China’s campaign to influence local leaders took root in Utah: report


China’s furtive efforts to affect policy and raise its stature worldwide achieved some of its greatest successes in Utah — a deeply religious and conservative state seemingly a world away from the machinations of Beijing’s Communist government, the Associated Press reported Monday. 

For years, China and its affiliates in the US have worked behind-the-scenes to cultivate relationships with state and local officials and lawmakers, connections that have allowed Beijing to delay legislation it didn’t like and ditch resolutions that expressed dissatisfaction with its actions.

For example, China persuaded friendly lawmakers to hold off banning Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes at state universities — programs that US security officials have described as a front for spreading propaganda. 

Branches of the Confucius Institute at the University of Utah and Southern Utah University only closed last year. ​

In 2020, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Utah legislators passed a resolution expressing solidarity with China by a near-unanimous margin. (A similar effort in Wisconsin failed, with the Badger State’s senate president publicly blasting it as a piece of propaganda.)

Chinese President Xi Jinping. China’s campaign to influence local leaders found a foothold in Utah, a investigation by the Associated Press found.
Sample scripts were provided to Utah lawmakers to read in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Republican Utah state senator who introduced the resolution, Jake Anderegg, told AP he was later interviewed by FBI agents seeking information about the measure’s origins.

“It seemed rather innocuous to me,” Anderegg said of his resolution. “But maybe it wasn’t.”

The report said that Anderegg received draft language for the resolution from Dan Stephenson, the son of a former state senator and an employee of a China-based consulting firm.

Stephenson has links to Chinese groups allegedly active in covert foreign influence operations, documents show. He once worked for the China Academy of Painting, which has been used by China’s Ministry of State Security as a front for meeting and covertly influencing elites and officials abroad, according to Alex Joske, the author of the recently published book “Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World.”

Stephenson said the FBI has not contacted him and no Chinese government official played a role in the resolution. He added that he worked only briefly — without pay — for the China Academy of Painting and did not witness any spy agency involvement.

Republican Utah state Sen. Jacob Anderegg introduced a resolution showing solidarity with China during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

By contrast, a 2021 resolution condemning China’s genocide of Uyghur Muslims failed to pass after the sponsoring legislator was criticized by Taowen Le, a China-born professor of information technology at Weber State University in Ogden who has championed China to religious and political leaders in Utah for decades.

“Pray to God and seek guidance from the Holy Spirit as you ponder about these issues instead of solely relying on those biased media reports,” wrote Le, a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, in one message.

The Chinese Communist Party’s hyperlocal influence campaign — even as ties between the US and China deteriorate — puts local leaders at risk of manipulation and poses a threat to national security.

Perhaps the most salacious example of China’s efforts is the case of Fang Fang, the suspected Chinese intel operative who targeted up-and-coming politicians like Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) — and purportedly ensnared two Midwestern mayors in romantic relationships along the way.

China’s success in Utah illustrates “how pervasive and persistent China has been in trying to influence America,” Frank Montoya Jr., a retired FBI counterintelligence agent who lives in Utah, told the news service.

“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.”​

Taowen Le, a Weber State University professor of information systems and technologies, criticized legislation that would’ve condemned China’s genocide of Uyghur Muslims in 2021.
In a letter photographed Feb. 13, 2022, Taowen Le sent a letter to Utah Gov. Spencer Cox in 2022 urging him to meet with a Chinese ambassador.

Not even children are immune from China’s efforts.

In a public relations coup, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a note to a class of fourth-graders in 2020 thanking them for wishing him a happy Chinese New Year and encouraging them to “become young ‘ambassadors’ for Sino-American friendship.”

Emails obtained by the AP show that the letter exchange was coordinated between the students’ Chinese teacher and the Chinese Embassy in Washington. State-run media exploited Xi’s greeting, quoting students as saying: “Grandpa Xi really wrote back to me. He’s so cool!” — an echo of other propaganda put out by Beijing.

Utah lawmakers lavished Xi with praise as well. One 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.”

A letter from President Xi Jinping was sent to fourth-graders in Utah as part of China’s attempt to influence local officials in the state.

Dakota Cary, a China expert at the Krebs Stamos Group security firm, told AP that the Utah lawmakers were “essentially acting as mouthpieces for the Chinese Communist Party” and legitimizing its narrative. 

“Statements like these are exactly what China’s goal is for influence campaigns,” he said.

The US intelligence community noted in its annual threat assessment released earlier this month that China is “redoubling” local influence campaigns amid the tense relations with the federal government.

Beijing believes that “local officials are more pliable than their federal counterparts,” the intel report said. 

The National Counterintelligence and Security Center last summer alerted state and local officials about China’s “deceptive and coercive” practices.

And FBI Director Christopher Wray last year accused China of trying 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.”​

Other countries, including Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, have raised similar alarms. 

With Post wires.

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2023-03-27 20:41:00