Nathan Picarsic, Emily de La Bruyère
As Congress advances a set of bills to protect against Beijing’s efforts to subvert American democracy, China is using our system of government to block and tackle. On November 12, Reuters reported that Chinese officials have been pressuring American companies, executives, and trade groups to lobby against the legislation, threatening to reduce their share of the Chinese market if the bills pass. Unfortunately, such attempts to turn the U.S. system of government against itself are not new, or unusual. And they take place at the subnational as well as national levels.
In 2015, Xi Jinping visited the United States for the first time since becoming general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). During the trip, Xi made the requisite appearance at the White House and attended the 70th anniversary of the United Nations in New York. But those stops were not Xi’s priority. Instead, his first stop was in Seattle, where he attended the third China–U.S. Governors Forum.
The CCP has cemented a subversive influence apparatus across the United States. Xi’s visit to Seattle offers a roadmap of that apparatus: its pervasive presence, its targets, its sprawling objectives, and the cross-cutting mechanisms by which it achieves them. During his two days in Seattle, Xi prioritized three main groups: leading U.S. companies and their executives, local organizations dedicated to fostering closer U.S.–China ties, and, especially, state- and local-level government officials.
The CCP’s active-measures toolkit would make the Soviet Union drool. Beijing directs that toolkit at state and local elected officials, as well as the business, media, and nonprofit sectors. The Reuters report offered just the most recent example of the CCP’s subnational strategy, which is accelerating: Beijing has identified the vulnerable nodes through which it might defeat tough federal China legislation, and U.S. state, local, and nongovernmental actors are largely blind to the threat.
This is unsurprising: It’s not their job to guard against such threats. But it’s also dangerous: Beijing is poised to subvert the subnational U.S. system, turning the country inside-out against itself. The federal government needs to step up, recognize the challenge, and do its job. In the meantime, state and local governments will have to start doing the federal government’s job for it.
“There is a saying in American politics,” wrote Jia Zhongzheng of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2017, “that all politics is local.” He suggested that state and local governments could be particularly open to China’s overtures, tempted by promises of trade and investment even when the federal government raised security concerns. “Chinese entrepreneurs who are willing to invest in state governments are generally treated as guests by state politicians and officials, regardless of their party or ruling philosophy,” explained scholars affiliated with the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization in a 2017 piece.
Events over the past decade certainly suggest that that has been the case, to the detriment of U.S. prosperity and security. In 2011, the U.S. and China held the inaugural China–U.S. Governors Forum. The state-owned China Daily’s coverage of the event focused on a series of deals that provided China the necessary footholds to hollow out the U.S. renewable-energy industry. At the forum, the Wuhu Economic and Technological Development Zone in Anhui Province reached a deal with California-based NuvoSun for a thin-film solar-cells project; Asia Silicon (Qinghai) and New Hampshire-based GT Solar agreed to work together; and the chairman of China’s CHINT Group Corporation, a member of the Zhejiang Province delegation, announced plans to “write a billion-dollar check” as part of a partnership with a Missouri-based firm focused on semiconductor- and solar-related wafer products.
The precise details of those agreements remain unclear. What is clear is that the next year, the U.S. Commerce Department found that both Asia Silicon and the CHINT Group, among other Chinese players, were dumping solar products into the American market. Over the decade since, China has established a monopoly position in the international solar-panel supply chain, which the United States once dominated. China has done so in large part thanks to the acquisition of technology from American players, as well as domestic subsidies and preferential policies.
This example underlines the long-term costs that the U.S. private sector and state and local governments invite when they get into bed with Beijing. It also presents a cruel reminder of the human-rights risks that taint such arrangements: Revelations over the past year have made clear that China’s solar-power industry, bolstered by those deals signed at the 2011 Governors Forum, is associated with forced labor and the genocide of the Uyghur ethnic minority in Xinjiang Province. The solar sector has become ground zero in the fight to protect against such atrocities.
When Xi visited the United States in 2015, skirting diplomatic protocol to meet with subnational actors on the West Coast before visiting D.C., John Kerry was secretary of state. Six years later, as State Department climate envoy, Kerry has reportedly lobbied against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Asked how he is balancing his desire for climate-change-related cooperation with China and forced labor in the solar-panel supply chain, Kerry said in a November interview that such human-rights atrocities are simply “not my lane.”
This is just another example of Beijing’s active-measures toolkit. The CCP is shaping the incentives of U.S. political leaders and private companies, promising them short-term economic or climate-policy inducements in exchange for Beijing’s longer-term cannibalization of American industry, security, and values.
And a decade after the first Governors Forum, the U.S. is still getting suckered.
The Chinese Communist Party seeks a united front of influence across the globe, including in the United States. The U.S. federal government has a responsibility to identify channels of malign influence and block Beijing’s advance on U.S. soil. But doing so will require waking up to the threat and actively coordinating a response with the subnational actors China is targeting across the country.