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How Washington Soured on China-US Subnational Exchanges

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How Washington Soured on China-US Subnational Exchanges

Under Trump, there was new focus on – and concern about – Beijing’s attempts to take advantage of differences between local, state, and federal governments.

How Washington Soured on China-US Subnational Exchanges

Then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks on “The China Challenge” at the Hudson Institute’s Herman Kahn Award Gala at the JW Marriott in New York City, New York, on October 30, 2019.

Credit: U.S. Department of State

As noted in an earlier article, China-U.S. subnational exchanges received support from Obama and previous administrations. However, in subsequepont years, as relationships between Beijing and Washington grew increasingly contentious, more PRC scholars openly discussed the importance of working with subnational entities, with some recommending taking advantage of U.S. federal-state divisions to improve the bilateral relationship.

For example, in August 2018, Li Wei, an associate professor in the School of International Relations at Renmin University of China, commented on U.S. local officials expressing their desire to continue working with China despite tensions at the national level amid the ongoing trade war. Li noted that “for China, the negative impact of China-U.S. trade frictions can be minimized by working with subnational governments such as states and cities. Such voices from the subnational level are a very positive signal, indicating that division is emerging within the U.S. government.”

In June 2019, Beijing-based think tank D&C Think (also known as Minzhi International Research Institute), in collaboration with Tsinghua University, published the first of a series of reports from its study titled “Panorama of American Attitudes toward China,” rating 50 U.S. governors as hardline, friendly, or ambiguous and assessing individual states’ relationships with the PRC.

Chen Dongxiao, president of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS), in an interview dated April 28, 2020, noted: “China should hedge against uncertainty in and prevent further decline of Sino-U.S. relations through persistent solid bilateral people-to-people and subnational cooperation.”

In the meantime, on the U.S. side, during the second year of the Trump administration, a shift in attitudes toward subnational exchanges with the PRC also emerged.

In September 2018, in a speech given at a military college in South Carolina, then-U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned that Beijing “is actively targeting state and local governments and officials” in the U.S., “trying to exploit any divisions between federal and local levels on policy and uses investments and other incentives to expand its influence.”

Subsequently in October 2018, then-U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivered a landmark speech on the Trump administration’s China policy at the Hudson Institute. Pence echoed Coats in his remarks, warning that “China is targeting U.S. state and local governments and officials to exploit any divisions between federal and local levels on policy.” In particular, Pence noted, the PRC is “using wedge issues, like trade tariffs, to advance Beijing’s political influence.”

Less than a year later, in May 2019, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s Foreign Influence Task Force added a unit focusing on “countering China’s political influence in the US.”

“For a long time we focused on the federal level, but we really have come to understand that the Chinese are playing a long game with the political influence in this country,” an FBI official with knowledge of the matter told Axios in an exclusive interview in early 2020. “So we have spent a lot more time and energy trying to understand the state and local people-to-people influences going on.”

By 2020 the U.S. government was consistently bringing up PRC’s subnational outreach as part of Beijing’s influence operations and a threat to U.S. national security and foreign policy (as also noted in a recently published book on U.S.-PRC-Taiwan subnational relations).

In February 2020, at the National Governors Association’s annual conference, then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech warning the leaders of American states about PRC influence efforts, in which he referenced CPAFFC by name. “The Chinese government has been methodical in the way it’s analyzed our system, our very open system, one that we’re deeply proud of. It’s assessed our vulnerabilities, and it’s decided to exploit our freedoms to gain advantage over us at the federal level, the state level, and the local level,” Pompeo said. “What China does in Topeka and Sacramento reverberates in Washington, in Beijing, and far beyond.”

The issue of PRC influence on subnational entities and actors also received attention from members of the U.S. Congress. On August 5, 2020, Senators Chris Murphy and David Perdue (who lost his re-election bid in the 2020 campaign) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee introduced the City and State Diplomacy Act, with the intent to counter PRC subnational influence.

On September 2, 2020, Pompeo issued a requirement mandating PRC diplomats to request permission before meeting any state or local level officials (according to a measure implemented a year earlier, in October 2019, only notifications of such meetings were required).

On September 23, 2020, at the Wisconsin State Senate, Pompeo delivered an unprecedented speech titled “State Legislatures and the China Challenge,” shedding a light on Beijing’s attempts to influence U.S. state legislatures: “Beijing’s diplomatic representatives in the United States are very politically active at the state level,” Pompeo warned. He also quoted from Xi’s August 2020 speech given at a symposium in Beijing, where the Chinese leader reportedly encouraged cooperation with subnational governments amid the increasingly fraught state of bilateral relations. Pompeo commented: “Xi knows that the federal government is pushing back against the Chinese Communist Party here in the United States and its malign influence, and it sees that here in the United States, and increasingly around the world, it can use subnational entities to circumvent America’s sovereignty. He thinks local leaders may well be the weak link.” Pompeo continued: “We watch the CCP campaigns targeting state-level officials, local interests. We’ve seen them at PTA meetings. They have been in full swing for years, and they’re increasing in intensity.”

In the speech, Pompeo again singled out CPAFFC. “Sounds benign. But that group is part of China’s United Front Work Department – the CCP’s official overseas propaganda tool. It’s one of the CCP’s three ‘Magic Weapons,’ in the words of Chairman Mao, along with ‘armed struggle’ and ‘party-building.’ In other words, it may have ‘friendly’ in its title, but it is not so when it comes to American interests.”

Pompeo went on to share that the State Department was “reviewing the activities of two United Front Work Department organizations operating inside the United States: one, the U.S.-China Friendship Association; the other the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification.” He accused both groups of having “apparently attempted to exert influence on groups all across the public sphere, including in our schools, in our business associations, impacting local politicals – politicians, media outlets, and Chinese groups here inside the United States.”

Pompeo concluded by saying, “We want to make sure that we get it all right, that we’re fighting to protect our wallets, our hearts, our minds, and our freedoms.  Each of us – each of us as public officials must never be complacent or complicit in the CCP’s campaign to fracture American society and to silence American voices.”

On October 28, 2020, Pompeo issued a statement designating the National Association for China’s Peaceful Unification (NACPU) as a PRC foreign mission. In the same statement, Pompeo also announced the United States’ decision to end participation in the “Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the People’s Republic of China Concerning the Establishment of the U.S-China Governors Forum to Promote Sub-National Cooperation (MOU),” citing concerns about CPAFFC’s efforts to “directly and malignly influence state and local leaders to promote the PRC’s global agenda.” He said that such actions “undermined the Governors Forum’s original well-intentioned purpose.”

In October 2020, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also sounded the alarm on PRC influence over state and local politics. As highlighted in a subsection on “Influencing State and Local Governments” under the “Foreign Influence Activity in the U.S.” section of its Homeland Threat Assessment report, the DHS found that “The Chinese government invites U.S. officials and business leaders on carefully choreographed trips to China, promising them lucrative investment projects and business deals. Although visits this year largely have been postponed due to COVID-19, the Chinese government probably will continue to cultivate state and local relationships virtually and by offering enticements, which might include bailing out U.S. companies, investing in real estate in economically hard-hit areas, and selling medical equipment and supplies at reduced cost.” The DHS report also highlighted a specific case involving then-Wisconsin Senate President Roger Roth.

In April 2020, then-Wisconsin Senate President Roger Roth shared with local media a problematic example of PRC subnational outreach. In February and March 2020, the PRC consul “responsible for China-Wisconsin relations” (who is also the wife of the Chinese consul general in Chicago) emailed Roth, asking him to introduce a pre-drafted resolution in the Wisconsin Senate. The resolution text vowed to stand with the Chinese people in their fight against COVID-19, while praising Beijing’s “transparent and quick” response to the pandemic as “opening a window of opportunity for other countries to make timely response.” Instead, Roth introduced a resolution “acknowledging that the Communist Party of China deliberately and intentionally misled the world on the Wuhan Coronavirus and standing in solidarity with the Chinese people to condemn the actions of the Communist Party of China.”

Roth has since become intent on countering CCP influence. In October 2021, as Chair of the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges, he held an informational hearing titled “International Security in Institutions of Higher Education.” In late November 2021, Roth introduced four bills (SB 742 PLA Members in UW Institutions, SB 743 Investment in CCP, SB 744 CCP Recruitment and Propaganda Initiatives, SB 745 Research Protections and Financial Disclosures) seeking to combat CCP influence in Wisconsin’s higher education system, with three of them receiving a public hearing on December 15, 2021. On December 14, 2021, Roth circulated an updated version of his 2019 resolution praising Chinese people’s resilience and denouncing Beijing for its handling of COVID-19, as well as three other bills (LRB 4376 Damages relating to COVID-19, LRB 4396 Prohibiting the sale of products produced in the Xinjiang region of China, and LRB 0772 Prohibiting the use of certain drones – including those manufactured by DJI based in China) for co-sponsorship in the legislature. They will be officially introduced in January 2022.

By taking these steps, Roth hopes to “rectify some of the problems that are being posed right now by the CCP here in our university system,” while also “exposing the CCP for some of the things that they are doing to their own people.”

“I want to be able to engage, people need to know, that there are consequences for the actions that we take, both at the state level and the national level, as it relates to China. I want people to know what those are,” Roth told The Diplomat.

In the meantime, under the Biden administration, China-U.S. subnational exchanges have largely continued, with signs indicating expansion. The next article will highlight some recent activities that together help illustrate the PRC’s perspective on subnational collaboration amid the seemingly fraught bilateral relationship at the national level.

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.”