Salt Lake City: For those who worry about state officials’ vulnerability to Chinese Communist Party influence, the case of the US state of Utah, where China’s global campaign to win friends has blossomed, is instructive.
Utah, is a deeply religious and conservative state with few obvious ties to the world’s most powerful communist country.
Yet an investigation by The Associated Press has found that China and its US-based advocates spent years building relationships with the state’s officials and lawmakers.
Those efforts have paid dividends at home and abroad, the AP found: Lawmakers delayed legislation Beijing didn’t like, nixed resolutions that conveyed displeasure with its actions and expressed support in ways that enhanced the Chinese government’s image.
Its work in Utah is emblematic of a broader effort by Beijing to secure allies at the local level as its relations with the US and its Western allies have turned acrimonious. US officials say local leaders are at risk of being manipulated by China and have deemed the influence campaign a threat to national security.
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In the US, Beijing’s success in Utah shows “how pervasive and persistent China has been in trying to influence America,” said Frank Montoya jnr, a retired FBI counterintelligence agent who lives in Utah.
“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.”
Security experts say that China’s campaign is widespread and tailored to local communities. In Utah, the AP found, Beijing and pro-China advocates appealed to lawmakers’ affiliations with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon church, which is the state’s dominant religion and one that has long dreamed of expanding in China.
Beijing’s campaign in Utah has raised concerns among state and federal lawmakers and drawn the attention of the Justice Department.
A state legislator told the AP he was interviewed by the FBI after introducing a resolution in 2020 expressing solidarity with China early in the coronavirus pandemic.
A Utah professor who has advocated for closer ties between Washington and Beijing told the AP he’s been questioned by the FBI twice. The FBI declined to comment.
Beijing’s interest in locally focused influence campaigns is not a secret. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, said during a trip to the US in 2015 that “without successful cooperation at the sub-national level it would be very difficult to achieve practical results for cooperation at the national level”.