, Asian Americans is (sic) absolutely the driving force of the district, so it was brought to his attention… this is part of the reason.”
When asked specifically if the idea was proposed by constituents of Chinese descent, Balkarran said, “I wouldn’t say 100 percent, but I believe it was encouraged. From mid 2020, the population has been increasing, so I think it’s a way of honoring the Chinese Americans.”
When asked if there was any communication between the Assemblyman’s office and the Chinese Consulate regarding language or idea of this bill, Balkarran said, “I’m not sure, I can’t answer that question.” Follow-up questions by phone and email, including about the choice of October 1 as the date for the proposed holiday, had not received a response as of publication time.
The New York State Assembly is exempt from the New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). A request seeking records of correspondence between Colton and the Chinese Consulate in New York regarding China Day between June 2019 and the present was filed on November 18 and denied.
In response to a request for comment, the Chinese Consulate in New York told The Diplomat, “The Chinese Consulate General in New York has always been committed to deepening friendly exchanges and pragmatic cooperation with states in our consular district, promoting the stable development of China-U.S. relations. We always maintain normal exchanges with all sectors in the consular district in accordance with relevant internaitonal [sic] law and international practices. There never exists interference in the U.S. sub-national internal affairs. The activities of the Consulate General are all above board and blameless.”
The Diplomat also reached out to co-sponsor Assemblyman Nader Sayegh’s office multiple times in July and September for a conversation but never heard back. After further attempts, current Chief of Staff Roberto Williams, who also worked with Sayegh when the 2020 version of the bill was introduced, spoke with The Diplomat on October 19. Williams mentioned that Sayegh no longer sponsors the 2021 active version of the bill. “We reached out to Index [Office] to remove it last month, in September,” Williams said. The 2020 bill still lists Sayegh as a sponsor because “you can’t remove it from an old bill.” The timing of sponsorship removal was confirmed by a staff member in the Assembly Index Office.
Williams explained that Sayegh initially co-sponsored the bill likely because he misunderstood its intent. “It’s my understanding that he signed on to it, under the presumption that it might have been like a resolution and not necessarily a binding holiday.” Williams went on to elaborate: “The state legislature frequently passes many resolutions to commemorate different kinds of events… communities, ethnic groups, etc., that contribute to the fabric of our state, however, he does not believe that, however important the Chinese is [sic] in New York, that China Day should rise to become a public holiday, because that’s completely different type of holiday designation.”
Asked if there was any communication between Sayegh’s office and the Chinese Consulate regarding the bill, Williams said, “I frankly don’t know.” He noted that it is “not an irregular occurrence” for Sayegh to attend events at the Chinese Consulate and other consulates as well. Williams suggested, though, that it would be inappropriate for the Consulate to ask legislators to support bills such as the China Day bill. “As far as any explicit conversation, about signing on to legislation, that’s not something that I believe we’ve got [happening in this case], or that any member should be doing, rather.”
The Diplomat also reached out to multi-sponsor Assemblywoman Vivian Cook and spoke with her on July 27. Cook said she strongly supports the bill because “the Chinese helped build this country also.” She said, “I thought it was a good idea, to let the people know that we respect what they’ve done, to help make this country what it is today.” She did not return a request for a follow-up conversation that she had agreed to earlier.
Colton’s Pro-PRC Links
Without direct responses from lawmakers themselves, access to internal records of correspondence, or first-hand accounts of those involved in the process, it is difficult to fully learn the dynamics behind the pending “China Day” bill in the New York State Assembly. However, Colton, who has been described by state-run China News Service and pro-Beijing outlet World Journal as “deeply rooted and widely recognized in the Chinese community,” has a long history of working with pro-PRC groups.
Most notably, he has a long-standing relationship with John S. Chan, a key individual involved in United Front work who was highlighted in an earlier piece. Chan has organized multiple fundraisers for Colton, some in collaboration with other United Front groups. For example, in 2016, when Colton was running for re-election, a “massive fundraiser that hauled in a cool $30,000 and counting” and “drew more than 300 mainly Chinese-Americans from across the city” was held at Chan’s restaurant. In 2019, Chan organized another fundraiser for Colton at his restaurant with nearly 100 attendees, mostly Chinese Americans. Chan praised Colton as “an old and good friend of Chinese Americans” and called on those in attendance to vote and help him win another term. Most recently, in September of this year, Chan organized yet another fundraiser for Colton with nearly a hundred Chinese Americans in attendance. Chan said that “among all the elected officials that are not of Asian descent, Colton is one that’s most supportive of Chinese Americans, we must protect him well.”
Colton has also frequently engaged with PRC diplomats. He awarded citations to then-Chinese Consul General in New York Peng Keyu (who admitted in 2008 that he helped incite attacks against practitioners of the persecuted religious group Falun Gong in Queens) before Peng returned to China in 2011; spoke on the Assembly floor welcoming then-Chinese Consul General in New York Zhang Qiyue to Albany in 2015; met with Zhang in 2016; and again welcomed Zhang and her delegation to host the first China Day event at the state capitol in 2017.
Colton has also been a frequent guest at Brooklyn’s annual Mid-Autumn festival and PRC National Day celebrations organized by United Front groups (which always include a flag-raising ceremony for the PRC flag, like ones in 2017 and 2018), delivering speeches (2017, 2018) and issuing citations. This year he attended multiple celebrations and co-organized one of them with Senator Sanders.
On October 3, 2021, Colton said, “October 1 day is China Day, it’s a big celebration across the waters in mainland China, and it’s an important day for all of us to recognize and celebrate, because we celebrate each other’s holidays, we celebrate each other’s traditions, and by doing that, we bring ourselves closer together to do what needs to be done.”
In his 2019 testimony in front of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Peter Mattis, then a research fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, explained how Beijing’s political influence and United Front operations harm democratic nations by (among other things) allowing the CCP to “mediate between Chinese citizens and their elected representatives.” Mattis explained:
The network of united front “community organizations” creates a fake civil society. The community which is supposedly represented is supplanted by the Chinese Communist Party, unless politicians reach directly to membership or deal with uncompromised organizations. The party’s interests become the constituency interests that are presented to officials.
The dynamics behind the legislative process of these New York state China-related measures demonstrate the depth (and effectiveness) of Beijing’s subnational influence operations, exerted by applying the tactics of sowing divisions within levels of government and promoting pro-CCP unity among Chinese American communities. Individuals involved in overseas United Front work have established themselves as leaders in the New York Chinese American community, blurring the line between political influence operations and independent civic engagement.
However, these motions in New York are merely the tip of the iceberg. The Chinese government has a history of not only encouraging the introduction of pro-PRC resolutions, both directly through its diplomatic representatives and indirectly through United Front organizations, but also intervening in or obstructing the democratic process of state legislative measures across the country. Future articles will discuss other cases of the Chinese party-state’s potential influence over and interference in state legislatures in the United States.
Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series published by The Diplomat on “How China Influences Measures and Interferes in Democratic Processes of U.S. State Legislatures.”
The author would like to thanks Matt Schrader for providing comments and insights on an early draft of this article.