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China Escalates Efforts to Influence U.S. State and Local Leaders, Officials Warn

American counterintelligence officials briefed municipalities at an event hosted by Senate panel

By Kate O'Keeffe and Warren P. Strobel

July 6, 2022

China’s government in Beijing denies that it interferes in the affairs of other countries.


WASHINGTON—U.S. counterintelligence officials are stepping up a campaign to warn state and local government leaders and business executives about what they see as China’s increasing use of overt and covert means to influence policy-making.

A notice, to be released Wednesday by the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, cites an aggressive, escalated campaign by China to lobby and otherwise influence state, local, tribal and business leaders as tensions with Washington rise.

Officials from the NCSC, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security advised state and local officials from around the country at a February event hosted by the Senate Intelligence Committee about the risks of Chinese influence operations, according to people familiar with the situation. The officials have since conducted other outreach efforts, the people said.

Michael Orlando, who leads the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, says the pace of China’s influence operations directed at state and local leaders has accelerated.


A DHS spokesperson said the department has enhanced collaboration with every level of government, while committee leaders Sens. Mark Warner (D., Va.) and Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) urged greater effort to confront the threat posed by China. The FBI declined to comment.

Michael Orlando, who leads the NCSC, briefed The Wall Street Journal on the Chinese campaigns, saying the pace of influence operations directed at state and local leaders has accelerated as views of Beijing in Washington, including among members of Congress, have stiffened. These operations have “become more aggressive and pervasive,” he said.

The warning notice, viewed by the Journal, said China’s influence operations range from public diplomacy, in which the Chinese government’s role is acknowledged, to covert activity, where Beijing’s hand “is hidden, as well as coercive or even criminal in nature.”

Tactics, according to the notice, include collecting personal information on state and local leaders and their associates; targeting such leaders early in their careers with the aim of using them for Chinese interests should they reach higher office; and using trade and investment to reward or punish leaders.

The goal, the notice says, is to advance U.S. policies favorable to China and to reduce criticism of Chinese policies regarding Taiwan—a democratically governed island that China claims as its territory—and on human rights in the China-controlled regions of Tibet and Xinjiang as well as on other issues. Ultimately, it says, the Chinese government’s efforts can “threaten the integrity of the U.S. policy-making process and interfere in how U.S. civil, economic, and political life functions.”

China’s government denies that it interferes in the affairs of other countries.

The counterintelligence notice says that the effort to warn business, state and local leaders isn’t directed at casting suspicion on Chinese people and Chinese Americans. Mr. Orlando said that many of China’s dealings with state and local governments involve legitimate economic deals that benefit both sides. Sometimes, he said, Beijing seeks to leverage these dealings for political gain.

The messaging from counterintelligence officials follows a Justice Department decision in February to end a Trump-era program called the China Initiative. It was designed to counter national-security threats, particularly efforts by China to target science and technology. The initiative led to a series of prosecutions of academics who allegedly lied to the U.S. government about their China affiliations. Some of those cases failed, and overall the effort sowed distrust in the higher-education community and drew criticism from some Asian-American groups that Chinese academics were being unfairly targeted.

Wednesday’s notice identifies a unit of China’s ruling Communist Party known as the United Front Work Department as leading the foreign-influence efforts, working through numerous front organizations.

Also involved, the notice says, are China’s ministries of Foreign Affairs, State Security, and Education; its embassies and consulates in the U.S.; and various “quasiofficial entities or proxies.”

Among the groups the notice identifies is the National Association for China’s Peaceful Unification, which describes itself as a Washington-based nonprofit and which advocates positions in line with Beijing’s on Taiwan and Tibet. The group was designated by the Trump administration in 2020 as a Chinese foreign mission—a status akin to being an arm of the government—allegedly for being a United Front-controlled organization.

The Trump administration halted participation in a memorandum of understanding signed in 2011 that supported the creation of a U.S.-China National Governors Forum. The administration alleged that the Beijing-based Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries sought to “malignly influence state and local leaders” and “undermined the Governors Forum’s original well-intentioned purpose.”

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman at the time decried the moves, describing the peaceful-unification group as a normal social organization and saying the friendship association is “a civil organization dedicated to enhancing friendly exchange and cooperation between China and the rest of the world, the United States included.”

Chinese officials and proxies have threatened to withhold investment or market access if Beijing’s interests aren’t heeded, the warning notice says.

In another case cited in the notice, a federal complaint unsealed in March alleged that a Chinese spy hired a private investigator to use violence if necessary to end a candidate’s run for a New York seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, instructing the investigator to “beat him until he cannot run for election.” The candidate, a student leader in the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, had fled China and become a U.S. citizen.

The notice advises state and local leaders to guard against Chinese operations by refusing to sign any agreements that run counter to U.S. national policies even if they benefit a locality in the short term; to insist on public, transparent terms for any agreements; and to share experiences with other local leaders and with U.S. authorities.


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