China is doubling down on its efforts to influence state and local government leaders in the United States by exploiting the existing web of regional and local US-China relations, the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) warned in July.
"Some of the goals of PRC [People's Republic of China] influence operations in the United States are to expand support for PRC interests among state and local leaders and to use these relationships to pressure Washington for policies friendlier to Beijing. The PRC understands U.S. state and local leaders enjoy a degree of independence from Washington and may seek to use them as proxies to advocate for national U.S. policies Beijing desires, including improved U.S. economic cooperation with China, and reduced U.S. criticism of China's policies towards Taiwan, Tibetans, Uyghurs, pro-democracy activists, and others.
"The PRC and CCP [Chinese Communist Party] continue to seek to influence Washington directly... Yet the PRC has also stepped up its efforts to cultivate U.S. state and local leaders in a strategy some have described as 'using the local to surround the central.' For the PRC and CCP, targeting state and local entities can be an effective way to pursue agendas that might be more challenging at the national level."
The US intelligence officials warned US state and local leaders that Chinese influence operations "can be deceptive and coercive, with seemingly benign business opportunities or people-to-people exchanges sometimes masking PRC political agendas."
The NCSC document also stated:
"Financial incentives may be used to hook U.S. state and local leaders, given their focus on local economic issues. In some cases, the PRC or its proxies may press state and local leaders to take actions that align with their local needs, but also advance PRC agendas, sometimes over national U.S. interests."
There is nothing inherently new in the National Counterintelligence and Security Center's July warning; PRC operatives have been working in this way for years, if not decades. One of the organizations that the US intelligence memo explicitly warns against is the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), which describes itself as a "national people's organization engaged in people-to-people diplomacy of the People's Republic of China."
In reality, the organization is actually a front for the foreign influence efforts of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It has been operating successfully in the US for decades, especially by forging numerous sister-city relationships with US cities to influence local US political, business, media and educational leaders. There are more than 200 sister city pairs and 50 sister state/province partnerships between the US and China, and such partnerships, according to US intelligence, can also include business, technical, cultural and educational exchanges between US and Chinese communities.
According to "China's Influence & American Interests," a 2018 report by the Working Group on Chinese Influence Activities in the United States, published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York:
"After forty years of engagement, the US-China focused foundations, educational and exchange programs, research institutes, and arts and entertainment initiatives throughout the country are too many and various to be cataloged...
"While American local governments value such 'exchanges' for financial and cultural reasons, 'exchange' (交流) has always been viewed as a practical political tool by Beijing, and all of China's 'exchange' organizations have been assigned political missions."
CPAFFC has been instrumental in sponsoring conferences connecting Chinese officials and others with US governors, mayors, and state and local legislators, according to US intelligence. Since 2011, for instance, CPAFFC was a sponsor of the China-U.S. Governors Forum. In 2019, this forum, which took place in Kentucky, was "billed as an 'exclusive deal making opportunity' for investors, industry, and government leaders of both nations."
It was also a place where China's ambassador to the United States sought to influence the assembled governors, mayors and other local leaders to follow China's policies. According to the NCSC document:
"In 2019, the PRC's U.S. Ambassador expressed concerns over Washington's trade policies towards China at the CPAFFC-sponsored China-US. Governors Forum and urged U.S. Governors "to pay serious attention to this, and not let some ill-informed, ill-intentioned people incite a 'new Cold War' at the expense of the people's interests."
In 2020, however, the Trump administration withdrew the US from the China-U.S. Governors Forum. The administration said that since the US had signed the agreement, the CPAFFC had "sought to directly and malignly influence" US state and local leaders to promote China's global agenda and thereby "undermined the Governors Forum's original well-intentioned purpose."
The NCSC document continues:
"Individual U.S. localities may be unaware that their partnerships with cities and states in China are centrally coordinated and managed in China by CPAFFC [the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries] which... is closely tied to the CCP's political influence bureaucracy. The PRC's centralized control over such partnerships underscores the need for U.S. state and local officials to understand the roles and intentions of all those participating on the Chinese side."
US intelligence is also worried that China could create dependencies to gain influence:
"The PRC or its proxies may use financial rewards and punishments, such as promising or withdrawing access to Chinese markets, to cultivate and leverage business and government leaders at the U.S. state and local level.
"Rewards may take the form of investments in U.S. communities or business deals that promise 'win-win' or 'mutually beneficial' development. Paid trips to China for U.S. state and local leaders or PRC delegation visits to U.S. localities may also serve as enticements."
Furthermore, US intelligence warned, Chinese "rewards" always come at a price, for instance by requiring the support of policies that would benefit China. "In 2019, a U.S. Governor received a letter from a PRC Consulate threatening to cancel a Chinese investment in the Governor's state if the Governor chose to travel to Taiwan," the NCSC wrote.
Additionally, China uses the same tactics when it comes to US business leaders:
"In 2021, the PRC Embassy in Washington sent letters to select U.S. business leaders urging them to lobby the U.S. Congress to reject bills the PRC opposed, including bills designed to increase U.S. competitiveness vis-à-vis China: '[W]e sincerely hope you will play a positive role in urging members of the Congress to abandon the zero-sum mindset and ideological prejudice, stop touting negative China-related bills, delete negative provisions, as to create favorable conditions for bilateral economic and trade cooperation, before it's too late...'
"In 2021, a senior PRC official instructed U.S. business leaders with interests in China to 'speak up and speak out, and push the US government to pursue a rational and pragmatic policy towards China, stop conducting wars in trade, industry, and technology...' The PRC official added, '[T]he business community cannot make a fortune in silence.'"
While it is commendable that a US intelligence agency sets out to warn US local and state leaders against the CCP's malign influence, the warning, arriving as it does after so many decades of Chinese influence operations in the US, comes across, unfortunately, as too little, too late. The U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center appears a little too hopeful when it assumes that Americans involved in all those exchanges are suddenly going to change their minds and begin to divest from the different Chinese ventures that they are involved in, especially as so much might be gained from staying ignorant.
According to Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg, in their recently book, Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World:
"Local politicians typically know little about China and have no responsibility for national security, and because their Chinese interlocutors present themselves as offering people-to-people exchanges and 'opportunities for local business', these politicians have a strong incentive to remain uninformed...
"The focus is typically on economic and cultural ties and it's easy to pretend that there is no political element... however, these local ties are in fact highly political, and where necessary they can be leveraged to pressure national governments. This is the tactic of 'use the countryside to surround the city'".
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.