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Amid Strained US Ties, China Finds Unlikely Friend in Utah

Amid Strained US Ties, China Finds Unlikely Friend in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — China’s global campaign to win pals and influence policy has blossomed in a stunning position: Utah, a deeply non secular and conservative state with few obtrusive ties to the arena’s maximum tough communist nation.

An investigation by way of the Related Press has discovered that China and its U.S.-based advocates spent years construction relationships with the state’s officers and lawmakers. The ones efforts have paid dividends at house and out of the country, the AP discovered: Lawmakers not on time regulation Beijing didn’t like, nixed resolutions that conveyed displeasure with its movements and expressed give a boost to in ways in which enhanced the Chinese language govt’s picture.

Its paintings in Utah is emblematic of a broader effort by way of Beijing to safe allies on the native degree as its members of the family with the U.S. and its western allies have grew to become acrimonious. U.S. officers say native leaders are vulnerable to being manipulated by way of China and feature deemed the affect marketing campaign a danger to nationwide safety.

Beijing’s luck in Utah presentations “how pervasive and protracted China has been in looking to affect The united states,” stated Frank Montoya Jr., a retired FBI counterintelligence agent who lives in Utah.

“Utah is crucial foothold,” he stated. “If the Chinese language can achieve Salt Lake Town, they may be able to additionally make it in New York and in different places.”

Political Cartoons (China-US)

Safety professionals say that China’s marketing campaign is in style and adapted 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 referred to as the Mormon church, which is the state’s dominant faith and one who has lengthy dreamed of expanding 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 instructed the AP he used to be interviewed by way of the FBI after introducing a answer in 2020 expressing team spirit with China early within the coronavirus pandemic. A Utah professor who has advocated for nearer ties between Washington and Beijing instructed the AP he’s been wondered by way of the FBI two times. The FBI declined to remark.

Beijing’s hobby in in the neighborhood targeted affect campaigns isn’t a secret. China’s chief, Xi Jinping, stated during a trip to the U.S. in 2015 that “with out a success cooperation on the sub-national degree it will be very tricky to reach sensible effects for cooperation on the nationwide degree.”

A spokesman for the Chinese language embassy in Washington instructed the AP that China “values its dating with Utah” and any “phrases and deeds that stigmatize and smear those sub-national exchanges are pushed by way of ulterior political functions.”

It isn’t peculiar for nations, together with the U.S., to have interaction in native international relations. U.S. officers and safety professionals have stressed out that many Chinese language language and cultural exchanges haven’t any hidden agendas. On the other hand, they stated, few countries have so aggressively courted native leaders in ways in which carry nationwide safety considerations.

In its annual threat assessment launched previous this month, the U.S. intelligence neighborhood reported that China is “redoubling” its native affect campaigns within the face of stiffening resistance on the nationwide degree. Beijing believes, the document stated, that “native officers are extra pliable than their federal opposite numbers.”

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 ultimate yr accused China of in the hunt for to “domesticate ability early—ceaselessly state and native officers—to make certain that politicians in any respect ranges of presidency will likely be in a position to take a decision and recommend on behalf of Beijing’s schedule.”

The ones considerations have arisen amid escalating disputes between the U.S. and China over business, human rights, the way forward for Taiwan and China’s tacit give a boost to for Russia all through its invasion of Ukraine. Tensions worsened ultimate month when a suspected Chinese spy balloon used to be came upon and shot down in U.S. airspace.


U.S. officers have supplied scant information about which states and localities the Chinese language govt has centered. The AP targeted its investigation on Utah as a result of China seems to have cultivated a vital selection of allies within the state and its advocates are well known to lawmakers.

Depending on dozens of interviews with key gamers and the evaluation of masses of pages of information, textual content messages and emails received via public information’ requests, the AP discovered China received common legislative and public members of the family victories in Utah.

China-friendly lawmakers, for instance, not on time motion for a yr to prohibit Chinese language-funded Confucius Institutes at state universities, in step with the regulation’s sponsor. The Chinese language language and cultural techniques had been described by way of U.S. nationwide safety officers as propaganda tools. The College of Utah and Southern Utah College closed their institutes by way of ultimate yr.

In 2020, China scored an image-boosting coup when Xi despatched a word to a category of Utah fourth-graders thanking them for playing cards they’d despatched wishing him a contented Chinese language New Yr. He inspired them to “grow to be younger ‘ambassadors’ for Sino-American friendship.”

Emails received by way of the AP display the Chinese language Embassy and the scholars’ Chinese language instructor coordinated the letter change, which led to heavy protection by way of state-controlled media in China.

A Chinese language state media outlet reported the Utah scholars jubilantly exclaimed: “Grandpa Xi in reality wrote again to me. He’s so cool!” Portraying China’s maximum authoritarian chief in many years as a kindly grandfather is a well-recognized trope in Chinese language propaganda.

Xi’s letter garnered certain consideration in Utah, too. A Republican legislator stated at the state Senate floor that he “couldn’t assist however assume how superb it used to be” that the Chinese language chief took the time to jot down one of these “outstanding” letter. Every other GOP senator gushed on his conservative radio show that Xi’s letter “used to be so sort and so private.”

Dakota Cary, a China skilled on the safety company Krebs Stamos Team, stated in making such feedback Utah lawmakers are “necessarily appearing as mouthpieces for the Chinese language Communist Celebration” and legitimizing their concepts and narratives.

“Statements like those are precisely what China’s purpose is for affect campaigns,” he stated.

China’s hobby in Utah isn’t restricted to its officers and advocates who’re engaged in international relations, business and schooling. U.S. officers have famous that China’s civilian secret agent company, the Ministry of State Safety (MSS), has proven an hobby in Utah, court docket information display.

In January, former graduate pupil Ji Chaoqun used to be sentenced to 8 years in jail on fees associated with spying for China. The Chicago pupil instructed an secret agent he’d been tasked by way of his secret agent handlers “to fulfill humans, some American pals.” He used to be baptized at a Latter-day Saints church and instructed the secret agent he’d “been going to Utah extra ceaselessly in recent times” prior to his arrest, in step with his Fb web page and court docket information.

Ron Hansen, a former U.S. intelligence official from Utah, pleaded responsible to looking to promote labeled data to China. Hansen stated China’s secret agent provider had tasked him with assessing more than a few U.S. politicians’ perspectives in opposition to China. The FBI discovered the names of Utah elected officers amongst delicate information he saved on his pc, court docket information display. Hansen used to be sentenced in 2019 to serve 10 years in federal jail.

Hansen used to be widely recognized in Utah political circles and helped arrange the primary ever annual U.S.-China Nationwide Governors Discussion board, which used to be held in 2011 in Salt Lake Town, in step with court docket information and interviews. The U.S. State Division cancelled the boards in 2020 because of considerations about Chinese language affect efforts.


The AP discovered teams of as much as 25 Utah lawmakers robotically took journeys to China each different yr since 2007. Lawmakers have in part used marketing campaign donations to pay for the business missions and cultural exchanges, whilst depending on China and host organizations to pay for different bills.

At the journeys, they’ve solid relationships with govt officers and had been quoted in Chinese language state-owned media in ways in which give a boost to Beijing’s schedule.

“Utah isn’t like Washington D.C.,” then Utah Space Speaker Greg Hughes, a vocal supporter of former President Donald Trump, instructed the Chinese language state media outlet in 2018 as the previous president ratcheted up power on Beijing over business. “Utah is a chum of China, an previous buddy with a protracted historical past.”

In an interview ultimate month with the AP, Hughes stated the journeys to China made him “bullish” in regards to the nation and possibilities of making improvements to business. On the other hand, he stated he now believes the visits had been pretexts for Chinese language officers to persuade him and different lawmakers.

“It’s a travel no longer value taking,” Hughes stated.

Utah doesn’t require public officers to document intimately their international commute or private budget, so it’s tricky to resolve lawmaker’s monetary ties to China. A few of Utah’s maximum pro-China legislators, then again, have China-related private industry connections.

Sen. Curt Bramble instructed Courthouse News Service ultimate yr that his position as a part-time legislator and as a industry marketing consultant every so often overlap and that he “had purchasers in China — a dozen every now and then — a few of them on legislative excursions, some on consulting.”

In an interview with AP, Bramble stated none of his purchasers are founded in China; they just do industry 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 no longer going anyplace. China’s going to be an international pressure. They’re going to be a participant for the foreseeable long run and looking to perceive what that means for america or for the state of Utah and get an idea of that appears to be a treasured undertaking,” he stated.


Lots of the Utah-China ties had been solid by way of two state citizens with hyperlinks to the Chinese language govt or to organizations that professionals say are alleged entrance teams for China, together with its civilian secret agent company, the AP discovered.

The 2 males advocated for and in opposition to resolutions, arrange conferences between Utah lawmakers and Chinese language officers, accompanied legislators on journeys to China and supplied recommendation on one of the simplest ways to domesticate prefer with Beijing, in step with emails and interviews.

In reviewing the AP’s findings, felony professionals stated the lads’s connections with Chinese language officers recommend that they must sign in with the Justice Division below the Overseas Brokers Registration Act, referred to as FARA. The regulation most often calls for any individual who works on behalf of a international entity to persuade lawmakers or public belief, however its scope is the subject of significant debate and enforcement has been asymmetric.

“If I had been representing both of those folks, I might have vital considerations about FARA publicity,” stated Joshua Ian Rosenstein, an legal professional who handles such issues.

Probably the most 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 Eighties and has been a professor of data era at Weber State College since 1998. Le transformed in 1990 to the Mormon religion.

From 2003 via 2017, Le had some other activity — as a paid consultant of China’s Liaoning provincial govt. Provincial governments are in large part managed by way of Beijing and Liaoning has had a longstanding “sister” dating with Utah.

Le’s advocacy persisted after he stated he left Liaoning’s payroll, emails and interviews display. He has ceaselessly forwarded messages from Chinese language govt officers to Utah lawmakers and helped the Chinese language Embassy arrange conferences with state officers.

After embassy officers attempted unsuccessfully ultimate yr to get team of workers for Utah Gov. Spencer Cox to time table a get-together with China’s ambassador to the U.S., Le despatched the governor a private plea to take the assembly.

“I nonetheless take note and cherish what you instructed me on the New Yr Celebration held at your house,” Le wrote in a letter decorated with footage of him and Cox posing collectively. “You instructed me that you simply depended on me to be a excellent messenger and friendship builder between Utah and China.”

State Senate President Stuart Adams grew to become to Le when Utah used to be scrambling to acquire huge amounts of gear that Adams concept may well be used as possible remedy in opposition to the coronavirus in early 2020, emails and interviews display.

Le, who belongs to the similar congregation as Adams, stated in an e mail to some other lawmaker that he used to be in a position to get the Chinese language Embassy to assign two staffers to paintings “tirelessly” at the request till it used to be fulfilled.

An indicator of Le’s method is to make use 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 certain feedback that Russell Nelson, the church’s president-prophet, has made about China.

Chinese language officers have attempted to domesticate pleasant ties with the church. When visiting Utah, China’s diplomats and officers ceaselessly meet best church individuals in addition to lawmakers, emails and different information display.

Increasing to China has been a best purpose for the church, which performs a heavy position in Utah politics and the state’s total identification. Lots of the state’s citizens lived out of the country as missionaries, and several other of Utah’s public colleges have powerful Okay-12 Chinese language immersion techniques.

Whilst the church has traditionally been an outspoken recommend for non secular freedom, Le sought to prevent Utah lawmakers from supporting non secular figures or teams discriminated in opposition to by way of the Chinese language govt.

When a Utah lawmaker subsidized a answer in 2021 condemning China’s well-documented and brutal crackdown of its minority Muslim Uighurs, Le chastised the legislator in textual content messages and when put next unflattering media protection of the Chinese language govt to that of the church’s founder, Joseph Smith Jr.

“Pray to God and search steering from the Holy Spirit as you contemplate about those problems as an alternative of only depending on the ones biased media stories,” Le stated.

The answer failed that yr and a equivalent one presented in January didn’t obtain a listening to.

Le has served as a board member of the China In a foreign country Friendsend Affiliation, which has ties to the United Entrance Paintings Division — a Chinese language Communist Celebration group the U.S. govt says engages in covert and malign international affect operations.

A United Entrance newsletter profiled Le in 2020 after he attended a gathering in Beijing of the Chinese language Folks’s Political Consultative Convention, a prestigious advisory frame managed by way of the Chinese language Communist Celebration.

Le instructed the AP he used to be interviewed by way of the FBI in 2007 and 2018 about his Chinese language govt ties. He stated his advocacy has all the time been self-directed.

“I don’t imagine myself a lobbyist as a result of I’m no longer a lobbyist. I’m simply anyone who cherishes the connection between the U.S. and China,” Le stated in an interview in his Weber State place of job.

Adams, the Senate president, stated he feels in a different way.

“I do consider he’s lobbying,” Adams stated. “He advocates very onerous on China.”


Every other Utah resident whom lawmakers stated ceaselessly has advocated higher members of the family with China used to be Dan Stephenson, the son of a former state senator and worker of a China-based consulting company.

Emails and different information display Stephenson instructed the Utah senate president on easy methods to make a excellent impact 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 neatly attached with govt officers there.

“I’ve heard greater than as soon as from the mouths of Chinese language govt officers that China is prioritizing their dating with Utah,” Stephenson instructed lawmakers at a committee listening to. That testimony got here in a while after Stephenson accompanied Republican state Sen. Jake Anderegg on a travel to Shanghai and Beijing that integrated conferences with officers at China’s Ministry of Overseas Affairs.

A couple of months after that travel, Stephenson supplied Anderegg with the draft language for a pro-China answer the state senator presented in 2020 expressing team spirit with China all through the pandemic, Anderegg instructed the AP.

The answer handed with close to unanimous approval.

A Chinese language diplomat’s efforts to win passage of a equivalent resolution in Wisconsin failed, with the state’s senate president publicly blasting it as a work of propaganda.

Anderegg instructed the AP that he used to be interviewed by way of FBI brokers in the hunt for details about the Utah answer’s origins.

“It appeared moderately harmless to me,” Anderegg stated of his answer. “However perhaps it wasn’t.”

Stephenson stated the FBI has no longer contacted him and no Chinese language govt authentic performed a task within the answer.


Stephenson has hyperlinks to Chinese language teams allegedly lively in covert international affect operations, paperwork display.

He’s a spouse within the Shanghai-based consulting company Financial Bridge World. The corporate’s leader govt, William Wang, is a Chinese language citizen and council member of the China Friendsend Basis for Peace and Building, in step with an internet biography. The gang is affiliated with the Chinese language Communist Celebration’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 out of the country, in step with Alex Joske, the writer of the lately revealed ebook “Spies and Lies: How China’s Largest Covert Operations Fooled the Global.”

Stephenson stated he labored most effective in brief — with out pay — for the China Academy of Portray. He added he didn’t witness any secret agent company involvement.


Stephenson stated he’s by no means taken any motion on the course of the Chinese language govt and not authorised reimbursement from it.

“I paintings to advertise Utah’s financial system, to assist American firms achieve China, and to inspire wholesome people-to-people and business ties,” Stephenson stated.

His paintings every so often aligned with what Chinese language govt officers had been in the hunt for and in tactics professionals say most probably helped the Chinese language Communist Celebration’s messaging.

Stephenson instructed Utah’s elected officers to make movies to air on Shanghai tv to spice up the spirits of that town’s citizens early in 2020 as they battled COVID-19, in step with emails received by way of AP.

“You can’t purchase this kind of certain exposure for Utah in China,” Stephenson stated in an e mail pitching the movies.

The request originated with the Shanghai govt, in step with Stephenson’s e mail, and got here as officers in China were scrambling to tamp down public fury at communist government for reprimanding a tender physician, who later died, over his repeated warnings in regards to the illness’s risks.

Many lawmakers recorded movies studying pattern scripts Stephenson supplied, and a compilation of the ones movies used to be uploaded to a Chinese language social media website online. The compilation ends with dozens of lawmakers in unison shouting “jiayou!”- a Chinese language expression of encouragement — at the Utah Space and Senate flooring.

Suderman reported from Washington. AP author Fu Ting in Washington contributed to this tale.

Touch AP’s international investigative crew at Investigative@ap.org.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This subject matter will not be revealed, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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