Emily de La Bruyère and Nathan Picarsic
Across the political spectrum, Americans are moving toward a consensus that China’s authoritarian regime poses the foremost threat to U.S. national security. Under the firm control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the People’s Republic of China presents a challenge that goes well beyond the military, or even the technological, domain. Beijing seeks to shape global architectures, and through them to assert global control. Beijing’s ambitions are evident in its efforts to set global technical standards and control emerging infrastructure, to convert foreign dependence on Chinese resources and manufacturing capabilities into market-making power, and to influence international opinion through disinformation and propaganda.
These efforts target the public and private sectors. And in its efforts to influence governments, including the U.S. government, Beijing does not limit itself to the national level. Beijing also runs systematic campaigns to influence subnational — that is, state and local — governments.
Beijing understands that subnational political leaders respond to different incentives than do federal officials and authorities — and that those incentives may create favorable conditions for China’s influence campaigns. States and localities often prioritize the creation of jobs and economic growth, with less concern for national security risks. Beijing appeals to such economic interests to shift attitudes, open doors for China and Chinese entities, and foster relationships that can offset growing resistance in Washington to Beijing’s global agenda. Success on this score brings strategic and security returns for the CCP. It also obscures the extent to which short-term boons from economic cooperation may lead to long-term losses for the United States by hollowing out key industrial sectors and gradually offshoring jobs and economic growth.
In June 2019, the Minzhi International Research Institute, a Chinese think tank, and Tsinghua University’s Center of Globalization Studies published a survey of U.S. governors’ attitudes toward China. The report clearly articulates the logic of cultivating state and local officials as a counterweight to Washington’s increasing concern about China’s national security threat:
“In Washington, voices advocating a tough stance on China seem to have become mainstream and have growing momentum. [However,] in American politics, in addition to the White House and Congress, there is another type of decisive actor: the governors. Because of the federal system in the United States, governors can ignore the White House’s orders… And each federal member enjoys a certain degree of diplomatic independence… Therefore, as Washington’s overall attitude towards China toughens, the attitudes of the states are crucial.”
Based on public statements, the Minzhi-Tsinghua survey finds that “among the 50 governors, 17 are friendly to China, 14 have ambiguous attitudes toward China, six are tough on China, and 14 have made no clear or public statement on China.” The report argues that “hardline” stances among U.S. governors are overwhelmingly human rights-related “and rarely involve economic and trade issues.”
The findings of the Minzhi-Tsinghua report themselves must be taken with a grain of salt: Its methodology is simplistic, based entirely on public statements, with little rigor or comprehensiveness. However, the report is indicative of the ambitions behind China’s subnational diplomacy. Beijing uses subnational relationships to influence U.S. economic, technological, and other ecosystems. Beijing also sees subnational relationships as potential tools for leverage over Washington. In the immediate term, state and local governments can exert pressure on the federal government. In the longer term, Beijing views subnational officials as future national leaders.5 This is not wrong; governors have a history of success in U.S. presidential elections. Other local leaders often aspire to federal office.
The Chinese subnational influence campaigns, and the apparatus implementing them, are longstanding. Yet until recently, China’s efforts mostly flew under the radar of U.S. federal policymakers — or were mistaken for a benign effort to promote greater cooperation with individual states. As a result, the federal government supported some of the most direct manifestations of China’s influence.
This report does not provide an exhaustive inventory of Beijing’s initiatives to shape state and local opinion. Rather, it emphasizes mechanisms under the direction of the CCP that present themselves as apolitical means of promoting dialogue, coordination, and understanding. As such, this report does not examine the role of Chinese consulates, which openly advertise themselves as official Foreign Ministry vehicles, or commercial mechanisms of influence that might be influenced by government policy, such as foreign investment or tourism. Nor does this report seek to measure the impact of Chinese subnational influence initiatives or to compare China’s approach to those of other foreign governments. Instead, it aims to elucidate the strategic goals guiding Beijing’s subnational influence operations, as well as the tools and mechanisms Beijing employs. This report also suggests indicators for assessing where those operations are likely to have the greatest effect in the United States.
Not all features of PRC engagement in the United States are malign or manipulative. Not all mechanisms of cooperation, dialogue, and understanding between the United States and China constitute fronts for government influence campaigns. However, understanding the range of mechanisms for subnational partnerships that the CCP deploys is a necessary precursor to identifying where and when threats may exist.
This monograph begins with a brief survey of Chinese discourse on subnational influence efforts, as well as the bureaucracy guiding them. The report first documents Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s 2015 visit to Seattle as an example of the strategic orientation, sprawling objectives, and diverse tools that define Beijing’s influence campaigns within the United States. It then examines the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC) and its activities in the United States, including the China-U.S. Governors Forum. Afterward, it turns to non-CPAFFC mechanisms of subnational influence guided by the CCP. Finally, the monograph presents a notional set of indicators for assessing state-level vulnerability to China’s influence efforts.
Outlined in detail in final chapter of monograph
The federal government should pursue the following measures to address this challenge:
Congress should support the development of an information-collection program focused exclusively on analyzing the Chinese subnational influence apparatus and the ways in which it reaches into the United States. Such an effort could be housed within the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Justice (DOJ).
The findings of this collection program should be shared broadly across the interagency.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) is another tool that federal authorities should leverage at the subnational level.
The federal government should examine whether existing mechanisms for monitoring investment-driven foreign influence, such as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, sufficiently account for the impact of investments in technology, infrastructure, and data at the subnational level.
The EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program, which provides green cards to foreign investors, should vastly improve its due diligence for applicants with ties to the CCP.
Federal investments and information sharing are necessary but not sufficient to address the CCP’s subnational influence campaigns. CCP strategy exploits the decentralized nature of American government, so state and local leaders and organizations must play an integral role in addressing this challenge. To that end, state and local governments should:
Recognize the long-run costs associated with the short-term economic rewards that so often drive unbridled engagement with the Chinese influence apparatus.
Develop a framework for monitoring the national security risks posed by subnational engagement with actors connected to the Chinese government, the CCP, and the Chinese military.
State registries of foreign businesses would benefit from additional information-collection requirements and consistency.
Trade and investment promotion activities should carry due diligence requirements to assess the potential for malign Chinese influence.
Delegations that visit China for business development purposes or that host visiting Chinese groups should receive briefings on malign influence and counterintelligence risks from DOJ liaisons.
Fora that convene state and local leaders, such as the National Governors Association, should promulgate best practices and informational resources that empower states and localities to tailor counter-influence programs.