SALT LAKE CITY — China’s global influence campaign has been surprisingly robust and successful in Utah, an investigation by The Associated Press has found.
The world’s most powerful communist country and its U.S.-based advocates have spent years building relationships with Utah officials.
Legislators in the deeply conservative and religious state have responded by delaying legislation Beijing didn’t like, nixing resolutions that conveyed displeasure with China‘s actions and expressing support in ways that enhanced the Chinese government’s image.
The AP’s investigation relied on dozens of interviews with key players and the review of hundreds of pages of records, text messages and emails obtained through public records’ requests.
Beijing’s success in Utah shows “how pervasive and persistent China has been in trying to influence America,” said Frank Montoya Jr., 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.”
Here are some key takeaways:
LEGISLATIVE AND PR VICTORIES
The AP review found that China and its advocates won frequent legislative and public relations victories in Utah.
Utah lawmakers recorded videos of themselves expressing words of encouragement for the citizens of Shanghai in early 2020, which experts said likely helped the Chinese Communist Party with its messaging.
The request came from a Chinese official as the government was scrambling to tamp down public fury at communist authorities for reprimanding a young doctor, who later died, over his warnings about the dangers posed by COVID-19.
Around the same time, Utah officials were thrilled when China’s authoritarian leader Xi Jinping sent a letter to fourth grade students in Utah. A Republican legislator said on the state Senate floor that he “couldn’t help but think how amazing it was” that Xi would take the time to write such a “remarkable” letter. Another GOP senator gushed on his conservative radio show that Xi’s letter “was so kind and so personal.”
The letter was heavily covered in Chinese state media, which quoted Utah students calling Xi a kind “grandpa” — a familiar trope in Chinese propaganda.
State lawmakers have frequently visited China, where they are often quoted in state-owned media in ways that support Beijing’s agenda.
“Utah is not like Washington D.C.,” then-Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, a vocal supporter of former President Donald Trump, told the Chinese state media outlet in 2018 as the former president ratcheted up pressure on China over trade. “Utah is a friend of China, an old friend with a long history.”
Utah Republican Sen. Jake Anderegg told the AP he was interviewed by the FBI after introducing a 2020 resolution expressing solidarity with China in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. It won nearly unanimous approval. A similar resolution, proposed by a Chinese diplomat, was publicly rejected by Wisconsin’s Senate.
Anderegg said the language was provided to him by Dan Stephenson, the son of a former state senator and employee of a China-based consulting firm.
Stephenson and another Utah resident, Taowen Le, are among China’s most vocal advocates in Utah.
Both men have supported and sought to block resolutions, set up meetings between Utah lawmakers and Chinese officials, accompanied legislators on trips to China and provided advice on the best way to cultivate favor with Beijing, according to emails and interviews. Both have ties to what experts say are front groups for Beijing.
After embassy officials tried unsuccessfully last year to get staff for Utah Gov. Spencer Cox to schedule a get-together with China’s ambassador to the U.S., Le sent the governor a personal plea to take such a meeting.
“I still remember and cherish what you told me at the New Year Party held at your home,” Le wrote in a letter adorned with pictures of him and Cox posing together. “You told me that you trusted me to be a good messenger and friendship builder between Utah and China.”
Both men said their advocacy on China-related issues were self directed and not at the Chinese government’s behest. Le told AP he has been interviewed twice over the years by the FBI.
The FBI declined to comment.
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.
Le, who converted to the church decades ago, has quoted scripture from the Bible and the Book of Mormon in his emails and letters to lawmakers, and sprinkled in positive comments that Russell Nelson, the church’s president-prophet, has made about China.
PART OF BROADER TREND
Beijing’s success in Utah is part of a broader trend of targeting “sub-national” governments, like states and cities, experts say.
It is not unusual for countries, including the U.S., to engage in local diplomacy. U.S. officials and security experts have stressed that many Chinese language and cultural exchanges have no hidden agendas. However, they said, few nations have so aggressively courted local leaders across the globe in ways that raise national security concerns.
In its annual threat assessment released earlier this month, the U.S. intelligence community reported that China is “redoubling” its local influence campaign in the face of stiffening resistance at the national level. Beijing believes, the report said, that “local officials are more pliable than their federal counterparts.”
Authorities in other countries, including Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, have sounded similar alarms.
A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington told the AP that China “values its relationship with Utah” and any “words and deeds that stigmatize and smear these sub-national exchanges are driven by ulterior political purposes.”
Suderman reported from Washington. AP writer Fu Ting in Washington contributed to this story.