As tensions with Washington rise, China finds unlikely friend in US state of UtahMarch 27, 2023
- The US state of Utah has emerged as a focus of China’s influence activities.
- China and its US-based advocates spent years building relationships with the state’s officials and lawmakers.
- China’s focus on Utah is emblematic of a broader effort by Beijing to secure allies at the local level as its relations with the US government sour.
- Security experts say that China’s campaign is widespread and tailored to local communities.
Salt Lake City: For those who worry about state officials’ vulnerability to Chinese Communist Party influence, the case of the US state of Utah, where China’s global campaign to win friends has blossomed, is instructive.
Taowen Le, a Weber State University professor of information systems and technologies.Credit:AP
Utah, is a deeply religious and conservative state with few obvious ties to the world’s most powerful communist country.
Yet an investigation by The Associated Press has found that China and its US-based advocates spent years building relationships with the state’s officials and lawmakers.
Those efforts have paid dividends at home and abroad, the AP found: Lawmakers delayed legislation Beijing didn’t like, nixed resolutions that conveyed displeasure with its actions and expressed support in ways that enhanced the Chinese government’s image.
Its work in Utah is emblematic of a broader effort by Beijing to secure allies at the local level as its relations with the US and its Western allies have turned acrimonious. US officials say local leaders are at risk of being manipulated by China and have deemed the influence campaign a threat to national security.
A letter from Utah professor Taowen Le to Utah Governor Spencer Cox in 2022 urging him to meet with a Chinese ambassador.Credit:AP
Victorian Premier Dan Andrews travelled today to China in a visit that has rekindled questions about the secrecy surrounding the diplomatic conversation between the state and Beijing.
In the US, Beijing’s success in Utah shows “how pervasive and persistent China has been in trying to influence America,” said Frank Montoya jnr, a retired FBI counterintelligence agent who lives in Utah.
“Utah is an important foothold,” he said. “If the Chinese can succeed in Salt Lake City, they can also make it in New York and elsewhere.”
Security experts say that China’s campaign is widespread and tailored to local communities. In Utah, the AP found, Beijing and pro-China advocates appealed to lawmakers’ affiliations with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon church, which is the state’s dominant religion and one that has long dreamed of expanding in China.
Republican Utah state Senator Curtis Bramble: he role as a legislator and businessman sometimes overlap in China.Credit:AP
Beijing’s campaign in Utah has raised concerns among state and federal lawmakers and drawn the attention of the Justice Department.
A state legislator told the AP he was interviewed by the FBI after introducing a resolution in 2020 expressing solidarity with China early in the coronavirus pandemic.
A Utah professor who has advocated for closer ties between Washington and Beijing told the AP he’s been questioned by the FBI twice. The FBI declined to comment.
Beijing’s interest in locally focused influence campaigns is not a secret. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, said during a trip to the US in 2015 that “without successful cooperation at the sub-national level it would be very difficult to achieve practical results for cooperation at the national level”.
‘Deceptive and coercive’
A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington told the AP that China “values its relationship with Utah” and any “words and deeds that stigmatise and smear these sub-national exchanges are driven by ulterior political purposes”.
It is not unusual for countries, including the US, to engage in local diplomacy. US officials and security experts have stressed that many Chinese language and cultural exchanges have no hidden agendas. However, they said, few nations have so aggressively courted local leaders in ways that raise national security concerns.
In its annual threat assessment released earlier this month, the US intelligence community reported that China is “redoubling” its local influence campaigns in the face of stiffening resistance at the national level. Beijing believes, the report said, that “local officials are more pliable than their federal counterparts.”
The National Counterintelligence and Security Centre in July warned state and local officials about “deceptive and coercive” Chinese influence operations.
And FBI Director Christopher Wray last year accused China of seeking to “cultivate talent early—often state and local officials—to ensure that politicians at all levels of government will be ready to take a call and advocate on behalf of Beijing’s agenda.”
Authorities in other countries, including Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, have sounded similar alarms.
Those concerns have arisen amid escalating disputes between the US and China over trade, human rights, the future of Taiwan and China’s tacit support for Russia during its invasion of Ukraine. Tensions worsened last month when a suspected Chinese spy balloon was discovered and shot down in US airspace.
US officials have provided scant details about which states and localities the Chinese government has targeted. The AP focused its investigation on Utah because China appears to have cultivated a significant number of allies in the state and its advocates are well-known to lawmakers.
Relying on dozens of interviews with key players and the review of hundreds of pages of records, text messages and emails obtained through public records’ requests, the AP found China won frequent legislative and public relations victories in Utah.
China-friendly lawmakers, for example, delayed action for a year to ban Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes at state universities, according to the legislation’s sponsor. The Chinese language and cultural programs have been described by U.S. national security officials as propaganda instruments. The University of Utah and Southern Utah University closed their institutes by last year.
Legislative and PR victories
In 2020, China scored an image-boosting coup when Xi sent a note to a class of Utah fourth-graders thanking them for cards they’d sent wishing him a happy Chinese New Year. He encouraged them to “become young ‘ambassadors’ for Sino-American friendship”.
Emails obtained by the AP show the Chinese Embassy and the students’ Chinese teacher coordinated the letter exchange, which resulted in heavy coverage by state-controlled media in China.
A Chinese state media outlet reported the Utah students jubilantly exclaimed: “Grandpa Xi really wrote back to me. He’s so cool!” Portraying China’s most authoritarian leader in decades as a kindly grandfather is a familiar trope in Chinese propaganda.
Xi’s letter garnered positive attention in Utah, too. A Republican legislator said on the state Senate floor that he “couldn’t help but think how amazing it was” that the Chinese leader took the time to write such a “remarkable” letter. Another GOP senator gushed on his conservative radio show that Xi’s letter “was so kind and so personal”.
Dakota Cary, a China expert at the security firm Krebs Stamos Group, said in making such comments Utah lawmakers are “essentially acting as mouthpieces for the Chinese Communist Party” and legitimising their ideas and narratives.
“Statements like these are exactly what China’s goal is for influence campaigns,” he said.
China’s interest in Utah is not limited to its officials and advocates who are engaged in diplomacy, trade and education.
US officials have noted that China’s civilian spy agency, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), has shown an interest in Utah, court records show.
Spy agency interest
In January, former graduate student Ji Chaoqun was sentenced to eight years in prison on charges related to spying for China. The Chicago student told an undercover agent he’d been tasked by his spy handlers “to meet people, some American friends.”
He was baptised at a Latter-day Saints church and told the undercover agent he’d “been going to Utah more often lately” before his arrest, according to his Facebook page and court records.
Ron Hansen, a former US intelligence official from Utah, pleaded guilty to trying to sell classified information to China. Hansen said China’s spy service had tasked him with assessing various US politicians’ views towards China. The FBI found the names of Utah elected officials among sensitive files he stored on his laptop, court records show. Hansen was sentenced in 2019 to serve 10 years in federal prison.
Hansen was well known in Utah political circles and helped organise the first-ever annual US-China National Governors Forum, which was held in 2011 in Salt Lake City, according to court records and interviews.
The US State Department cancelled the forums in 2020 due to concerns about Chinese influence efforts.
The AP found groups of up to 25 Utah lawmakers routinely took trips to China every other year since 2007. Lawmakers have partially used campaign donations to pay for the trade missions and cultural exchanges, while relying on China and host organisations to pay for other expenses.
On the trips, they’ve forged relationships with government officials and were quoted in Chinese state-owned media in ways that support Beijing’s agenda.
“Utah is not like Washington DC,” then Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, a vocal supporter of former President Donald Trump, told the Chinese state media outlet in 2018 as the former president ratcheted up pressure on Beijing over trade.
“Utah is a friend of China, an old friend with a long history.”
In an interview last month with the AP, Hughes said the trips to China made him “bullish” about the country and prospects of improving trade. However, he said he now believes the visits were pretexts for Chinese officials to influence him and other lawmakers.
“It’s a trip not worth taking,” Hughes said.
Utah doesn’t require public officials to report in detail their foreign travel or personal finances, so it’s difficult to determine lawmakers’ financial ties to China.
Some of Utah’s most pro-China legislators, however, have China-related personal business connections.
Senator Curt Bramble told Courthouse News Service last year that his role as a part-time legislator and as a business consultant sometimes overlap and that he “had clients in China — a dozen at times — some of them on legislative tours, some on consulting”.
In an interview with AP, Bramble said none of his clients are based in China; they only do business there.
He declined to name them.
Bramble, a Republican who represents a conservative district, also rejected fears of undue Chinese influence in Utah.
“China’s not going anywhere. China’s going to be a world force. They’re going to be a player for the foreseeable future and trying to understand what that implies for the United States or for the state of Utah and get a concept of that seems to be a valuable endeavour,” he said.
Ties forged by two Utah residents
Many of the Utah-China ties have been forged by two state residents with links to the Chinese government or to organisations that experts say are alleged front groups for China, including its civilian spy agency, the AP found.
The two men advocated for and against resolutions, set up meetings between Utah lawmakers and Chinese officials, accompanied legislators on trips to China and provided advice on the best way to cultivate favor with Beijing, according to emails and interviews.
In reviewing the AP’s findings, legal experts said the men’s connections with Chinese officials suggest that they should register with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, known as FARA. The law generally requires anyone who works on behalf of a foreign entity to influence lawmakers or public perception, but its scope is the subject of significant debate and enforcement has been uneven.
“If I were representing either of these individuals, I would have significant concerns about FARA exposure,” said Joshua Ian Rosenstein, an attorney who handles such matters.
One of the men, Taowen Le, has championed China to religious and political leaders in Utah for decades. Le, a Chinese citizen, moved to Utah in the 1980s and has been a professor of information technology at Weber State University since 1998. Le converted in 1990 to the Mormon faith.
From 2003 through 2017, Le had another job — as a paid representative of China’s Liaoning provincial government. Provincial governments are largely controlled by Beijing and Liaoning has had a longstanding “sister” relationship with Utah.
Le’s advocacy continued after he said he left Liaoning’s payroll, emails and interviews show. He has frequently forwarded messages from Chinese government officials to Utah lawmakers and helped the Chinese Embassy set up meetings with state officials.
After embassy officials tried unsuccessfully last year to get staff for Utah Governor Spencer Cox to schedule a get-together with China’s ambassador to the US, Le sent the governor a personal plea to take the meeting.
“I still remember and cherish what you told me at the New Year Party held at your home,” Le wrote in a letter adorned with pictures of him and Cox posing together.
“You told me that you trusted me to be a good messenger and friendship builder between Utah and China.”
State Senate President Stuart Adams turned to Le when Utah was scrambling to obtain large quantities of drugs that Adams thought could be used as potential treatment against the coronavirus in early 2020, emails and interviews show.
Le, who belongs to the same congregation as Adams, said in an email to another lawmaker that he was able to get the Chinese Embassy to assign two staffers to work “tirelessly” on the request until it was fulfilled.
Lawmaker’s son turned China advocate
Another Utah resident whom lawmakers said regularly has advocated better relations with China was Dan Stephenson, the son of a former state senator and employee of a China-based consulting firm.
Emails and other records show Stephenson advised the Utah Senate president on how to make a good impression with a Chinese ambassador and assisted a Chinese province in its unsuccessful efforts to build a ceramics museum in Utah.
Stephenson has promoted China in Utah for several years and has boasted of being well-connected with government officials there.
“I’ve heard more than once from the mouths of Chinese government officials that China is prioritising their relationship with Utah,” Stephenson told lawmakers at a committee hearing. That testimony came shortly after Stephenson accompanied Republican state Senator Jake Anderegg on a trip to Shanghai and Beijing that included meetings with officials at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
A few months after that trip, Stephenson provided Anderegg with the draft language for a pro-China resolution the state senator introduced in 2020 expressing solidarity with China during the pandemic, Anderegg told the AP.
The resolution passed with near unanimous approval.
A Chinese diplomat’s efforts to win passage of a similar resolution in Wisconsin failed, with the state’s Senate president publicly blasting it as a piece of propaganda.
Anderegg told the AP that he was interviewed by FBI agents seeking information about the Utah resolution’s origins.
“It seemed rather innocuous to me,” Anderegg said of his resolution. “But maybe it wasn’t.”
Stephenson said the FBI has not contacted him and no Chinese government official played a role in the resolution.
Ties to alleged front groups
Stephenson has links to Chinese groups allegedly active in covert foreign influence operations, documents show.
He is a partner in the Shanghai-based consulting firm Economic Bridge International. The company’s chief executive, William Wang, is a Chinese citizen and council member of the China Friendship Foundation for Peace and Development, according to an online biography. The group is affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front.
Stephenson said he’s never taken any action at the direction of the Chinese government and never accepted compensation from it.
“I work to promote Utah’s economy, to help American companies succeed in China, and to encourage healthy people-to-people and commercial ties,” Stephenson said.
His work sometimes aligned with what Chinese government officials were seeking and in ways experts say likely helped the Chinese Communist Party’s messaging.
Stephenson urged Utah’s elected officials to make videos to air on Shanghai television to boost the spirits of that city’s residents early in 2020 as they battled COVID-19, according to emails obtained by AP.
“You cannot buy this type of positive publicity for Utah in China,” Stephenson said in an email pitching the videos.
The request originated with the Shanghai government, according to Stephenson’s email, and came as officials in China were scrambling to tamp down public fury at communist authorities for reprimanding a young doctor, who later died, over his repeated warnings about the disease’s dangers.
Many lawmakers recorded videos reading sample scripts Stephenson provided, and a compilation of those videos was uploaded to a Chinese social media website. The compilation ends with dozens of lawmakers in unison shouting “jiayou!“- a Chinese expression of encouragement — on the Utah House and Senate floors.
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