The intelligence community on Wednesday warned that state and local leaders are at “risk” of being “manipulated” to support “hidden” agendas by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as China seeks to target officials outside of Washington to lobby for Beijing-friendly policies at the federal level.
The National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCTC) on Wednesday warned that as tensions between Washington and Beijing grow, China is seeking to “exploit U.S. subnational relationships to influence U.S. policies and advance PRC geopolitical interests.”
The NCTC warned that Chinese influence operations in the U.S. are to expand support for PRC interests among state and local leaders and to use those relationships to “pressure Washington for policies friendlier to Beijing.”
“The PRC understands U.S. state and local leaders enjoy a degree of independence from Washington and may seek to use them as proxies to advocate for national U.S. policies Beijing desires, including improved U.S. economic cooperation with China and reduced U.S. criticism of China’s policies towards Taiwan, Tibetans, Uyghurs, pro-democracy activists and more,” the NCTC explained.
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While the People’s Republic of China and the CCP continue to influence Washington directly, the NCTC said they are stepping up efforts to “cultivate U.S. state and local leaders” in a strategy some have described as “using the local to surround the central.”
“For the PRC and CCP, targeting state and local entities can be an effective way to pursue agendas that might be more challenging at the national level,” the NCTC said, warning that PRC influence operations “can be deceptive and coercive,” and can be “seemingly benign business opportunities or people-to-people exchanges, sometimes masking PRC political agendas.”
The NCTC also warned officials to be on the lookout for financial incentives, which may be used to hook local leaders, given their focus on local economic issues.
“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 U.S. interests,” the NCTC explained. “By their nature, these efforts can have a corrosive effect on targeted societies. They can also threaten the integrity of the U.S. policymaking process and interfere in how U.S. civil, economic and political life functions.”
The intelligence community pointed to several real-life examples of the PRC efforts, including one in 2020, when a PRC consulate contacted a state senator with a resolution that PRC officials had drafted praising China for its efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and requesting that the senator introduce the resolution for passage in the state legislature.
PRC foreign influence activities can be “overt,” such as public diplomacy, where the role of the PRC government is “open and unobscured,” according to the NCTC. But those activities can also be “covert,” where the PRC’s role is hidden. The activities can also be “coercive or even criminal in nature.”
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The intelligence community urged state and local communities engaging with China to exercise vigilance when engaging and insist on transparency in all agreements, while maintaining a connection with U.S. authorities like the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.
The warning from the intelligence community comes as FBI Director Christopher Wray on Wednesday warned that China posed the “biggest long-term threat” to the “economic and national security” of the United States and other western nations.
Wray pointed to the “complex, enduring and pervasive danger” that China poses to both nations and other Western allies.
“We consistently see that it’s the Chinese government that poses the biggest long-term threat to our economic and national security, and by ‘our,’ I mean both of our nations, along with our allies in Europe and elsewhere,” Wray said.
He added that “it is the Chinese government and the Chinese Community Party that pose the threat we’re focused on countering — not the Chinese people and certainly not Chinese immigrants in our countries — who are themselves frequently victims of the Chinese government’s lawless aggression.”
Wray warned that the Chinese government “poses an even more serious threat to Western businesses than even many sophisticated businesspeople realize,” and said the “danger” from China is “complex and growing.”
“The Chinese government is set on stealing your technology — whatever it is that makes your industry tick — and using it to undercut your business and dominate your market,” Wray said. “And they’re set on using every tool at their disposal to do it.”