Top Biden Ambassador Picks Served on Board of China-Backed Group

Caroline Kennedy and Eric Garcetti are affiliated with Beijing-partnered Asia Society

Former ambassador Caroline Kennedy and Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti (D.) / Edited from Getty Images
August 16, 2021

President Joe Biden's picks for two high-profile ambassadorships served on the board of a nonprofit group tied to Chinese propaganda organizations and several Chinese state-owned companies.

Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of former president John F. Kennedy and Biden's nominee for ambassador to Australia, served until October 2020 on the board of the Asia Society, which bills itself as the "leading force" for forging closer ties between Asia and the West. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti (D.), whom Biden tapped for ambassador to India, is on the board of directors of the Asia Society's affiliate in southern California.

If confirmed, Kennedy and Garcetti will be at the epicenter of increased diplomatic tensions between the United States, its allies, and China. The Chinese government has ramped up military exercises in the Indo-Pacific and taken a more aggressive stance against India, Australia, and other countries in the region.

The Asia Society has faced accusations in the past that it caters to Beijing. In 2017, the Asia Society's Hong Kong Center came under fire for blocking pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong from speaking at an event. Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.) called the Asia Society's actions a "disgrace" and accused the organization of "kowtowing" to Beijing.

Founded in 1956, the Asia Society is a longtime partner of the Confucius Institute, a Chinese government-backed education program that disseminates propaganda to American students. The organization was an early supporter of the Belt and Road Initiative, a Chinese government infrastructure program in developing countries that the U.S. government considers a national security threat.

In 2015, the Asia Society organized a seminar through its Confucius Classrooms to promote the Belt and Road Initiative to high school students. In 2017, Asia Society president Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister of Australia, told Chinese state-controlled TV network CGTN that he supported Belt and Road.

Several of the companies that fund Asia Society are invested heavily in Belt and Road. They include the China Investment Corporation, the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, China Merchants Bank, and the State Grid Corporation of China.

The Asia Society also has close ties to Tung Chee Hwa, the founder of the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation, which the Justice Department deems a foreign influence organization. Tung is a prominent figure in the Chinese Communist Party's united front, a network of organizations the party uses to advance its overseas interests.

Rudd hailed Tung as his "good friend" at a 2017 event to tout the Belt and Road Initiative. CIA director William Burns testified this year that when he served as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he cut ties with the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation because of its influence activities.

The Asia Society's Hong Kong Center honored Tung at a virtual gala in November. Another honoree was Mochtar Riady, an Indonesian real estate tycoon who was one of the early funders of the Asia Society's Hong Kong branch.

Riady and his son James were implicated in a 1997 investigation of Beijing’s efforts to influence the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton White House. A 1998 Senate report said that Mochtar Riady was suspected of having links to Chinese intelligence. The Riady family vehemently denied the allegation at the time. The Asia Society named one of its facilities after Riady's company, Lippo Group, in 2017. Another son of Mochtar Riady, Stephen Riady, has served on the Asia Society's board since 2019.

Other Biden administration officials have faced scrutiny over their cozy connections to China's various front groups. Kurt Campbell, who oversees the Asia portfolio for the National Security Council, served until last year on the board of two organizations with deep ties to Chinese propaganda groups. Ed Gonzalez, Biden's nominee to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement, partnered in 2014 with China's propaganda ministry. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the ambassador to the United Nations, was paid by the Confucius Institute for a speech in 2019.