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‘China Day’ in New York: A Case Study in United Front Work

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‘China Day’ in New York: A Case Study in United Front Work

How United Front organizations worked to advance the CCP’s political agenda in the New York State Legislature, especially at a time of strained China-U.S. relations.

‘China Day’ in New York: A Case Study in United Front Work
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

On June 18, 2019, the same day that U.S. President Trump and Chinese President Xi held a phone call agreeing to meet after the breakdown of trade talks amid the intensifying trade war, the New York State Senate unanimously adopted a resolution introduced four days prior by Senator James Sanders Jr., chairman of the Senate Committee on Banks, and co-sponsored by 61 other lawmakers. Sander’s resolution sought to designate October 1, 2019, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule, as China Day, and the first week of October 2019 as Chinese American Heritage Week.

October 1 is the National Day of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The same day has been recognized as “National Day of Grief (or Mourning)” by those concerned about the CCP’s record of human rights violations.

A delegation of Chinese American representatives led by Huang Ping, current consul general of the Chinese Consulate in New York, was invited to attend the Senate session and “witness the resolution’s passing.” When introducing the motion on the floor, Sanders added, “I want to say that the warmth that the delegation has shown to us is one that I personally wanted to note.” He went on to thank and praise Huang’s work.

Co-sponsor Senator David Carlucci then rose to emphasize: “It’s important that we remember and recognize that regardless of what we see happening at the federal level, that we need to do our part to maintain a relationship with China, and we have to recognize that Consul General Huang Ping has been outgoing in making sure that that relationship continues…”

The resolution received wide coverage across Chinese state media. At an event celebrating its adoption, Huang noted that “the timing of this resolution couldn’t be better” and applauded: “This is an extremely friendly move and has been widely acclaimed by both Chinese and American people.” Then-Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang also praised the move, noting at a press briefing: “I would like to emphasize that none of the achievements made in the past four decades would have been possible without subnational support. People-to-people friendship is the fountainhead of bilateral relations.”

The Chinese Consulate’s Show of Support

Based on available media coverage, there is circumstantial evidence that the Chinese Consulate may have encouraged the introduction and adoption of the China Day resolution.

Huang visited the state capitol in March 2019 and met with a group of legislators, including Sanders and Carlucci. Huang expressed the hope that the state legislature “would continue to support exchanges and cooperation with China and contribute to further development of bilateral relations.”

Two months later on May 28, 2019, even as relations between Beijing and Washington were rapidly deteriorating, a delegation of state lawmakers led by Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, also including Sanders and Carlucci, visited Huang at the Consulate. Huang again expressed his hope that the legislature can “continue supporting exchanges with China” and “properly handle sensitive China-related issues.”

About two weeks later, on June 14, Sanders introduced the China Day resolution. On the same day, Senator Stavisky also introduced a resolution “commemorating the 54th anniversary of Sing Tao Daily New York,” a pro-Beijing newspaper that is a subsidiary of Sing Tao U.S., which the Department of Justice recently recognized as a foreign agent for being a part of Beijing’s media influence operations.

Right before the floor review process began, Huang also met with Sanders and other senators to “congratulate the Senate for considering such a resolution for the first time and express his appreciation for the active role they’ve played in making it possible.” Huang pointed out that adopting the resolution on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of PRC’s founding and 40th anniversary of the establishment of China-U.S. diplomatic relations would be of great significance. He went on to tout the benefits of engagement and commend the Senate: “The New York State Legislature has long made important contributions to exchanges and cooperation between New York State and China in various fields.”

According to a readout of the meeting from the Consulate General, the senators reportedly agreed with Huang and emphasized the importance of “conducting quiet diplomacy” and the need to “break down walls of misunderstanding” between the two great powers.

The same message was also shared among multiple Assembly members. At an event celebrating the resolution’s passage, Assemblyman Felix Ortiz said to Huang: “I would like to thank you, thank you for your friendship… and also thank you for you starting to build that bridge between the Consul[ate], the state legislators, because at the end of the day, whatever happens in Washington… nothing is gonna really get done, but we will get it done, at our level.” Assemblyman Peter Abbate reiterated: “We are here, New York state, no matter what happens with our Washington, we are here to work with you.”

When asked where the idea for the resolution came from, Paul Alexander, Sanders’ legislative director told The Diplomat, “I don’t really know.”

When asked to elaborate on the intention behind the resolution, Alexander added, “I mean there’s nothing deeper or complicated than whatever is in the resolution… you are trying to make more out of it than there really is.”

In a later conversation, when asked if the Chinese Consulate was involved in the legislative process of the China Day resolution in any way, Alexander said: “I don’t even remember, it’s been such a long time ago… I guess the answer is no, that I’m aware of.”

The New York State Senate is exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). But a request seeking all records of correspondence between Sanders and the Chinese Consulate in New York between January and July 2019 regarding China Day was still filed on November 18. The designated FOIL response time period passed without The Diplomat receiving a response, and follow-up requests had not received a response as of publication time.

Update: The Chinese Consulate General in New York responded to a request for comment by saying, “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. We hope the article could objectively reflect this point, instead of making groundless accusations and stirring up trouble.”

United Front in Action

A number of pro-Beijing organizations based in New York have also attempted to influence state legislators and the legislative process. Three groups that spearheaded the outreach effort were recognized in Sanders’ resolution: “The State of New York is home to a thriving overseas ethnic Chinese communities [sic] that support the People’s Republic of China, including the America[n] Chinese Development Center, Asian American Community Empowerment, American Chinese Commerce Association, that devoted themselves to the harmony and development of the community of the State of New York.”

A further review of the three organizations’ activities and their leaders’ affiliations as described by themselves and in Chinese-language media reports suggest that they are associated with Beijing’s United Front system — “a coalition of groups and individuals working toward the CCP’s goals” engaging in overseas work to “co-opt and neutralize sources of potential opposition to its policies and authority” — under guidance of the Chinese Consulate in New York.

Kenneth Chiu is founder and president of American Chinese Development Center (ACDC). Chiu was a former assistant to New York State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, who has visited China over 20 times and once bragged about being so addicted to WeChat that he checks the app every 30 seconds. He also worked for Senator Jesse Hamilton, former chairman of the Senate Committee on Banks. At an event celebrating the resolution’s passage, Chiu said: “Many people have asked in the past couple of weeks how has this come to happen.” He continued: “I authored the resolution about three years ago when I was in Senator Hamilton’s office, and obviously we know he lost the primary, but Senator Sanders, another great supporter of the Chinese community, immediately took it up.”

John S. Chan is chairman of the American Chinese Commerce Association (ACCA) and president of Asian American Community Empowerment (BRACE). At the same celebration, Chan explained: “Chinese Americans have always been indifferent to politics and lack political awareness; the visibility of Chinese people in politics is too low.” Therefore, the three groups “three years ago began working together to help promote setting up an official anniversary recognizing Chinese Americans in New York State.” Chan went on: “After years of hard work and dedication, after our long-term interactions with lawmakers, as well as our team member Mr. Kenneth Chiu’s dedication… this resolution was finally adopted.”

In addition to his role at the ACDC, Chiu is founder and president of the New York City Asian American Democratic Club (NYCADC), vice president of the Coalition of Asian-American for Civil Rights (CAACR), and co-founder and vice chairman of BRACE. He has also attended annual Mid-Autumn Festival and PRC National Day celebrations (e.g. in 2018) and taken part in events with Chinese Consulate officials (e.g. a 2017 celebration of a pro-Beijing newspaper).

In November 2018, then newly-elected New York State Assemblywoman Mathylde Frontus paid a visit to BRACE’s headquarters and thanked the group for their votes. During her campaign, Chiu reportedly accompanied Frontus to visit the Chinese American community multiple times. Chiu was also selected as the only Chinese American on Frontus’ transition team.

At the opening ceremony of BRACE’s Queens Service Center, Chiu reportedly expressed that he would “encourage more Asian Americans to participate in politics and continuously expand the influence of the Chinese community.”

Chiu has worked closely with Chan (some examples from recent years include: hosting a forum on “issues that matter to the Chinese community” and protesting against New York City’s proposed elimination of the Specialized High School Admissions Test, among many others).

Chan has been the president of CAACR and chairman of BRACE. He organized the first PRC flag-raising ceremony in Trenton, New Jersey in 1999 and Flushing, New York in 2000 “despite mounting pressure.” He was later invited back to Beijing as a special guest to attend the National Day celebration. Chan also sent open letters to members of Congress supporting Beijing’s crackdown on Falun Gong and hosting of the 2008 Olympics. In 1999, he founded ACCA, which held a flag-raising ceremony with state legislators (including former New York State Senator and current New York City Mayor Eric Adams) in attendance in 2013 and hosted a celebration marking the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China in 2017.

Chan was touted as a “good friend” by Senator Jesse Hamilton, whose speech praising PRC officials was highlighted in an earlier article.

Perhaps Chan’s vision can be best reflected through his comments regarding the CCP’s 19th National Congress: “Overseas Chinese are bridges and messengers connecting the Chinese dream with the world dream. Overseas Chinese should stay closely united like pomegranate seeds and build the Chinese dream together, as President Xi said.”

Under Chan’s leadership, between 2013 and 2018, BRACE’s size has grown from seven to 70 organizations with over 10,000 members. In recent years, it has been particularly active in United Front mobilization efforts — from organizing street protests opposing the conviction of former NYPD officer Peter Liang, to most recently, collecting medical supplies for China in the early stage of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In late January 2020, BRACE, in collaboration with various other United Front groups, amassed 1 million masks (worth $100,000) within just one week through multiple channels, including purchases at pharmacies in New York and New Jersey, and reportedly with the help of a former PLA soldier who moved to the U.S. around two decades ago. The supplies were then sent back to China after Consulate approval. Later in May 2020, BRACE began helping the Consulate distribute personal protective equipment to the local Chinese American community.

BRACE has maintained a close relationship with the Chinese Consulate in New York. It has frequently met with consuls general (2014, 2018), organized trips to China for state legislators with Consulate support (2017, 2019), and was awarded by the Consulate for co-hosting annual consular service into the community day events (2014 to present).

BRACE has also frequently collaborated with other New York-based United Front groups, including but not limited to hometown associations and community organizations, to advance the CCP’s political agenda abroad and marginalize dissident groups. For instance, it has held a symposium promoting reunification with Taiwan (2000), organized events attacking the persecuted religious group Falun Gong (2000, 2001), held receptions for United Front delegations from China (2015, 2016), hosted a symposium celebrating the conclusion of the CCP’s 19th National Congress (2017), organized annual Mid-Autumn and PRC National Day celebrations (2012 to present), co-hosted a conference on Chinese American political participation (2019) (which relates to one of BRACE’s current organizational priorities of “encouraging Asian Americans to run for political offices”), and co-hosted a forum condemning the introduction of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and Senate passage of Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act (December 2019).

In attendance at this forum was Ma Yue, president of the New York Association for the Peaceful Reunification of China, a key United Front group whose umbrella organization was designated as a PRC Foreign Mission by the U.S. State Department in October 2019. Ma notably touted the association’s lobbying work as the Senate considered the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act: “Some time ago, we organized overseas Chinese groups in Eastern US to write a joint letter to the White House, opposing the passage of the so-called Bill. However, the U.S. Senate ignored the opposition of the Chinese community and went ahead with it.”

In August 2019, BRACE, ACCA, and 15 other pro-Beijing groups that also pushed for the China Day resolution organized a second reception celebrating its passage at the Lincoln Center, during which Edward Cox, son-in-law of former U.S. President Richard Nixon, thanked Sanders for passing the “significant” resolution and shared his personal recollection of the establishment of China-U.S. diplomatic relations four decades ago. For the event, former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a proclamation to commend the resolution’s passage. Chinese Consul General Huang Ping said, “In the face of this difficult time when we have little problems with our relationship… we need to have more resolutions like what you have passed.”

Also among those in attendance at the event was Assemblyman William Colton, who had been a multi sponsor of the Assembly resolution welcoming Xi in 2015. He said, “Really I commend Senator Sanders for this wonderful resolution that has been passed, and it really symbolizes what we all must do to continue the greatness of both our countries, and the greatness of the world as a whole.”

A few months later, in late 2019, Colton introduced a legally binding bill to recognize China Day in the state. Colton’s bill, which was reintroduced this year and is still pending, would officially make October 1, the PRC’s National Day, a public holiday in New York state — a big step above the ceremonial resolution passed in 2019. The next piece in this series will explore the dynamics and messaging behind the China Day bill.

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.