China-US Subnational Exchanges Under the Biden Administration

Despite efforts from the Trump administration to respond to Beijing’s subnational influence operations, and despite tensions that remain at the federal level, China-U.S. subnational exchanges have largely continued under Biden, with some American subnational officials calling on the then-new administration to advance such relationships.

For example, on December 1, 2020, Jerry Brown, former governor of California and currently chair of the California-China Climate Institute at UC Berkeley, published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times titled “Jerry Brown: Biden’s first task should be working with China on climate change.” Brown recalled his 2017 meeting with Xi Jinping, which he described as “unusual,” and elaborated on California-China subnational collaboration on climate-related initiatives. He noted: “California has shown that partnership and cooperation with China are eminently feasible – at least on the profoundly important issue of climate change.” Brown ended by stressing: “Despite the real and profound differences dividing China and the U.S., Biden and Xi can rise to the challenge and embark together on a path of global transformation.”

On February 4, 2021, former governor of Utah and U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman published an op-ed titled “Biden’s China relationship: the view from Utah.” Huntsman discussed the negative ripple effect that the downturn in China-U.S. bilateral relations, in particular the trade war, had had on Utah, in fields ranging from education and tourism to semiconductor and medical equipment exports. He similarly touted the importance of subnational relations. Huntsman wrote, “Direct partnerships between American states and Chinese provinces offer one possible path toward reviving engagement in several key areas: higher education and trade are two that are crucial to Utah’s economy and would benefit from enhanced, smart engagement.”

He continued:

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While the Chinese government under current leader Xi Jinping has increasingly adopted policies Americans abhor that now impact every major national American interest, the absence of a bipartisan strategy towards China hurts the people of Utah and has unintended consequences that will reverberate in local communities. These consequences might be less detrimental if those at the state and local levels are involved in formulating and contributing to a balanced China policy… Especially in times of disagreement, subnational partnerships can serve as a ballast and offer channels of productive dialogue and understanding.

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In the meantime, PRC diplomats have stressed the importance of subnational relationships in the hope that such ties can move China-U.S. relations back onto the “right track.”

From March to May 2021, various events with a focus on China-U.S. subnational relations were held, on topics ranging from economics and trade to agriculture cooperation, with PRC officials and/or diplomats in attendance.

On March 2, 2021, the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC) and the State Legislative Leaders Foundation (SLLF) co-hosted the fifth China-U.S. Subnational Legislatures Cooperation Forum, described as “the first institutional activity of exchanges and cooperation between China and the United States to have resumed after the new U.S. administration took office.” Leaders of the legislative bodies of seven Chinese provinces and cities as well as American states attended virtually. Then-PRC Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai sent video greetings and asked Minister Xu Xueyuan from the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. to attend. Cui noted the Forum’s significance as it was “the first national-level dialogue to be resumed between our two countries for two years.”

Cui went on to iterate the importance of China-U.S. subnational exchanges. “I believe this dialogue will help the two sides to enhance understanding, engage in mutual learning, deepen friendship and expand cooperation. It will bring great benefits to our peoples, and add positive energy to China-U.S. relations,” he said. According to Cui, the theme of the dialogue was “Win-Win Cooperation for a New Chapter,” incorporating a favorite phrase of PRC diplomacy.

On March 23, 2021, CPAFFC and the U.S. Heartland China Association co-hosted the virtual U.S.-China Agriculture Roundtable – an event described as “an important effort to strengthen dialogue and cooperation at the subnational level between China and the United States” by the Chinese Embassy’s Minister Xu Xueyuan.

On May 15, 2021, the 2021 China-U.S. Public Diplomacy Summit was held in Beijing. Among those in attendance were California State Senate Majority Leader Robert Herzberg and former Commissioner of Business Development in the Kentucky State Cabinet Erran Persley. At the third Session focusing on “China-U.S. Subnational Exchanges and Economic Cooperation,” Persley reportedly said that he believed “the outlook for Sino-U.S. subnational cooperation is still very optimistic… Practice has proven that even when there is tension between China and the United States, subnational cooperation has not been interrupted. Good subnational cooperation will have a very positive effect on relations between countries.”

Later in the summit, Diao Daming, associate professor at Renmin University of China and a member of the research team of D&C Think, described China-U.S. subnational exchanges as “the stabilizer and cornerstone, as well as growth point and driving force of Sino-U.S. relations.” He added that “subnational exchanges are developing toward the high-level political field rather than just the economic and trade field,” although “some distributions are uneven and asymmetric.” Diao ended by stressing:

There is much historical experience in Sino-U.S. relations that exchanges should be people-oriented and pragmatic rather than ideological… Subnational exchanges are precisely the way to bypass ideology and maintain pragmatic communication and dialogue with the people. We should work together to safeguard and develop subnational exchanges to ensure that Sino-U.S. relations can continue to move forward.

Subsequently, on May 22, 2021, the China Provinces-U.S. States Economic and Trade Cooperation Forum was held in China.

More recently, on August 18, 2021, new Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang held a video call with two Iowa residents: Sarah Lande, a recipient of CPAFFC’s Honorary Friendship Ambassador award who hosted Xi during his visit to Muscatine in 1985, and Kenneth Quinn, who serves as a strategic advisor of the U.S. Heartland China Association. The call was among Qin’s first public moves since assuming his post, and according to Chinese state media, his “first outreach outside of Washington.” The ambassador conveyed greetings from Xi and his wife to Lande and Quinn as well as other “old friends of Iowa.” Qin also “expressed high appreciation and respect to them for their long-term commitment to promoting friendly exchanges and subnational cooperation between China and the United States.”

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At the PRC Embassy under Qin, immediately following Biden’s call with Xi, Minister Xu Xueyuan met with Sister City International (SCI)’s Chairwoman Carol Lopez and her team. According to the readout from the Embassy website:

Minister Xu briefed them on the phone call between President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. on September 10. She [Xu] said, we hope the Sister Cities International will exert its own influence to further strengthen the exchanges and cooperation between sister cities of the two countries and inject momentum to help China-U.S. relations back on track. Chairwoman Lopez said, Sister Cities International is deeply heartened by the positive message released by the phone call between the two Presidents. We would like to expand cooperation with China at the subnational and sister cities level.

At the 2021 virtual receptions celebrating PRC national day and the mid-autumn festival, the consuls general of China’s diplomatic missions in the U.S. also stressed the importance of subnational relationships.

Zhao Jian, consul general of the Chinese Consulate in Chicago, said: “Sub-national exchanges and cooperation are part and parcel of China-U.S. relations, in which the Midwest has always played an important role… History tells us that sub-national exchanges have been a source of strength and lubricant for China-U.S. relations.”

Zhang Ping, consul general of the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles, said: “California’s close connection with China is a vivid portrayal of the closely intertwined interests between China and the U.S. and defines the mutually beneficial nature of China-U.S. relations.” Zhang continued: “What impressed me deeply is that there is a solid foundation for China-U.S. sub-national exchanges and cooperation. People in general are rational and pragmatic. They aspire for China-U.S. friendship and have nice sentiments towards Chinese people. They wish to see more in-depth exchanges and cooperation between China and the U.S.”

Wang Donghua, consul general of the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, said: “Despite the downward trend of China-U.S. relations and the ravage of the pandemic across the world, the states and cities in our consular district have maintained friendly exchanges and practical cooperation with their counterparts in China.”

On October 28, Xu from the Chinese Embassy had a virtual meeting with Alabama’s secretary of state, John Merrill, during which they “had an exchange of views on China-U.S. relations and subnational exchanges and cooperation.” According to the readout from the Chinese Embassy, Xu said that “China is ready to expand exchanges with Alabama, further promote the cooperation in agriculture, new-energy vehicles, education and health, and expand mutual benefit.” The readout also summarized Merrill as saying that “Alabama looks forward to enhancing the exchanges with China and the sister state/province relationship with Hubei Province of China, and further deepen practical cooperation between the two sides in the above areas.”

On November 9, Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang held a discussion (moderated by Consul General Huang Ping of the PRC Consulate in New York) with 11 “Chinese community leaders,” including John S. Chan (whose involvement in United Front work was mentioned in an earlier article focusing on New York) in the New York area. Qin noted: “At present, Sino-U.S. relations are encountering serious difficulties. How to handle bilateral relations well is not only a matter of the future fate of the world, but also a matter of the vital interests of the survival and development of overseas Chinese in the United States.” Qin expressed his hope that “during the current critical historical period, overseas Chinese in the U.S. will think deeply about how to adapt to the new situation… strengthen unity and form a joint force… and play a bridging role to promote friendship and cooperation between the U.S. and China.”

In early November, Minister Xu Xueyuan similarly held virtual and in-person meetings with leaders of overseas Chinese organizations in the consular district. Xu encouraged the groups to “introduce the real China to more American people and mainstream society, and to enhance the friendship between China and the US.” She expressed her hope that the groups would “strengthen exchanges and cooperation among themselves, give full play to their respective advantages and influence, and unite more overseas Chinese to contribute to push Sino-U.S. relations back on the right track.” Xu also “had in-depth exchanges with them on issues related to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang.”

On November 30, Xu attended “the 40th Anniversary of Maryland-Anhui Sister Province and State Relationship Economic and Trade Cooperation Event.” Xu said: “In particular, when China-U.S. relations are going through an unprecedented ‘cold snap,’ sub-national exchanges and cooperation have acted as an anchor and propeller of our bilateral relationship.” According to the readout from the embassy: “Representatives from Maryland and Anhui expressed their strong desire to strengthen dialogue and exchanges between the two sides as well as promote sub-national cooperation and people-to-people exchanges.”

On December 8, Consul General of the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles Zhang Ping addressed a reception celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Guangzhou-L.A. Sister City Relationship. Zhang emphasized: “At this critical juncture when China and the U.S. are trying to find the right way to get along with each other in the new era, it is important that we value the role of the sister city relationships and continue our efforts to ensure our cities and our people remain engaged and friendship and goodwill upheld.”

On December 9, Xu attended the 2021 conference hosted by the Institute for China-America studies. In response to the question “what are the most immediate actions each side could take today that would improve the relationship beyond just more meetings?” posed by the moderator, Xu noted, among other actions, that “it’s also very important to revive and enhance people-to-people exchanges, which serve the fundamental interests of both the Chinese and American people.”

On December 14, Minister Jing Quan from the Chinese Embassy attended the “Kansas-Henan direct containerized soybean inaugural shipment celebration.” In his remarks, Jing praised the “impressive subnational economic and trade event” as a sign that “subnational cooperation and people-to-people exchanges provide inexhaustible impetus to the development of bilateral relations.” Jing ended by saying: “The future of our relations will be written by our people. Let us join hands and work together, under the guidance of the common understandings of the two Presidents, to promote exchanges and cooperation between China and the U.S. at all levels and in various fields.”

On December 15, Jing held a video meeting with Utah state legislators and education officials. Jing reportedly “briefed them on the recent development of China-U.S. relations.” Jing added that “China is willing to further strengthen exchanges and communication with Utah, to deepen cooperation in Chinese language education, and strengthen the relations of sister province/state.” Utah Senate President Stuart Adams reportedly noted that “Utah attaches great importance to Utah-China relations and looks forward to deepening exchanges and cooperation with China in a wide range of fields such as economy, trade and education, so as to bring the relationship to a new level.”

Most recently in mid-December, Minister Xu Xueyuan held a series of online meetings with the leaders of “major overseas Chinese organizations” in the embassy district, encouraging them to “stay united,…strengthen cooperation, …and actively participate in the journey of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

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As mentioned in a previous article, the Trump administration placed restrictions on the scope of activities of PRC diplomats in the United States. Some of those appear to have been carried over under Biden. A spokesperson for the State Department told The Diplomat in an emailed statement in August that the Department was compelled to “impose certain requirements on PRC diplomats. These include approval requirements for senior PRC diplomats to attend certain meetings and visit university campuses, and for the PRC embassy and consulates to host large cultural events outside of their mission.”

The Department did not respond to a follow-up request for information on how many such requests for approval from PRC diplomats had been received or granted. A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request seeking records of advance notifications and approval requests submitted by PRC officials to the Department of State regarding attending meetings with U.S. state, local, and educational officials was filed with the Department of State in September 2021. The Diplomat has not received any records as of publication time.

Beijing’s Attempts to Influence State-Level Legislative Measures

As explained above, PRC subnational diplomacy in the U.S. takes a variety of forms and engages with a wide range of actors, from community groups and non-profit organizations to local politicians. This series focuses on one particular aspect of such diplomacy: Beijing’s efforts to exert influence over state legislatures in the U.S. Specifically, the series will review incidents of Beijing’s involvement in U.S. state-level legislative affairs that took place from 2008 to the present, identified through open-source research and interviews conducted over the past year and a half, primarily with current and former state lawmakers across the country.

In many cases, PRC diplomats were directly involved in these efforts. Examples of specific means they have employed to exert pressure over state lawmakers and obstruct democratic processes range from entering the state capitol building to directly lobby legislators to vote against a resolution and making group visits to legislators’ offices, to demanding that lawmakers to replace a pro-Taiwan resolution with a pro-PRC one touting economic ties, asking lawmakers to rescind resolutions after they had been adopted, and visiting the staff of a lawmaker’s congressional representative and complaining about his resolution.

It’s important to note that many countries’ diplomatic posts in the U.S. have and remain active in opposing resolutions introduced at the subnational level that are critical of their governments. For example, the Japanese consulates in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Atlanta have actively resisted “comfort women” statues and local government resolutions on the issue. More recently, the Indian Consulate in Chicago vigorously opposed a Chicago City Council resolution critical of human rights violations in India. However, lawmakers interviewed for this series often spoke of PRC diplomats’ tactics as an unacceptable outlier.

Legislative measures that will be examined in upcoming articles have been coded as pro-PRC, neutral, or anti-PRC. The next part of this series will focus on neutral bills – those that relate to public health and the environment and were introduced without the intent to target the PRC or the CCP – and anti-PRC measures, resolutions that relate to “sensitive issues” like human rights violations and sovereignty, as well as one bill that sought to close Confucius Institutes. The next six articles will feature the personal experiences of current and former state lawmakers whose legislative measures Beijing opposed. The first two of these will explore the dynamics behind Beijing’s opposition to a few public health bills introduced in East Coast states and the series of events that followed, starting with Maryland.

Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series published by The Diplomat on “How China Influences Measures and Interferes in Democratic Processes of U.S. State Legislatures.”

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