US intelligence warns that China may try to influence state leaders

China may try to use state leaders to influence national policy, the US’ National Counterintelligence and Security Centre warns. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON - China exploits the nature of the United States’ federal system to influence local and state leaders, contends an advisory by the US’ National Counterintelligence and Security Centre (NCSC) released on Wednesday (July 6).

The bulletin – a warning essentially, against a backdrop of tension between the two big powers – stated: “The PRC (People’s Republic of China) understands US state and local leaders enjoy a degree of independence from Washington and may seek to use them as proxies to advocate for national US policies Beijing desires.”

Such moves could include improved US economic cooperation with China, or reduced US criticism of China, said the bulletin posted on the NCSC website.

China and the Communist Party of China continue to seek to influence Washington directly, but have stepped up efforts to cultivate America’s state and local leaders as “an effective way to pursue agendas that might be more challenging at the national level”, the advisory said.

It warned: “By their nature, these efforts can have a corrosive effect on targeted societies. They can also threaten the integrity of the US policymaking process and interfere in how US civil, economic and political life functions.”

Influence operations work through exploiting partnerships and creating dependencies with “seemingly benign business opportunities or people-to-people exchanges sometimes masking PRC political agendas”.

“Financial incentives may be used to hook US state and local leaders, given their focus on local economic issues,” the advisory warned. 

“In some cases, the PRC or its proxies may press state and local leaders to take actions that align with their local needs, but also advance PRC agendas, sometimes over national US interests.”

This “geopolitical reality has placed state and local officials in the United States and other nations on the front lines of national security”, the report said.

Chinese agencies involved in foreign influence operations include China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of State Security, and Ministry of Education, it claimed.

The report advised state leaders, agencies and corporations to be vigilant when engaging with foreign entities. 

“Understand that there is no such thing as a ‘free lunch’. While partnerships or engagements with China or other foreign nations can bring economic, academic and cultural benefits to US state and local communities, there may be strings attached."

It added: “Know your partners and who you are doing business with.”

But the brief also made the point that “it is important that US state and local leaders not cast blanket suspicion on all outreach from China”.

The “threat of exploitation emanates from the PRC government and the Chinese Communist Party, not the people of China generally and not Chinese Americans, who themselves are often victimised by PRC aggression”, it said.

There was no immediate response from China’s government to the US bulletin.

The concerns mentioned in the bulletin are not entirely new. In 2020 FBI director Christopher Wray in a speech said Beijing “is engaged in a highly sophisticated malign foreign influence campaign”.

There have been cases of Chinese espionage uncovered in California. In one such case in the 2000s, an alleged Chinese spy gained a position on Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein’s staff for several years, and was fired when the FBI alerted the senator.

And from around 2011 to 2015, a suspected Chinese intelligence operative named Fang Fang targeted up-and-coming politicians in the Bay Area in particular, including Democrat Congressman Eric Swalwell whose 2014 re-election campaign she helped raise funds for.

Ms Fang, who was reportedly being watched by the FBI, abruptly left for China in 2015 and has apparently never returned.

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