Last month, the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) made public a bulletin it had issued recently to U.S. subnational leaders titled, “Safeguarding Our Future: Protecting Government and Business Leaders at the U.S. State and Local Level from People’s Republic of China (PRC) Influence Operations.” In a briefing to the Wall Street Journal, NCSC director Michael Orlando noted that PRC subnational influence operations in the U.S. have recently “become more aggressive and pervasive.”
The bulletin highlighted excerpts from a speech by FBI Director Christopher Wray, delivered in January of this year at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in California. At the time, Wray also warned in particular about Beijing’s influence over subnational officials.
Based on research conducted for this series of articles, one of the earliest cases of PRC diplomats directly lobbying state legislators was the defeat of a pro-Tibet resolution in 2009 in California – an episode that was deemed by several key participants and Judge William P. Clark, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisor and California Supreme Court Justice, as “unprecedented” at the time.
It is no coincidence that this happened in 2009. As noted by the Congressional Executive Commission on China’s then-Special Topic Paper on Tibet, 2008-2009 marked the Chinese government’s observable shift toward a “more aggressive international policy” on the issue of Tibet.
Nor was it by chance that this happened in California. As Zach Dorfman reported for Politico in 2018, citing former intelligence officials, the Chinese government “places great weight on its intelligence activities” in the state, “because of California’s economic and political importance, as well as its large, well-established, and influential émigré and Chinese-American communities.” Some of the officials also noted that PRC’s Ministry of State Security once had an individual unit exclusively focused on political influence and intelligence operations there.
Background: Introducing Pro-Tibet Resolutions
On March 25, 2008, amid the Chinese government’s escalating abuses of human rights and violent crackdown on peaceful protests in Tibet, then-California State Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee (R) introduced Assembly Concurrent Resolution 119 (ACR 119) to designate March 10, the day that marked a Tibetan uprising against Chinese Communist Party oppression and of the Dalai Lama’s exile to India, as “Tibet Day” and add the California legislature’s voice “to that of the Dalai Lama in condemning the recent actions taken by the People’s Republic of China against Tibet as ‘cultural genocide’ and the ‘rule of terror.’”
“ACR 119 was very fiery. My first attempt at this was to write a very powerful resolution that directly named China as an abuser of human rights,” Blakeslee told The Diplomat in a February 2022 interview. He had personally learned about the plight of Tibetans under the Chinese regime during a visit to Dharamshala in the late 1990s at the invitation of his son, then a recent high school graduate teaching English as a volunteer at the Tibetan Children’s Village. He noted that at the time that the Rules Committee refused to allow the measure to move forward, saying that it “had no chance of passage” and he would “need to come back with modified language.”
On May 1, 2008, then-California State Assemblyman Gene Mullin (D) introduced House Resolution 20 (HR 20) to “recognize the Dalai Lama for his contributions to world peace and leadership in seeking nonviolent solutions to international problems” and to designate March 10, 2008, the 49th anniversary of Dalai Lama’s exile to India and the Tibetan uprising, as Dalai Lama and Tibet Awareness Day. On May 15, Mullin’s HR 20 was unanimously adopted after a voice vote and with 73 of 80 then-Assembly members being co-sponsors. Meanwhile, Blakeslee’s ACR 119 failed as of November 30, the last day of the legislative session.
Soon afterwards, on December 4, 2008, Blakeslee made a second attempt and introduced Assembly Concurrent Resolution 6 (ACR 6). “I looked at what Mr. Mullin had done, and decided that surely, if they supported that, they would support this now, there’s no reason not to.” Blakeslee recalled. The original draft of ACR 6 was nearly identical to Mullin’s HR 20, except Mullin’s version included a clause noting the Assembly’s support for “the Olympic Charter and the Dalai Lama’s view of the charter,” while Blakeslee’s version included a clause stating that the Assembly supports “the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people in their efforts to seek meaningful autonomy for Tibet” and opposes “China’s efforts to oppress the Tibetan people through use of fear, terror, and political education.”
By then, Blakeslee believed that this less forceful version would be easily adopted. What he did not expect was that it still received pushback – this time both from his Assembly colleagues and directly from the diplomatic representatives of the Chinese government.
Outreach From the Chinese Consulate
On February 2, 2009, Blakeslee’s office sent a letter to the office of the Rules Committee chairman, officially requesting that ACR 6 be heard on the Assembly floor. The following day, two diplomats from the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco visited Blakeslee at his office, expressing their opposition to the Tibet Day resolution.
“They were very polished, very determined to express their opinion. At the end of the conversation, they asked me to reconsider moving forward with the bill… They talked about desiring good relations, which is perhaps code for, ‘You criticize us at your own risk,’” Blakeslee told journalist Tim Johnson, as recounted in Johnson’s book “Tragedy in Crimson: How the Dalai Lama Conquered the World but Lost the Battle with China.”
Later that month, as a precondition for granting his request for a hearing, Blakeslee was asked to amend the resolution by deleting the aforementioned clause noting the Assembly’s support for Tibet’s autonomy and directly condemning Beijing’s oppression of Tibetan people. Blakeslee agreed. His office submitted the amendment on February 27.
On March 2, 2009, the Rules Committee approved Blakeslee’s floor hearing request for ACR 6. The next day, Blakeslee received an email inviting him to a “China delegation reunion” to be hosted at the Consul General’s home in San Francisco on March 6. The email noted that Assemblywoman Fiona Ma had been co-organizing “California legislative delegations to China for the past 10 years.” It then made clear the event was “a tradition” largely for members of previous delegations and an occasion to “reminisce their China experience” while proposing “new agenda for future trips,” but added that the consul general “also wishes to invite prospective members who wish to visit China in the future… You will have a great time!” The email said Blakeslee could RSVP to Ma, his colleague in the Assembly.
Blakeslee did not respond.
In the meantime, the Dalai Lama and Tibet Day resolution was moving forward. It was placed on the consent calendar scheduled to be voted on among a group of non-controversial measures on March 9, 2009. However, Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico (D) removed it from consent at the direction of then-Speaker Karen Bass. Blakeslee later pushed for a vote by the full Assembly on March 16.
“Now that I know a foreign government is actively lobbying members of the Legislature, I feel it’s essential that a vote occur,” he explained in an interview with local media at the time. “The independence of our Legislature, our democratic form of government, is at risk if we’re not allowed to vote on a properly constructed bill in our own house.”
Consulate Lobbying Before the Floor Vote
In the days leading up to the floor vote on March 16, PRC diplomats in California attempted to lobby legislators to vote against Blakeslee’s measure, both through writing and in person. In the meantime, the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Beijing also publicly called on the U.S. House of Representatives to “stop pushing forward” a House resolution on Tibet that was strongly supported by Speaker Nancy Pelosi – a resolution that Blakeslee later described as “much more strongly worded in support of Tibet and the Dalai Lama than ACR 6.”
During the week of March 9, 2009, then-PRC Consul General in San Francisco Gao Zhansheng officially reached out to Assembly members asking them to oppose Blakeslee’s resolution. In a faxed letter dated March 11, Gao repeated CCP claims that its occupation of Tibet had ended “feudal serfdom and theocratic rule, which is the darkest slavery in human history.” Gao warned that supporting ACR 6 would “hurt Chinese people’s feelings” and send “a wrong signal to the separatist forces,” while underscoring the resolution’s potential damage to China-U.S. and in particular China-California relations. Gao closed his letter by urging legislators “that you, as an influential dignitary, kindly refrain from supporting the ACR 6 Resolution.”
Then-Consulate spokesperson Zhou Yunliang stated to local media: “Our position is always very clear. We’re strongly opposed to such kind of resolution either on the state level or the federal level.” Zhou elaborated on Beijing’s stance on “the so-called Tibet issue” and stressed: “It is not an issue of human rights or religion; it’s about the sovereignty of China.” He also emphasized that conversations between the consulate and individual legislators are normal.
On March 12, the Chinese government filed an official complaint against the U.S. House of Representatives’ pro-Tibet resolution, which had been adopted nearly unanimously a day prior. The Foreign Ministry directly called on members of Congress that supported the measure to “immediately correct mistakes.”
On the same day, representatives from the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, including Consul General Gao, appeared at the state capitol building, “urging” Assembly members to reject Blakeslee’s resolution. Blakeslee criticized PRC diplomats’ lobbying efforts as “shocking and shameful” and told local media at the time that “this was the first time during his five years in office he had seen foreign representatives wandering the halls of the Capitol.”
The Diplomat spoke by phone this month with Alberto Torrico, the Democrats’ majority leader in the Assembly at the time. Torrico said he did not remember the Chinese Consulate reaching out to his office about Blakeslee’s Tibet Day resolution. “I think I would remember something like that,” he said, adding that it would be “a very unusual instance… for any nation’s government to reach out to us on any legislative action.”
Meanwhile, Blakeslee consulted with a friend and mentor, then-retired California Supreme Court Justice William P. Clark, regarding the propriety of PRC consular officials visiting the state capitol seeking to lobby individual legislators to oppose his resolution.
In a letter dated March 12, 2009 (a copy can be viewed here), Clark wrote:
In my years as Chief of Staff to Governor Ronald Reagan and again as Deputy Secretary of State and later National Security Advisor to President Reagan, I do not recall any case of foreign consular officials lobbying at our state level in such a blatant and aggressive way. To suggest that such activity is irregular is to state the obvious; in fact, such actions appear to be inappropriate.
Visit by the FBI
At around the same time as Clark’s letter arrived, Blakeslee learned that these events had attracted the FBI’s attention. “I got a visit by the FBI, who told me that I had upset the Chinese government… I should be very careful, and expect all my emails and online portals to be hacked.” Blakeslee told The Diplomat. “It was a very sobering warning, I’ve never had the FBI come talk to me and warn me.”
Another Republican Assembly member, Chuck DeVore, was also briefed by the FBI on the same subject. “The FBI asked to see me ahead of the vote,” DeVore told The Diplomat. The FBI agent asked DeVore whether he had been contacted by Chinese diplomats regarding Blakeslee’s resolution. The agent noted that the Bureau “had reason to believe that I was being monitored by the Chinese,” DeVore recalled. “And, the agent said, you’re not in danger or anything, we just want you to know that, in all likelihood, they had tried to compromise your electronic systems, and to try to keep abreast of what you’re doing.”
What the FBI then shared with both legislators confirmed Clark’s assessment. “He said that we have seen an ‘unprecedented’ amount of activity from the Chinese foreign ministry, directed at influencing the California legislature. He said, quote, ‘we’ve never seen anything like this before,’” DeVore explained. “What I took from that was this happens to Washington, D.C. But they had never seen anything like this at the state level…”
“And what he was indicating was, it wasn’t just staff out of the San Francisco consulate, it was also the Los Angeles consulate and other foreign ministry staff from elsewhere in the country. In other words, it was a full court press, where they had a lot of people that they had pushed into the effort.”
DeVore confirmed to The Diplomat that according to the FBI agent, back on March 16, 2009, “dozens of diplomatic staff” from both the Los Angeles and San Francisco consulates met with “elected members and staff” to lobby against the Tibet resolution, as he wrote in a 2020 article.
The FBI declined to comment on this story.
The Floor Vote
The Diplomat obtained TV recordings of the March 16, 2009 State Assembly floor session via mail from the California State Archives.
In a speech introducing ACR 6 on the floor, with representatives of Amnesty International and Tibetan groups from across California witnessing from the gallery, Blakeslee rebutted a few arguments made against his Tibet Day resolution, first noting that the Assembly had adopted various measures addressing human rights violations “in Sudan, Vietnam, Turkey, Ethiopia, Southeast Asia, and remembering also, the Holocaust;” and that 51 legislators in attendance had co-authored the nearly identical Tibet Day resolution introduced by Mullin the year prior.
In response to the allegation that his measure “might offend China,” Blakeslee stated: “Such considerations were never raised” when the earlier pro-human rights resolutions were introduced. “Do we only stand to speak for those who are oppressed when it is safe to do so?” he asked.
In closing, Blakeslee argued that support for the Tibet resolution “became essential when a foreign government began lobbying to kill it, and lobby to prevent a vote.”
Immediately following his speech, then-majority whip Fiona Ma, who supported Mullin’s version in 2008, asked to send Blakeslee’s resolution back to the Rules Committee, “so that the committee may consider all of the recent occurrences and the dramatically changed circumstances that California and the U.S. face today, compared to one year ago,” Ma said. The motion was officially made by then-Majority Leader Alberto Torrico and seconded by then-Assistant Majority Leader Paul Krekorian (D).
Ma noted that she believed the legislature shouldn’t be involved in the then-new Obama administration’s China policy, including on the issue of Tibet. She said: “We now have a new president who’s committed to resolving human rights issues… And last week, Speaker Pelosi passed a Congressional resolution on this very issue. I believe we shouldn’t undermine the president and the proactive efforts they are ensuing.”
A few Republican lawmakers rose to express strong opposition against her motion and argued it was crucial that a vote by the full Assembly be cast.
Then-Assistant Minority Leader Cameron Smyth said: “Very worst, this resolution is deserving of a vote, if it’s not the will of this house to support it, so be it… We do this regularly, regardless of what actions are taken by the federal government. ”
Assemblyman Chuck DeVore added: “The point that we have here… is that we have been lobbied by agents who work for the Chinese Communist Party.” DeVore continued: “We need to allow democracy to take its course… anything less would be a travesty of justice in this chamber.”
Torrico, the majority leader, then stressed: “The bill is being referred back to the Rules Committee, which will have a hearing, in public, to discuss the merits of the bill.”
Later, a roll-call vote opened. Under the “Reference of Bills to Committee” section of the Standing Rules of the Assembly for the 2009-2010 Regular Session, the motion to re-refer a resolution needed 41 aye votes (a majority of the 80-member Assembly) to pass. However, after multiple attempts calling on legislators to cast a vote, there were still only 37 aye votes over 33 no votes (including five from Democrat assembly members), with nine Democrat lawmakers not voting. Seeing that the motion was likely to fail, Torrico moved to place it on call, before the final vote was announced.
Then a Democratic caucus was announced and the Assembly recessed. One hour and 12 minutes later, lawmakers reconvened to take up Torrico’s motion again.
Before the official roll-call vote opened, then-Speaker Karen Bass rose to briefly speak, asking for members’ aye vote on this “procedural motion.” She emphasized: “In Rules it will give us an opportunity to examine more closely the merits [of ACR 6], and there might be some additional involvement from members of the Democratic Caucus.”
The motion carried with a final vote of 46-30. Among the nine Democrat legislators who did not vote prior to the Democratic Caucus taking place, eight changed to an aye vote; among the five Democrat legislators who voted no earlier, one changed to an aye vote, two changed to not voting, and the other two – Assemblyman Tom Ammiano and Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, who were both then members of the Rules Committee – voted no again.
Veteran journalist and then-San Francisco Bay Guardian executive editor Tim Redmond spoke with Ammiano after the motion to re-refer was adopted. Ammiano “scoffed at the move to send the measure to the Rules Committee” and said, “I wanted it voted on the floor. It had the votes to pass.”
Even though all legislators that voted for the motion to re-refer were Democrats, Blakeslee disagrees that this was a partisan issue or an example of domestic politics shaping the PRC influence debate. Instead, he told The Diplomat, “This was not Republicans-versus-Democrats. This was Democrat leadership, being strong armed to kill a bill.”
He noted that right after the 72-minute-long Democratic caucus took place, “a couple of Democrat legislators came out and told me that it was a very heated debate, that many were very upset they were being asked to send this back to Rules, that they wanted very much to vote in favor of the resolution as it was written because they had already voted for a very similar resolution previously. And they didn’t understand why they couldn’t, weren’t being allowed to.”
Blakeslee added, “They seemed genuinely distraught.”
No further information about the caucus exists in public records. The Diplomat reached out to several then-Democratic members of the California State Assembly for comment, including then-Speaker Karen Bass and then-Majority Leader Alberto Torrico. They either did not respond as of press time or stated they did not recall details of the resolution. Thus, we were not able to independently verify Blakeslee’s comments.
According to media reports at the time, Ma, then the majority whip, said Mullin’s 2008 Tibet resolution “was appropriate because it included a clause referring to the Dalai Lama’s support for the Olympic Charter.” Ma also noted: “Our relationship with [China] is mutually cooperative at this moment, so it is important that we maintain good relationships with our number one partner.” Ma denied that Assembly leadership was “caving in to pressure from the Chinese government.”
When Blakeslee’s resolution was moved back to the Rules Committee, Democrat leaders promised a public hearing. That never happened. “The rationale to provide further debate is standard political speak for ‘we’re killing the bill,’ because there was no future hearing,” Blakeslee told The Diplomat. When asked if there had been times when a similar step was taken and there was indeed further debate and the measure was brought back to the floor, he said “virtually never.”
Responses From Chinese State Media and the Tibetan Community
On March 18, 2009, the CCP-owned English-language newspaper China Daily posted an article originally published by Xinhua titled “Cal. Democrats hesitate to honor Dalai Lama.” Later on the same day, People’s Daily ran an identical piece titled “Report: California Democrats balk at resolution to honor Dalai Lama.” On March 19, the PRC National People’s Congress reposted the same article on its website.
In the articles, Chinese state media first selectively summarized points made in a Los Angeles Times story chronicling the incident (while replacing the original language with CCP talking points), including highlighting direct quotes from the earlier letter Consul General Gao sent to legislators lobbying against Blakeslee’s resolution. The state media reports then inserted a brief revisionist history of the Chinese government’s occupation of Tibet as well as unsubstantiated claims depicting the Dalai Lama and his followers as separatists and rioters.
Xinhua made no effort to deny Blakeslee’s claim of PRC interference in the Tibet resolution, as included in the LA Times’ reporting.
Meanwhile, the Tibetan community was closely following the changing situation as well. An article published on March 17, 2009 on the Bay Area Friends of Tibet’s website stated: “This sets a dangerous precedent with regards to the Chinese government’s relentless attempts to pressure foreign governments (down to state and municipal levels) not to bring up the issue of human rights.”
In response to Beijing’s campaign against his Tibet resolution, in late March 2009, Blakeslee began preparing legislation to address the issue of foreign lobbying in the state. On April 13, he officially introduced Assembly Bill 1334 titled “Political Reform Act of 1974: agents of foreign principals” to amend California’s existing law governing lobbying activities to make foreign agents subject to the Act’s provisions.
In a fact sheet explaining the need for the bill, Blakeslee noted that despite disclosure requirements on lobbying activities and restrictions on foreign contributions imposed by federal level measures, “no such limits on foreign lobbying exist in California law.” He continued: “[T]he Act can easily be exploited by foreign governments looking to shape legislative outcomes outside the realm of public scrutiny.”
“This is not some theoretic issue. Representatives of the Chinese government entered this building and defeated a measure. It’s a shocking breach of the sovereignty of this body,” Blakeslee stated.
“The Chinese government is the only special interest I’m aware of that’s getting away with organizing overseas junkets, hosting dinners for legislators at the Consulate General’s home and taking positions on bills without a single disclosure requirement. All special interests should play by the same rules.”
AB 1334 was on the Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee’s agenda as of April 30, but didn’t move forward. Blakeslee was not surprised. “The Political Reform Act bills are the hardest bills to move through the legislature.” Instead, he told The Diplomat, AB 1334 was designed to “draw public attention to the bad behavior of the Chinese government and show them that this is what could happen if they [Chinese government agents] kept up their activities.”
Reflecting on the series of events that followed ACR 6’s introduction 13 years ago, Blakeslee noted that the Chinese government’s campaign against his Dalai Lama and Tibet Awareness Day resolution remains the only instance he was aware of in which foreign diplomatic representatives lobbied legislators about a floor vote in person at the state capitol, and the only time that legislation he authored received pushback from a foreign government.
Blakeslee’s experiences, repeatedly described as “unusual” or “unprecedented” by sources interviewed for this article, were far from the end of Beijing’s attempts to influence U.S. state legislatures. The next article in this series will focus on the dynamics behind PRC lobbying against state-level measures on Taiwan and shed light on individual cases that have not yet been publicly reported.