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US-China tensions

China's 'influence operations' in US target local politics: Pompeo

Secretary of state gives politically charged speech in swing state of Wisconsin

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to state legislators in Wisconsin on Sept. 23.    © AP

NEW YORK -- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned state politicians on Wednesday to be wary of China's "influence operations" in colleges, think tanks and even local governments deep within the rural United States, in what experts say was a politically motivated move.

The top U.S. diplomat, and one of the most vocal critics of China in the Trump administration, chose an unlikely venue for a foreign policy speech, the capitol building in the U.S. swing state of Wisconsin, in front of an audience of state-level legislators.

He said two Beijing-backed organizations are under a State Department investigation for attempts to "exert influence" in American institutions, including schools, business associations, local politicians, media outlets, and Chinese diaspora groups.

In a strongly worded speech, Pompeo opened with an anecdote that he said defined the extent of China's outreach: a proposal for a pro-China resolution to Wisconsin Senate President Roger Roth from a Chinese diplomat.

"As Americans across this country were dealing with the pandemic from Wuhan, worried about their lives and livelihood, an email from Wu Ting, a consul at China's consulate in Chicago, landed in Roger's inbox...Ms. Wu stated she was 'responsible for China-Wisconsin relations.'

"The email included a draft resolution that she asked the senator to pass, in this chamber, praising China's response to the coronavirus. Let me read you a few excerpts: 'Whereas China's action has been critical to the global fight against the epidemic, and China has adopted unprecedented and rigorous measures for disease control and prevention ...'."

He said that Wu had also forwarded a separate letter from her husband, the Consul General in Chicago, to the District Director of Wisconsin Congressman Mike Gallagher arguing that there was racial discrimination against the local Chinese community over the virus.

America's righteous anger at the Chinese Communist Party over its handling of the coronavirus "has nothing to do with race," Pompeo said.

"The CCP thinks it can drown out American cries for accountability with shouts of racism. It wants to foment the kind of strife we've seen in Minneapolis, and Portland, and Kenosha," he said.

Pompeo also targeted Chinese President Xi Jinping, constantly calling him "General Secretary," Xi's local political title within the CCP, and not president, the title that is officially accorded to his office.

"Xi knows that the federal government is pushing back again the CCP's malign influence. He sees that here in the U.S., and increasingly, around the world. General Secretary Xi thinks you're the weak link," he said.

Pompeo's hawkish stance has hardened with input from State Department adviser Miles Yu, the influential Chinese-born academic-turned policy wonk who has been reported to be the architect of the Trump administration's tough policies against Beijing.

In a rare appearance at a webinar on Tuesday, Yu explained China's three "magic weapons."

Modern China's founder "Mao Zedong famously said that the Chinese Communist Party has three magic weapons. The United Front, armed struggle and party building," Yu told an audience at the The Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

The Communist Party's United Front Work Department is one of the main agencies responsible for carrying out overseas foreign influence operations.

"Now, the Chinese Communist Party has predominantly used the first one, that magic weapon, to rule Hong Kong for most of its time since 1997, that is the United Front," Yu said, noting that the department had sought to attain control over the city by influencing the business elites.

Yu's criticism of the United Front, was a forebear of Pompeo's announcement today of a federal investigation against the two groups -- the U.S.-China Friendship Association and the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification -- linked to the organization, formally known as the United Front Work Department.

Pompeo echoed Yu, saying that the United Front Work Department is "the CCP's official overseas propaganda tool," and "one of the CCP's three magic weapons."

"CCP campaigns targeting state-level officials, and local interests, have been in full swing for years, and they're increasing in intensity," Pompeo said. "We won't allow the CCP to interfere in our domestic politics."

Derek Grossman, senior analyst at the RAND Corp., said the speech "represents the latest installment of Washington's attempts to juxtapose China's influence-based approach in the name of authoritarianism with America's value-based approach to promote freedom and respect for the rule of law."

"This ideological impasse is quite severe, and is very likely to depress U.S.-China relations further, which are already at an historic nadir," Grossman said.

The U.S. has been increasingly skeptical of China's moves in the pubic sphere in recent years. In 2018, the conservative Hoover Institution published a report on the United Front titled "China's Influence & American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance."

"China's influence activities have moved beyond their traditional United Front focus on diaspora communities to target a far broader range of sectors in Western societies, ranging from think tanks, universities, and media to state, local, and national government institutions," the institute said in the report. "China seeks to promote views sympathetic to the Chinese government, policies, society, and culture; suppress alternative views; and co-opt key American players to support China's foreign policy goals and economic interests."

However, Pompeo is under criticism for what some consider is thinly veiled campaigning for Trump's reelection bid on taxpayers' expense.

He gave a televised address to the Republican National Convention from Jerusalem -- which the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from Texas, who opened an investigation against Pompeo after the speech, said "represents a kind of corruption" -- and has made public appearances in battleground states during official State Department trips, including to Texas over the weekend. And his focus is almost always a hardening stance against China.

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