A Chinese think tank has rated U.S. governors and White House advisors on how “friendly” they are to Beijing in a series of reports analyzed by Axios.
Why it matters: Washington’s sharp turn toward hardline policies on China means there’s a strong push in Beijing to find alternate channels of engagement, especially via U.S. local government leaders.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned one of the reports in a Feb. 8 speech to the National Governors Association, in which he warned that the Chinese Communist Party is trying to influence U.S. state and local government decision-making.
The U.S. governors report, dated June 22, 2019, was published by D&C Think, a think tank based in Beijing, in collaboration with Tsinghua University.
- D&C Think is not officially affiliated with the Chinese government. But it states it partners with the United Front Work Department, the Chinese Communist Party’s political influence arm, among other organizations.
- The report is part of a series launched in response to the rapid deterioration of U.S.-China relations. At such a time, according to the report, “it is very important to understand the attitude toward China of all sectors of the United States, including the government, states, interest groups, and mainstream think tanks.”
The report stated that while a hardline attitude towards China now prevails in Washington, the American federal system means that state-level governments may not be in lockstep.
- “Governors can ignore orders from the White House,” the report claimed, “and state governments can change or even cancel local governments such as cities, counties, and school districts.”
- State-level officials “enjoy a certain degree of diplomatic independence,” the report stated.
The big picture: The Chinese government is trying to influence how local government officials around the world view Beijing.
- It often uses a playbook of economic carrots and sticks to shape the behavior of foreign officials and lawmakers, an FBI official told Axios.
- “The toolkit works just as well on a mayor as it would work on somebody in higher elected office,” said the official.
The details: D&C Think’s researchers scoured U.S. government websites and media reports for public statements relating to China in order to rate each U.S. governor.
- The governors — categorized as hardline, friendly, or unclear/unknown position — were further analyzed by age, gender, political affiliation, and work history, and their respective states by economic size, geographic location, and level of trade with China.
- The report did not find a correlation between a U.S. state’s trade with China and the respective governor’s perceived attitude towards China.
- According to the report, the views of the six governors rated as “hardline” were largely due to “human rights and other issues,” rather than trade.
- The findings provide insight into how Beijing sees U.S. politics and its place in it. The ratings below should be taken as subjective.
How the report rated U.S. governors according to their views on China:
- “Hardline:” 6 governors, including Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.), Mike Parson (R-Mo.), and Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.).
- “Friendly:” 17 governors, including Eric Holcomb (R-Ind.), Janet Mills (D-Maine), and Jared Polis (D-Colo.).
- “Unclear” or “no stated position:” All remaining governors, including Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) and Greg Abbott (R-Texas).
The bottom line: China’s state-funded research ecosystem is placing a growing emphasis on nuanced analysis of U.S. domestic politics amid Chinese government efforts to quietly reshape America’s China policy from the ground up.
Exclusive: How the FBI combats China’s political meddling
In May 2019, the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force quietly added a unit aimed at countering China’s political influence in the United States. In an exclusive interview, an FBI official reveals for the first time the bureau’s approach to countering China’s interference in local and state politics.
Why it matters: “This is ultimately a potential systemic challenge to the world order that we’ve had for the past several decades,” the FBI official tells Axios ofChina’s efforts.
The big picture: There is a growing body of evidence that China devotes massive resources to influencing the political environments of foreign countries, including the United States.
- Unlike Russia, the Chinese Communist Party focuses on cultivating long-term relationships and using economic levers to coerce people into compliance, rather than targeting a specific election event.
- “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,” the FBI official said. “So we have spent a lot more time and energy trying to understand the state and local people-to-people influences going on.”
- Over the weekend, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that China is targeting U.S. local and state officials.
China’s influence playbook centers around economic leverage stemming from its growing wealth. That includes:
- The use of economic “carrots and sticks” at the local and state levels.
- “Conduit contributions” to illegally funnel Chinese funds into U.S. politics.
- The use of Chinese government-linked proxies to cultivate relationships of dependency with a variety of American individuals and organizations.
- And it happens at every level of government and society. “The toolkit works just as well on a mayor as it would work on somebody in higher elected office,” the official said.
The FBI task force’s threshold for determining what counts as malign foreign influence is a four-word rubric: “subversive, undeclared, criminal and coercive.” The FBI official, who spoke to Axios anonymously, defined the terms:
- Subversive: “Activities that are undermining democratic processes, or people’s ability to cast a vote.”
- Undeclared: “Any activity where the hand of the government, the hand of the foreign government is opaque, is non-transparent to the target audience.”
- Criminal: “There’s a suite of election crimes in the U.S. And we’re concerned about those crimes. .. So campaign finance violations, this is a big part of what we’re concerned about — foreign money entering U.S. political races.”
- Coercive: “If there is some sort of quid pro quo, some sort of economic carrots and stick, it’s a tool that the Chinese use quite a lot.”
The focus is on party-connected actors, the official said.
- “We’re certainly not looking at, you know, all Chinese students or all Chinese Americans,” said the official. “This isn’t something that we only see happening with ethnic Chinese.”
How the task force works: The initiative, which is part of the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force, is housed within the agency’s counterintelligence division, with embeds from the criminal investigative, cyber and counterterrorism divisions.
- The task force investigates illegal activity and provides defensive briefings — essentially a way to educate companies, organizations, academic institutions and government officials about the potential risks of specific situations.
- The bureau is seeing an “increased demand signal” for briefings and similar engagement “from academic partners, from the private sector, from our U.S. government customer and policymakers,” the official said.
Their advice: Do everything possible to manage risk.
- That means understanding where funding comes from and any organizational ties back to China, as well as engaging in secure travel practices with personal electronic devices and business laptops.
The bottom line: China is increasing its efforts to hold sway over cash-strapped local and state governments.
- Companies and organizations must aim for smarter engagement to lessen the risk because “most folks who are already engaged with some aspects of the Chinese government or with a Chinese institution can’t just say no,” the official said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the China-focused unit’s connection to the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force.
China’s playbook for hooking local governments
Several nations try to influence America’s domestic politics, but China has its own distinctive set of methods and goals, according to an FBI official who spoke to Axios about malign foreign influence in the United States.
Why it matters: “Our concern at the end of the day isn’t focused on an election event. It is focused on the integrity of our policymaking process and the policymakers’ decision-making ability,” said the FBI official.
Key takeaway: Beijing is using economic carrots and sticks to cultivate relationships and gradually change perceptions from the ground up, so that hardline policies on China become less popular and harder to adopt.
China, Russia, and Iran all engage in influence activities, but their goals are different, the FBI official said:
- “Russia wants us to tear ourselves apart.”
- “Iran wants us to leave them alone.”
- “China wants to manage our decline.”
Two other differences between how China and other nations wield covert influence abroad are method and scale.
- Method: China’s top tool is its wealth. It uses a toolkit that combines rewards and punishments to shape the behavior of its targets.
- Scale: China’s malign influence activities are global in scope and reach all the way to local governments, even town councils in some cases. Russian and Iranian efforts are usually regional and far more limited in scope; they lack China’s global reach and economic clout.
- “The scope and scale of what it is that we’re facing is unprecedented,” said the FBI official. “The growth of Chinese influence has absolutely been tied to the global growth of their economic influence.”
China is particularly focused on people-to-people interactions. Chinese delegations to U.S. cities and states, carefully choreographed trips to China for U.S. government officials and business leaders, and offers of lucrative investment projects and business deals may provide the initial hook.
Beijing’s goal is to cultivate more people at the local, state, and federal levels who:
- are friendlier to China-backed development projects
- are less concerned about the geopolitical risk of the Belt and Road Initiative
- recognize the value of telecommunications infrastructure at bargain prices
“If you’ve got a baseline across the country of folks who say it’s not that bad, this is a relationship that we need, these are partnerships that we need, because it’s creating jobs,” then the U.S. can end up with federal decision-making process where “it makes it harder for us to say there’s probably some lines we should not cross,” said the official.
- “Perception adds up and creates a policy environment.”
Between the lines on Chinese strategy: “Use the local to surround the center”
In this recurring feature from the Axios China newsletter, I’ll interview an expert about a Chinese Communist Party phrase to explain the news.
The phrase: “Use the local to surround the center.” (以地方包围中央）
What it means: Building up support for China at the state and local levels in a foreign country so that those leaders may then call upon the national government to adopt policies that are friendlier to Beijing.
The expert take: Anne-Marie Brady, a political scientist at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, tells me this strategy usually involves political funding of some kind via…
- Chinese government proxy groups and individuals.
- Subsidized trips to China.
- Business partnerships.
- Directorships on Chinese companies.
- Special economic agreements such as a local-level signing up to the Belt and Road Initiative.
- Business and political connections via “friendships,” aka “sister cities.”
The bottom line: The Chinese Communist Party cares about cultivating mayors and state officials in countries thousands of miles away, Brady says, because…
- They make decisions. “Local and state governments have a lot of delegated powers for governance over various aspects of society and they also are frequently the bodies which make decisions on infrastructure projects.”
- They’re vulnerable. “They don’t tend to have much depth in foreign policy knowledge, which tends to make them even more vulnerable to foreign interference activities than national-level bodies.”
- They put the economy first. “Local government tends to prioritize economic development as a key marker of good governance, so they tend to be very attracted to China’s economic diplomacy efforts.”