California governor Gavin Newsom made headlines when, after returning from climate change talks in China, he rushed a cleanup of San Francisco in advance of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s stateside visit. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg on the emerging climate partnership between Sacramento and Beijing.
The hub of that relationship is the California-China Climate Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in 2019 by former California Gov. Jerry Brown (D.), the California-China Climate Institute partners with several Chinese Communist Party front groups to foster climate collaboration between California and China. Brown leads the group, which helped organize Newsom’s October junket, alongside Xie Zhenhua, China’s special representative for climate change affairs. Newsom formalized the institute’s status as a state-sponsored group in 2021 when he signed a law requiring it to work with Chinese institutions to train California government leaders on climate issues.
The California-China Climate Institute’s partners include Tsinghua University, which the Australian Strategic Policy Institute deemed a "very high risk" institution for its alleged role in supporting cyberattacks, including a 2018 attempt to hack American energy companies and the government of Alaska.
The institute also collaborates with the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, a group Beijing uses to "malignly influence state and local leaders" to advance China’s "global agenda," the State Department warned in 2020. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence also issued reports in February 2023 and July 2022 saying that China is focusing its influence operations at the state and local level because Beijing believes local officials "are more pliable than their federal counterparts."
California has proved a breeding ground for sympathetic progressive politicians willing to cozy up to China. The Chinese People’s Association, which worked with the California-China Climate Institute to organize Newsom’s trip, praised California for facilitating "close personnel exchanges and fruitful cooperation" with China and serving at the "forefront" of U.S.-China relations.
"California is a known hub of CCP influence operations. It’s a place with a large mainland population and is the center of our innovation in Silicon Valley," said Mary Kissel, a national security expert who served as an adviser to former secretary of state Mike Pompeo. "It’s a tried and true strategy of the CCP, if they are not getting what they want on a federal level," they’ll cultivate advocates and business opportunities at the state level, Kissel told the Washington Free Beacon.
Anders Corr, an intelligence analyst and the publisher of the Journal of Political Risk, said Newsom was foolish to fall into China’s climate trap.
"China is in pole position to sell EVs and solar panels, so wants to encourage those sales to anyone, including most especially Americans, who in the process of greening our economy would then destroy our own auto and hydrocarbon industries," Corr told the Free Beacon. "Beijing seeks to compromise politically prominent individuals such as Newsom, enhance its own image as a normal state power, and disaggregate Washington's bargaining power. Newsom is falling into all of these traps."
But the California-China Climate Institute said it had no choice but to partner with China to avert a climate catastrophe.
"The Institute was established to help avert catastrophe by confronting the climate crisis—one of the existential threats to our time," a spokesperson for the institute told the Free Beacon. "The only path to success is for California, the US, and China, the world’s largest emitter, to all drastically reduce harmful climate pollution. Our focus is on helping ensure that happens by sharing research and solutions and encouraging dialogue."
Though relations between the United States and China are strained at the federal level, the Biden administration has caught flak for maintaining green energy partnerships with China while staying mum on Beijing’s human rights abuses. Newsom notably did not take the opportunity to discuss China’s human rights abuses against the Uyghurs when face-to-face with Xi, instead focusing the conversation on climate.
Other prominent progressive California politicians who have collaborated with China include Brown, who in 2017 told Xi that California should "actively participate" in Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative.
Los Angeles mayor Karen Bass, a Democrat, and California treasurer Fiona Ma also met with the Chinese People’s Association in February and held "extensive, candid, and friendly exchanges" about the "stabilization and improvement of Sino-U.S. relations."
Former California State Assembly speaker Robert Hertzberg has also met with Chinese People’s Association leaders in Beijing, the Free Beacon reported. Hertzberg serves as a director of the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, which facilitated Hunter Biden’s first trip to China in 2010.
Newsom’s office did not respond to a request for comment.