On February 8, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo warned the nation’s Governors that they are targets of an ambitious “subnational” influence agenda by the People’s Republic of China. Each of them, he said, had been evaluated by a Chinese government-linked think tank as “‘friendly,’ ‘hardline,’ or ‘ambiguous’” in order to advance China’s interests in matters including energy, trade, and Taiwan—and to sow divisions between the states and the Federal government. Even more uncomfortable for the Governors who were gathered at the winter meeting of the National Governors Association, Pompeo noted that the NGA itself had partnered with one of China’s top influence organizations, the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries in an investment summit held last year in Kentucky.
Most countries seek to polish their image and cultivate goodwill, conducting cultural exchanges, promoting tourism, and dispensing foreign aid. However, China’s influence activities are quantitatively and qualitatively different. Over the past few years, academic, government, and news reports have catalogued staggering efforts by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to project its influence into American society—at universities and think tanks, newspapers, radio and television, business, as well as national, state, and local governments.
As General Secretary Xi Jinping has put a priority on influence efforts, the role of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC) has expanded. However, Americans who encounter the CPAFFC through “people-to-people” exchanges and delegations may not be fully aware of its character. From the PRC’s perspective, exchanges of the type carried out by the CPAFFC have “always been viewed as a practical political tool by Beijing,” according to a Hoover Institution report, “and all of China’s ‘exchange’ organizations have been assigned political missions.” For the PRC, Anne-Marie Brady writes in her book, Making the Foreign Serve China, the concept of foreign affairs goes beyond state-to-state relations to encompass “all matters related to foreigners and foreign things in China and abroad.” Furthermore, “‘people’s diplomacy’ does not mean ordinary Chinese citizens can become diplomats,” let alone promote relations and civic ties outside the Party’s control, “rather that the government makes use of a wide range of officially non-official contacts with other countries to expand its influence.”
In the service of the PRC’s foreign affairs, terms like “people,” “friendship,” “foreign,” and even “China” mean dramatically different things than they do in the United States. According to Laura Rosenberger and John Garnaut, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “patiently works to collapse the categories of ‘Chinese Communist Party’, ‘China,’ and ‘the Chinese people’ into a single organic whole—so that critics of the party’s activities can be readily caricatured and attacked as anti-Chinese or anti-China.” This construct had a profound impact on policy and discourse in the United States, undermining those who advocate greater support for Taiwan policy or attention to the PRC’s human rights abuses and Marxist-Leninist ideology.
Perhaps most important, “friendship,” in Chinese Communist parlance, “has the meaning of a strategic relationship; it does not have the meaning of good or intimate personal relations,” according to Brady. Rather, “friendship terminology is a means to neutralize opposition psychologically and to reorder reality.” China’s approach to its foreign affairs, and indeed to American private citizens, presents a challenge to American officials trying to combat PRC influence in our own society. Americans may not “understand the degree to which lines that we all revere and cherish in this country are blurred, if not entirely eliminated, in China,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee in July 2019.
Nor do Americans fully understand that, simply by participating in such exchanges or delegations sponsored by the CPAFFC, they unwittingly serve China’s propaganda interests. The CPAFFC’s website showcases visits by foreign officials, academics, and civic leaders. These show American visitors paying respect to China through visits and presentation of gifts. For a Chinese consumer of these posts, writes Peter Mattis, Western politicians “become propaganda fodder.” Official media coverage of events like the Governors’ investment summit serves to “broadcast back into China the message that Western politicians care about liberalism at home, but not for the Chinese people.”
For their part, America’s state and local officials may see the same interactions as valuable. Their constituents expect them to promote trade and investment. Some represent populations larger than many foreign countries. America’s Governors and Mayors sometimes consider themselves better able to serve their citizens than the Federal government. “We’re the level of government closest to the majority of the world’s people,” New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg told a conference on climate issues. “We’re directly responsible for their well-being and their futures. So, while nations talk but too often drag their heels, cities act.”
Unfettered by responsibilities for national security and foreign policy, they may be tempted to take advantage of tensions between the United States and China. At a Brookings Institution discussion in July 2019, Governor Kate Brown of Oregon said, “the good news about what’s happening nationally,” referring to the Trump Administration’s trade battles with China, is “it’s an opportunity for the states.” This message both shapes constituents’ attitudes about China and helps Beijing advance concrete goals. “The PRC is targeting states, trying to integrate their economies as closely as possible with China’s to make them dependent on the Chinese economy,” according to a U.S. government official, “so that the states have all their eggs in one basket.” Beijing is especially focused on states with energy resources, such as Alaska, and agricultural states hurt by tariffs, such as Iowa. In 2018, the China Daily bought an advertising supplement in the Des Moines Register that presented the PRC and the state as allied in the bilateral trade dispute.
One of the PRC’s top priorities in its subnational agenda is undermining support for Taiwan. In his speech, Pompeo cited a letter from the top Chinese diplomat in New York City that asked the speaker of a state legislature to
avoid engaging in any official contact with Taiwan, including sending congratulatory messages to the electeds [sic], introducing bills and proclamations for the election, sending officials and representatives to attend the inauguration ceremony, and inviting officials in Taiwan to visit the United States.
Chinese leaders hope that in a crisis, American public opinion will not support the use of force in defending Taiwan. China may also be taking the long view—cultivating local and state officials that may one day have a role in national policy toward China and Taiwan.
China’s long-term agenda also includes asserting equivalence between democracy and the PRC’s communist system as part of its challenge to the United States for global leadership. To hear some Governors, it is succeeding. At the NGA’s investment summit last year, Governor Matt Bevin of Kentucky presented the U.S.-China relationship this way:
When one side wins, the other side wins. When China is strong, it is good for America. When America is strong, it is good for China. . . . Look how much has happened in 40 years. We have made tremendous, tremendous progress.
Even after leaving office, Governors may reinforce these messages. Former Missouri Governor Bob Holden, CEO and chairman of the United States Heartland China Association, which cooperates with the CPAFFC, also spoke at the Brookings Institution event last year. “What we’ve got to do is find the good people in both cultures, build those relationships, and then the rest will take care of itself because the politics will react to what the people want done long term,” said Holden. “[M]ake no mistake about it, there are scoundrels, so to speak, in China; sadly, there’s also scoundrels in our own culture.” The issue of course is not whether “good people” exist in the PRC, but that citizens ruled by a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship do not elect their government; on the contrary, criticism of the Party can be met with punishment including prison and torture.
Despite Pompeo’s clear message at the NGA meeting, the Governors could be forgiven for being confused. From the outset of the United States-PRC relationship, Washington encouraged engagement with China. In 1972, Washington and Beijing signed the Shanghai Communiqué, the first of three joint statements that have guided as well as constrained U.S. policy. The 1972 communique is famous for signaling eventual normalization of relations and the “One China” language that has circumscribed America’s relationship with democratic Taiwan. It also committed both countries to carrying out “people-to-people contacts and exchanges.” At the time, Washington had not yet broken ties with Taipei in favor of Beijing; these activities seemed like a useful and necessary way to develop an unofficial relationship.
Like many aspects of China policy set out in the 1970s, this approach to the PRC has not been updated. In fact, “people-to-people” ties conducted with influence organizations like the CPAFFC were given a boost under the Obama Administration, propelled in part by Ambassador to Beijing Jon Huntsman, who had promoted them as Governor of Utah. If he hasn’t already, Secretary Pompeo should rescind the memorandum of understanding signed by his predecessor Hillary Clinton in 2011 to promote Governors’ Forums and the endorsement by President Obama and General Secretary Xi of state-provincial legislative exchanges, conducted by the CPAFFC, in 2015.
That is something Secretary Pompeo can easily do to signal that exchanges and delegations carried out by groups like the CPAFFC no longer have Washington’s imprimatur. Otherwise, Pompeo and his colleagues at the Federal level have to tread lightly, given the way America’s system works. But Governors and other state and local officials should not be shy about asking for the advice they need to resist the massive Chinese effort to build influence and sow division inside America’s borders.