Amid strained U.S. ties, China finds unlikely friend in Utah
Mar 27, 2023, 12:08 AM
(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — China’s 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.
An investigation by the Associated Press has found that China and its U.S.-based advocates spent years building relationships with the state’s officials and lawmakers. Those efforts have paid dividends at home and abroad, the AP found: Lawmakers delayed legislation Beijing didn’t like, nixed resolutions that conveyed displeasure with its actions and expressed support in ways that enhanced the Chinese government’s image.
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.
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.”
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.
Beijing’s campaign in Utah has raised concerns among state and federal lawmakers and drawn the attention of the Justice Department.
A state legislator told the AP he was interviewed by the FBI after introducing a resolution in 2020 expressing solidarity with China early in the coronavirus pandemic. A Utah professor who has advocated for closer ties between Washington and Beijing told the AP he’s been questioned by the FBI twice. The FBI declined to comment.
‘DECEPTIVE AND COERCIVE’
Beijing’s interest in locally focused influence campaigns is not a secret. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, said during a trip to the U.S. in 2015 that “without successful cooperation at the sub-national level it would be very difficult to achieve practical results for cooperation at the national level.”
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.”
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 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 campaigns 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.”
The National Counterintelligence and Security Center in July warned state and local officials about “deceptive and coercive” Chinese influence operations. And FBI Director Christopher Wray last year accused China of seeking to “cultivate talent early—often state and local officials—to ensure that politicians at all levels of government will be ready to take a call and advocate on behalf of Beijing’s agenda.”
Authorities in other countries, including United Kingdom, have sounded similar alarms.
Those concerns have arisen amid Chinese spy balloon was discovered and shot down in U.S. airspace.
LEGISLATIVE AND PR VICTORIES
U.S. officials have provided scant details about which states and localities the Chinese government has targeted. The AP focused its investigation on Utah because China appears to have cultivated a significant number of allies in the state and its advocates are well-known to lawmakers.
Relying 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, the AP found China won frequent legislative and public relations victories in Utah.
China-friendly lawmakers, for example, delayed action for a year to ban Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes at state universities, according to the legislation’s sponsor. The Chinese language and cultural programs have been described by U.S. national security officials as propaganda instruments. The University of Utah and Southern Utah University closed their institutes by last year.
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. He encouraged them to “become young ‘ambassadors’ for Sino-American friendship.”
Emails obtained by the AP show the Chinese Embassy and the students’ Chinese teacher coordinated the letter exchange, which resulted in heavy coverage by state-controlled media in China.
A Chinese state media outlet reported the Utah students jubilantly exclaimed: “Grandpa Xi really wrote back to me. He’s so cool!” Portraying China’s most authoritarian leader in decades as a kindly grandfather is a familiar trope in Chinese propaganda.
Xi’s letter garnered positive attention in Utah, too. A Republican legislator said on the state Senate floor that he “couldn’t help but think how amazing it was” that the Chinese leader took 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.”
Dakota Cary, a China expert at the security firm Krebs Stamos Group, said in making such comments Utah lawmakers are “essentially acting as mouthpieces for the Chinese Communist Party” and legitimizing their ideas and narratives.
“Statements like these are exactly what China’s goal is for influence campaigns,” he said.
SPY AGENCY INTEREST
China’s interest in Utah is not limited to its officials and advocates who are engaged in diplomacy, trade and education. U.S. officials have noted that China’s civilian spy agency, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), has shown an interest in Utah, court records show.
In January, former graduate student Ji Chaoqun was sentenced to eight years in prison on charges related to spying for China. The Chicago student told an undercover agent he’d been tasked by his spy handlers “to meet people, some American friends.” He was baptized at a Latter-day Saints church and told the undercover agent he’d “been going to Utah more often lately” before his arrest, according to his Facebook page and court records.
Ron Hansen, sentenced in 2019 to serve 10 years in federal prison.
Hansen was well known in Utah political circles and helped organize the first ever annual U.S.-China National Governors Forum, which was held in 2011 in Salt Lake City, according to court records and interviews. The U.S. State Department cancelled the forums in 2020 due to concerns about Chinese influence efforts.
‘UTAH IS NOT LIKE WASHINGTON D.C.’
The AP found groups of 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.
“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 Beijing over trade. “Utah is a friend of China, an old friend with a long history.”
In an interview last month with the AP, Hughes said the trips to China made him “bullish” about the country and prospects of improving trade. However, he said he now believes the visits were pretexts for Chinese officials to influence him and other lawmakers.
“It’s a trip not worth taking,” Hughes said.
Utah doesn’t require public officials to report in detail their foreign travel or personal finances, so it’s difficult to determine lawmaker’s financial ties to China. Some of Utah’s most pro-China legislators, however, have China-related personal business connections.
Sen. Curt Bramble told Courthouse News Service last year that his role as a part-time legislator and as a business consultant sometimes overlap and that he “had clients in China — a dozen at times — some of them on legislative tours, some on consulting.”
In an interview with AP, Bramble said none of his clients are based in China; they only do business there. He declined to name them.
Bramble, a Republican who represents a conservative district, also rejected fears of undue Chinese influence in Utah.
“China’s not going anywhere. China’s going to be a world force. They’re going to be a player for the foreseeable future and trying to understand what that implies for the United States or for the state of Utah and get a concept of that seems to be a valuable endeavor,” he said.
TIES FORGED BY TWO UTAH RESIDENTS
Many of the Utah-China ties have been forged by two state residents with links to the Chinese government or to organizations that experts say are alleged front groups for China, including its civilian spy agency, the AP found.
The two men advocated for and against 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.
In reviewing the AP’s findings, legal experts said the men’s connections with Chinese officials suggest that they should register with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, known as FARA. The law generally requires anyone who works on behalf of a foreign entity to influence lawmakers or public perception, but its scope is the subject of significant debate and enforcement has been uneven.
“If I were representing either of these individuals, I would have significant concerns about FARA exposure,” said Joshua Ian Rosenstein, an attorney who handles such matters.
One of the men, Taowen Le, has championed China to religious and political leaders in Utah for decades. Le, a Chinese citizen, moved to Utah in the 1980s and has been a professor of information technology at Weber State University since 1998. Le converted in 1990 to the Mormon faith.
From 2003 through 2017, Le had another job — as a paid representative of China’s Liaoning provincial government. Provincial governments are largely controlled by Beijing and Liaoning has had a longstanding “sister” relationship with Utah.
Le’s advocacy continued after he said he left Liaoning’s payroll, emails and interviews show. He has frequently forwarded messages from Chinese government officials to Utah lawmakers and helped the Chinese Embassy set up meetings with state officials.
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 the 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.”
State Senate President Stuart Adams turned to Le when Utah was scrambling to obtain large quantities of drugs that Adams thought could be used as potential treatment against the coronavirus in early 2020, emails and interviews show.
Le, who belongs to the same congregation as Adams, said in an email to another lawmaker that he was able to get the Chinese Embassy to assign two staffers to work “tirelessly” on the request until it was fulfilled.
RELIGIOUS SALES PITCH
A hallmark of Le’s approach is to utilize his religion in his pitches to lawmakers. He quoted scripture from the Bible and the Book of Mormon in his emails, text messages and letters, and sprinkled in positive comments that Russell Nelson, the church’s president-prophet, has made about China.
Chinese officials have tried to cultivate friendly ties with the church. When visiting Utah, China’s diplomats and officials often meet top church members as well as lawmakers, emails and other records show.
Expanding to China has been a top goal for the church, which plays a heavy role in Utah politics and the state’s overall identity. Many of the state’s residents lived abroad as missionaries, and several of Utah’s public schools have robust K-12 Chinese immersion programs.
While the church has historically been an outspoken advocate for religious freedom, Le sought to stop Utah lawmakers from supporting religious figures or groups discriminated against by the Chinese government.
When a Utah lawmaker sponsored a resolution in 2021 condemning China’s well-documented and brutal crackdown of its minority Muslim Uighurs, Le chastised the legislator in text messages and compared unflattering media coverage of the Chinese government to that of the church’s founder, Joseph Smith Jr.
“Pray to God and seek guidance from the Holy Spirit as you ponder about these issues instead of solely relying on those biased media reports,” Le said.
The resolution failed that year and a similar one introduced in January did not receive a hearing.
Le has served as a board member of the China Overseas Friendship Association, which has ties to the United Front Work Department — a Chinese Communist Party organization the U.S. government says engages in covert and malign foreign influence operations.
A United Front publication profiled Le in 2020 after he attended a meeting in Beijing of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a prestigious advisory body controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.
“I deeply feel the advantages of China’s system,” Le told the publication.
Le told the AP he was interviewed by the FBI in 2007 and 2018 about his Chinese government ties. He said his advocacy has always been self-directed.
“I don’t consider myself a lobbyist because I’m not a lobbyist. I’m just someone who cherishes the relationship between the U.S. and China,” Le said in an interview in his Weber State office.
Adams, the Senate president, said he feels otherwise.
“I do believe he’s lobbying,” Adams said. “He advocates very hard on China.”
LAWMAKER’S SON TURNED CHINA ADVOCATE
Another Utah resident whom lawmakers said regularly has advocated better relations with China was Dan Stephenson, the son of a former state senator and employee of a China-based consulting firm.
Emails and other records show Stephenson advised the Utah senate president on how to make a good impression with a Chinese ambassador and assisted a Chinese province in its unsuccessful efforts to build a ceramics museum in Utah.
Stephenson has promoted China in Utah for several years and has boasted of being well connected with government officials there.
“I’ve heard more than once from the mouths of Chinese government officials that China is prioritizing their relationship with Utah,” Stephenson told lawmakers at a committee hearing. That testimony came shortly after Stephenson accompanied Republican state Sen. Jake Anderegg on a trip to Shanghai and Beijing that included meetings with officials at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
A few months after that trip, Stephenson provided Anderegg with the draft language for a pro-China resolution the state senator introduced in 2020 expressing solidarity with China during the pandemic, Anderegg told the AP.
The resolution passed with near unanimous approval.
A Chinese diplomat’s efforts to win passage of a similar resolution in Wisconsin failed, with the state’s senate president publicly blasting it as a piece of propaganda.
Anderegg told the AP that he was interviewed by FBI agents seeking information about the Utah resolution’s origins.
“It seemed rather innocuous to me,” Anderegg said of his resolution. “But maybe it wasn’t.”
Stephenson said the FBI has not contacted him and no Chinese government official played a role in the resolution.
TIES TO ALLEGED FRONT GROUPS
Stephenson has links to Chinese groups allegedly active in covert foreign influence operations, documents show.
He is a partner in the Shanghai-based consulting firm Economic Bridge International. The company’s chief executive, William Wang, is a Chinese citizen and council member of the China Friendship Foundation for Peace and Development, according to an online biography. The group is affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front.
Stephenson, also once worked for the China Academy of Painting, which has been used by China’s Ministry of State Security as a front for meeting and covertly influencing elites and officials abroad, according to Alex Joske, the author of the recently published book “Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World.”
Stephenson said he worked only briefly — without pay — for the China Academy of Painting. He added he did not witness any spy agency involvement.
WORK ALIGNED WITH CHINESE GOVERNMENT’S DESIRES
Stephenson said he’s never taken any action at the direction of the Chinese government and never accepted compensation from it.
“I work to promote Utah’s economy, to help American companies succeed in China, and to encourage healthy people-to-people and commercial ties,” Stephenson said.
His work sometimes aligned with what Chinese government officials were seeking and in ways experts say likely helped the Chinese Communist Party’s messaging.
Stephenson urged Utah’s elected officials to make videos to air on Shanghai television to boost the spirits of that city’s residents early in 2020 as they battled COVID-19, according to emails obtained by AP.
“You cannot buy this type of positive publicity for Utah in China,” Stephenson said in an email pitching the videos.
The request originated with the Shanghai government, according to Stephenson’s email, and came as officials in China were scrambling to tamp down public fury at communist authorities for reprimanding a young doctor, who later died, over his repeated warnings about the disease’s dangers.
Many lawmakers recorded videos reading sample scripts Stephenson provided, and a compilation of those videos was uploaded to a Chinese social media website. The compilation ends with dozens of lawmakers in unison shouting “jiayou!”- a Chinese expression of encouragement — on the Utah House and Senate floors.
Suderman reported from Washington. AP writer Fu Ting in Washington contributed to this story.
Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.