China’s global campaign to win friends and influence policy has blossomed in a surprising place: Utah, a deeply religious and conservative state with few obvious ties to the world’s most powerful communist country.
The Chinese Communist Party has made significant inroads into U.S. institutions from the highest reaches of the federal government down to the smallest branches of local government.
The Chinese strategy to cultivate U.S. state and local leaders has been described by some analysts as “using the local to surround the central.”
China’s operations have been so widespread that they even targeted an elementary school in Utah.
After Chinese Communist leader Xi Jinping sent a letter to a Utah school, fourth-graders wrote back letters to Chinese Communist leader Xi Jinping filled with effusive praise.
“In 2020, China scored an image-boosting coup when Xi sent a note to a class of Utah fourth-graders thanking them for cards they’d sent wishing him a happy Chinese New Year,” the AP reported. Xi encouraged them to “become young ‘ambassadors’ for Sino-American friendship.”
The Chinese Embassy and the students’ Chinese teacher coordinated the letter exchange, emails show. The students’ letters praising Xi received heavy coverage by state-controlled media in China.
A Chinese state media outlet reported the Utah students gushed: “Grandpa Xi really wrote back to me. He’s so cool!”
Part of the letter below:
The Chinese dictator’s letter was even praised in Utah. A Republican legislator said on the state Senate floor that he “couldn’t help but think how amazing it was” that Xi Jinping had written Utah students the “remarkable” letter. Another GOP senator gushed on his conservative radio show that Xi’s letter “was so kind and so personal.”
Dakota Cary, a China expert at the security firm Krebs Stamos Group, said that Utah lawmakers were essentially acting as “mouthpieces for the Chinese Communist Party” by pushing the CCP’s preferred narratives.
“Statements like these are exactly what China’s goal is for influence campaigns,” he said.
Its work in Utah is emblematic of a broader effort by Beijing to secure allies at the local level as its relations with the U.S. and its western allies have turned acrimonious. U.S. officials say local leaders are at risk of being manipulated by China and have deemed the influence campaign a threat to national security.
The AP focused its investigation on Utah in part because China “appears to have cultivated a significant number of allies in the state and its advocates are well-known to lawmakers,” the report said.
Up to 25 Utah lawmakers routinely took trips to China every other year since 2007. Lawmakers have partially used campaign donations to pay for the trade missions and cultural exchanges, while relying on China and host organizations to pay for other expenses.
On the trips, they’ve forged relationships with government officials and were quoted in Chinese state-owned media in ways that support Beijing’s agenda.