SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — China’s world marketing campaign to win pals and affect coverage has blossomed in a shocking place: Utah, a deeply non secular and conservative state with few apparent ties to the world’s strongest communist nation.
An investigation by the Related Press has discovered that China and its U.S.-based advocates spent years constructing relationships with the state’s officers and lawmakers. These efforts have paid dividends at dwelling and overseas, the AP discovered: Lawmakers delayed laws Beijing didn’t like, nixed resolutions that conveyed displeasure with its actions and expressed assist in ways in which enhanced the Chinese language authorities’s picture.
Its work in Utah is emblematic of a broader effort by Beijing to safe allies on the native stage as its relations with the U.S. and its western allies have turned acrimonious. U.S. officers say native leaders are susceptible to being manipulated by China and have deemed the affect marketing campaign a menace to nationwide safety.
Beijing’s success in Utah reveals “how pervasive and chronic China has been in making an attempt to affect America,” mentioned Frank Montoya Jr., a retired FBI counterintelligence agent who lives in Utah.
“Utah is a vital foothold,” he mentioned. “If the Chinese language can achieve Salt Lake Metropolis, they will additionally make it in New York and elsewhere.”
Safety specialists say that China’s marketing campaign is widespread and tailor-made to native communities. In Utah, the AP discovered, Beijing and pro-China advocates appealed to lawmakers’ affiliations with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, higher often called the Mormon church, which is the state’s dominant faith and one which has lengthy dreamed of increasing in China.
Beijing’s marketing campaign in Utah has raised considerations amongst state and federal lawmakers and drawn the eye of the Justice Division.
A state legislator advised the AP he was interviewed by the FBI after introducing a decision in 2020 expressing solidarity with China early within the coronavirus pandemic. A Utah professor who has advocated for nearer ties between Washington and Beijing advised the AP he’s been questioned by the FBI twice. The FBI declined to remark.
‘DECEPTIVE AND COERCIVE’
Beijing’s curiosity in domestically centered affect campaigns isn’t a secret. China’s chief, Xi Jinping, mentioned throughout a visit to the U.S. in 2015 that “with out profitable cooperation on the sub-national stage it might be very tough to realize sensible outcomes for cooperation on the nationwide stage.”
A spokesman for the Chinese language embassy in Washington advised the AP that China “values its relationship with Utah” and any “phrases and deeds that stigmatize and smear these sub-national exchanges are pushed by ulterior political functions.”
It’s not uncommon for nations, together with the U.S., to have interaction in native diplomacy. U.S. officers and safety specialists have harassed that many Chinese language language and cultural exchanges haven’t any hidden agendas. Nonetheless, they mentioned, few nations have so aggressively courted native leaders in ways in which elevate nationwide safety considerations.
In its annual menace evaluation launched earlier this month, the U.S. intelligence group reported that China is “redoubling” its native affect campaigns within the face of stiffening resistance on the nationwide stage. Beijing believes, the report mentioned, that “native officers are extra pliable than their federal counterparts.”
The Nationwide Counterintelligence and Safety Middle in July warned state and native officers about “misleading and coercive” Chinese language affect operations. And FBI Director Christopher Wray final yr accused China of looking for to “domesticate expertise early—usually state and native officers—to make sure that politicians in any respect ranges of presidency will likely be able to take a name and advocate on behalf of Beijing’s agenda.”
Authorities in different nations, together with Australia, Canada and the UK, have sounded related alarms.
These considerations have arisen amid escalating disputes between the U.S. and China over commerce, human rights, the way forward for Taiwan and China’s tacit assist for Russia throughout its invasion of Ukraine. Tensions worsened final month when a suspected Chinese language spy balloon was found and shot down in U.S. airspace.
LEGISLATIVE AND PR VICTORIES
U.S. officers have offered scant particulars about which states and localities the Chinese language authorities has focused. The AP centered its investigation on Utah as a result of China seems to have cultivated a big variety of allies within the state and its advocates are well-known to lawmakers.
Counting on dozens of interviews with key gamers and the evaluation of lots of of pages of information, textual content messages and emails obtained by way of public information’ requests, the AP discovered China gained frequent legislative and public relations victories in Utah.
China-friendly lawmakers, for instance, delayed motion for a yr to ban Chinese language-funded Confucius Institutes at state universities, in keeping with the laws’s sponsor. The Chinese language language and cultural packages have been described by U.S. nationwide safety officers as propaganda devices. The College of Utah and Southern Utah College closed their institutes by final yr.
In 2020, China scored an image-boosting coup when Xi despatched a notice to a category of Utah fourth-graders thanking them for playing cards they’d despatched wishing him a contented Chinese language New 12 months. He inspired them to “develop into younger ‘ambassadors’ for Sino-American friendship.”
Emails obtained by the AP present the Chinese language Embassy and the scholars’ Chinese language trainer coordinated the letter alternate, which resulted in heavy protection by state-controlled media in China.
A Chinese language state media outlet reported the Utah college students jubilantly exclaimed: “Grandpa Xi actually wrote again to me. He’s so cool!” Portraying China’s most authoritarian chief in many years as a kindly grandfather is a well-known trope in Chinese language propaganda.
Xi’s letter garnered constructive consideration in Utah, too. A Republican legislator mentioned on the state Senate flooring that he “couldn’t assist however suppose how superb it was” that the Chinese language chief took the time to write down such a “exceptional” letter. One other GOP senator gushed on his conservative radio present that Xi’s letter “was so form and so private.”
Dakota Cary, a China skilled on the safety agency Krebs Stamos Group, mentioned in making such feedback Utah lawmakers are “basically appearing as mouthpieces for the Chinese language Communist Occasion” and legitimizing their concepts and narratives.
“Statements like these are precisely what China’s purpose is for affect campaigns,” he mentioned.
SPY AGENCY INTEREST
China’s curiosity in Utah isn’t restricted to its officers and advocates who’re engaged in diplomacy, commerce and training. U.S. officers have famous that China’s civilian spy company, the Ministry of State Safety (MSS), has proven an curiosity in Utah, court docket information present.
In January, former graduate scholar Ji Chaoqun was sentenced to eight years in jail on prices associated to spying for China. The Chicago scholar advised an secret agent he’d been tasked by his spy handlers “to fulfill individuals, some American pals.” He was baptized at a Latter-day Saints church and advised the secret agent he’d “been going to Utah extra usually these days” earlier than his arrest, in keeping with his Fb web page and court docket information.
Ron Hansen, a former U.S. intelligence official from Utah, pleaded responsible to making an attempt to promote categorized data to China. Hansen mentioned China’s spy service had tasked him with assessing numerous U.S. politicians’ views in the direction of China. The FBI discovered the names of Utah elected officers amongst delicate information he saved on his laptop computer, court docket information present. Hansen was sentenced in 2019 to serve 10 years in federal jail.
Hansen was well-known in Utah political circles and helped set up the primary ever annual U.S.-China Nationwide Governors Discussion board, which was held in 2011 in Salt Lake Metropolis, in keeping with court docket information and interviews. The U.S. State Division cancelled the boards in 2020 resulting from considerations about Chinese language affect efforts.
‘UTAH IS NOT LIKE WASHINGTON D.C.’
The AP discovered teams of as much as 25 Utah lawmakers routinely took journeys to China each different yr since 2007. Lawmakers have partially used marketing campaign donations to pay for the commerce missions and cultural exchanges, whereas counting on China and host organizations to pay for different bills.
On the journeys, they’ve solid relationships with authorities officers and had been quoted in Chinese language state-owned media in ways in which assist Beijing’s agenda.
“Utah isn’t like Washington D.C.,” then Utah Home Speaker Greg Hughes, a vocal supporter of former President Donald Trump, advised the Chinese language state media outlet in 2018 as the previous president ratcheted up stress on Beijing over commerce. “Utah is a pal of China, an previous pal with a protracted historical past.”
In an interview final month with the AP, Hughes mentioned the journeys to China made him “bullish” in regards to the nation and prospects of bettering commerce. Nonetheless, he mentioned he now believes the visits had been pretexts for Chinese language officers to affect him and different lawmakers.
“It’s a visit not price taking,” Hughes mentioned.
Utah doesn’t require public officers to report intimately their international journey or private funds, so it’s tough to find out lawmaker’s monetary ties to China. A few of Utah’s most pro-China legislators, nonetheless, have China-related private enterprise connections.
Sen. Curt Bramble advised Courthouse Information Service final yr that his position as a part-time legislator and as a enterprise advisor generally overlap and that he “had purchasers in China — a dozen at occasions — a few of them on legislative excursions, some on consulting.”
In an interview with AP, Bramble mentioned none of his purchasers are based mostly in China; they solely do enterprise there. He declined to call them.
Bramble, a Republican who represents a conservative district, additionally rejected fears of undue Chinese language affect in Utah.
“China’s not going anyplace. China’s going to be a world pressure. They’re going to be a participant for the foreseeable future and making an attempt to grasp what that suggests for the USA or for the state of Utah and get an idea of that appears to be a invaluable endeavor,” he mentioned.
TIES FORGED BY TWO UTAH RESIDENTS
Most of the Utah-China ties have been solid by two state residents with hyperlinks to the Chinese language authorities or to organizations that specialists say are alleged entrance teams for China, together with its civilian spy company, the AP discovered.
The 2 males advocated for and towards resolutions, arrange conferences between Utah lawmakers and Chinese language officers, accompanied legislators on journeys to China and offered recommendation on one of the simplest ways to domesticate favor with Beijing, in keeping with emails and interviews.
In reviewing the AP’s findings, authorized specialists mentioned the lads’s connections with Chinese language officers recommend that they need to register with the Justice Division below the Overseas Brokers Registration Act, often called FARA. The legislation usually requires anybody who works on behalf of a international entity to affect lawmakers or public notion, however its scope is the topic of great debate and enforcement has been uneven.
“If I had been representing both of those people, I’d have vital considerations about FARA publicity,” mentioned Joshua Ian Rosenstein, an lawyer who handles such issues.
One of many males, Taowen Le, has championed China to spiritual and political leaders in Utah for many years. Le, a Chinese language citizen, moved to Utah within the Nineteen Eighties and has been a professor of knowledge expertise at Weber State College since 1998. Le transformed in 1990 to the Mormon religion.
From 2003 by way of 2017, Le had one other job — as a paid consultant of China’s Liaoning provincial authorities. Provincial governments are largely managed by Beijing and Liaoning has had a longstanding “sister” relationship with Utah.
Le’s advocacy continued after he mentioned he left Liaoning’s payroll, emails and interviews present. He has incessantly forwarded messages from Chinese language authorities officers to Utah lawmakers and helped the Chinese language Embassy arrange conferences with state officers.
After embassy officers tried unsuccessfully final yr to get workers for Utah Gov. Spencer Cox to schedule a get-together with China’s ambassador to the U.S., Le despatched the governor a private plea to take the assembly.
“I nonetheless keep in mind and cherish what you advised me on the New 12 months Occasion held at your house,” Le wrote in a letter adorned with footage of him and Cox posing collectively. “You advised me that you simply trusted me to be a great messenger and friendship builder between Utah and China.”
State Senate President Stuart Adams turned to Le when Utah was scrambling to acquire massive portions of medication that Adams thought might be used as potential remedy towards the coronavirus in early 2020, emails and interviews present.
Le, who belongs to the identical congregation as Adams, mentioned in an e-mail to a different lawmaker that he was in a position to get the Chinese language Embassy to assign two staffers to work “tirelessly” on the request till it was fulfilled.
RELIGIOUS SALES PITCH
An indicator of Le’s strategy is to make the most of his faith in his pitches to lawmakers. He quoted scripture from the Bible and the E-book of Mormon in his emails, textual content messages and letters, and sprinkled in constructive feedback that Russell Nelson, the church’s president-prophet, has made about China.
Chinese language officers have tried to domesticate pleasant ties with the church. When visiting Utah, China’s diplomats and officers usually meet high church members in addition to lawmakers, emails and different information present.
Increasing to China has been a high purpose for the church, which performs a heavy position in Utah politics and the state’s total id. Most of the state’s residents lived overseas as missionaries, and several other of Utah’s public faculties have strong Ok-12 Chinese language immersion packages.
Whereas the church has traditionally been an outspoken advocate for non secular freedom, Le sought to cease Utah lawmakers from supporting non secular figures or teams discriminated towards by the Chinese language authorities.
When a Utah lawmaker sponsored a decision in 2021 condemning China’s well-documented and brutal crackdown of its minority Muslim Uighurs, Le chastised the legislator in textual content messages and in contrast unflattering media protection of the Chinese language authorities to that of the church’s founder, Joseph Smith Jr.
“Pray to God and search steering from the Holy Spirit as you ponder about these points as an alternative of solely counting on these biased media stories,” Le mentioned.
The decision failed that yr and an identical one launched in January didn’t obtain a listening to.
Le has served as a board member of the China Abroad Friendship Affiliation, which has ties to the United Entrance Work Division — a Chinese language Communist Occasion group the U.S. authorities says engages in covert and malign international affect operations.
A United Entrance publication profiled Le in 2020 after he attended a gathering in Beijing of the Chinese language Individuals’s Political Consultative Convention, a prestigious advisory physique managed by the Chinese language Communist Occasion.
“I deeply really feel the benefits of China’s system,” Le advised the publication.
Le advised the AP he was interviewed by the FBI in 2007 and 2018 about his Chinese language authorities ties. He mentioned his advocacy has at all times been self-directed.
“I don’t think about myself a lobbyist as a result of I’m not a lobbyist. I’m simply somebody who cherishes the connection between the U.S. and China,” Le mentioned in an interview in his Weber State workplace.
Adams, the Senate president, mentioned he feels in any other case.
“I do consider he’s lobbying,” Adams mentioned. “He advocates very exhausting on China.”
LAWMAKER’S SON TURNED CHINA ADVOCATE
One other Utah resident whom lawmakers mentioned recurrently has advocated higher relations with China was Dan Stephenson, the son of a former state senator and worker of a China-based consulting agency.
Emails and different information present Stephenson suggested the Utah senate president on how one can make a great impression with a Chinese language ambassador and assisted a Chinese language province in its unsuccessful efforts to construct a ceramics museum in Utah.
Stephenson has promoted China in Utah for a number of years and has boasted of being properly related with authorities officers there.
“I’ve heard greater than as soon as from the mouths of Chinese language authorities officers that China is prioritizing their relationship with Utah,” Stephenson advised lawmakers at a committee listening to. That testimony got here shortly after Stephenson accompanied Republican state Sen. Jake Anderegg on a visit to Shanghai and Beijing that included conferences with officers at China’s Ministry of Overseas Affairs.
Just a few months after that journey, Stephenson offered Anderegg with the draft language for a pro-China decision the state senator launched in 2020 expressing solidarity with China through the pandemic, Anderegg advised the AP.
The decision handed with close to unanimous approval.
A Chinese language diplomat’s efforts to win passage of an identical decision in Wisconsin failed, with the state’s senate president publicly blasting it as a chunk of propaganda.
Anderegg advised the AP that he was interviewed by FBI brokers looking for details about the Utah decision’s origins.
“It appeared relatively innocuous to me,” Anderegg mentioned of his decision. “However perhaps it wasn’t.”
Stephenson mentioned the FBI has not contacted him and no Chinese language authorities official performed a job within the decision.
TIES TO ALLEGED FRONT GROUPS
Stephenson has hyperlinks to Chinese language teams allegedly energetic in covert international affect operations, paperwork present.
He’s a accomplice within the Shanghai-based consulting agency Financial Bridge Worldwide. The corporate’s chief govt, William Wang, is a Chinese language citizen and council member of the China Friendship Basis for Peace and Improvement, in keeping with a web-based biography. The group is affiliated with the Chinese language Communist Occasion’s United Entrance.
Stephenson, additionally as soon as labored for the China Academy of Portray, which has been utilized by China’s Ministry of State Safety as a entrance for assembly and covertly influencing elites and officers overseas, in keeping with Alex Joske, the writer of the just lately printed e book “Spies and Lies: How China’s Biggest Covert Operations Fooled the World.”
Stephenson mentioned he labored solely briefly — with out pay — for the China Academy of Portray. He added he didn’t witness any spy company involvement.
WORK ALIGNED WITH CHINESE GOVERNMENT’S DESIRES
Stephenson mentioned he’s by no means taken any motion on the course of the Chinese language authorities and by no means accepted compensation from it.
“I work to advertise Utah’s financial system, to assist American corporations achieve China, and to encourage wholesome people-to-people and business ties,” Stephenson mentioned.
His work generally aligned with what Chinese language authorities officers had been looking for and in methods specialists say possible helped the Chinese language Communist Occasion’s messaging.
Stephenson urged Utah’s elected officers to make movies to air on Shanghai tv to spice up the spirits of that metropolis’s residents early in 2020 as they battled COVID-19, in keeping with emails obtained by AP.
“You can not purchase the sort of constructive publicity for Utah in China,” Stephenson mentioned in an e-mail pitching the movies.
The request originated with the Shanghai authorities, in keeping with Stephenson’s e-mail, and got here as officers in China had been scrambling to tamp down public fury at communist authorities for reprimanding a younger physician, who later died, over his repeated warnings in regards to the illness’s risks.
Many lawmakers recorded movies studying pattern scripts Stephenson offered, and a compilation of these movies was uploaded to a Chinese language social media web site. The compilation ends with dozens of lawmakers in unison shouting “jiayou!”- a Chinese language expression of encouragement — on the Utah Home and Senate flooring.
Suderman reported from Washington. AP author Fu Ting in Washington contributed to this story.
Contact AP’s world investigative workforce at Investigative@ap.org.