Brookings Institution Boosts China Initiatives Linked to Board Member

John Thornton has ties to Chinese propaganda group, Belt and Road projects

Brookings chairman emeritus John L. Thornton in Beijing (VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
November 1, 2021

The namesake of the Brookings Institution's China Center chairs a company that facilitates investments in China's global infrastructure initiative and is linked to an alleged Chinese propaganda agency, facts that were not disclosed in Brookings literature on those topics.

John L. Thornton, the chairman emeritus of the Brookings board of trustees, has served since 2016 as chairman of the Silk Road Finance Corporation, a Communist Party-backed fund that develops projects for the Belt and Road Initiative, which the U.S. government considers a national security threat. He is also affiliated with China's Confucius Institutes, which Beijing allegedly uses to advance propaganda in American schools. Scholars at Brookings's John L. Thornton China Center have defended "Belt and Road" and Confucius Institutes without disclosing that Thornton serves on organizations that support the initiatives.

Brookings and other prominent think tanks in recent years have come under intense scrutiny amid concerns that they serve as shadow lobbying organizations for their corporate and foreign government donors. The Chinese government's partnerships with think tanks have especially drawn scrutiny because of Beijing's intense foreign propaganda efforts. The Washington Free Beacon reported that Brookings partnered with Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, which the FBI has investigated for spy activity. Brookings and the academy have hosted multiple forums in recent years to encourage Belt and Road projects in the Middle East.

Thornton, a former president of Goldman Sachs, has since 2004 given at least $16 million to Brookings, including $5 million to form the China Center, according to Brookings's annual reports.

Thornton's perch at Brookings and his ties to Wall Street have given him extensive access to Chinese government officials. He reportedly spent six weeks this summer meeting officials in Beijing and Xinjiang as part of unofficial backchannel diplomatic talks. Thornton reportedly consulted with the White House before he made the trip, suggesting that he had some approval from the Biden administration.

Thornton, who in 2008 was awarded China's friendship medal, in 2018 formed a consortium of Wall Street bankers to maintain dialogue with their Chinese counterparts amid escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing. Wall Street sees China as an untapped investment opportunity, while critics fear that investments in China will create national security risks and make companies beholden to the authoritarian Chinese government.

A leading transparency watchdog group says think tanks like Brookings are vulnerable to foreign overtures because of their ability to influence public policy. At least 17 Brookings scholars have joined the Biden administration. Former Brookings China fellow Rush Doshi serves as director of the National Security Council's China portfolio.

"The more prestigious you are, that means you're more of an attractive target for an international player like China, Saudi Arabia," said Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, the government affairs manager at the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog group. "The more well known you are, the more well-connected you are, the more prestigious you are, as a think tank, the more you're likely going to have these overtures and entanglements."

One intelligence analyst says that Thornton's recent visit to China, during which he met with Chinese vice premier Han Zheng, undercut U.S. policy and aided China's propaganda efforts.

"It's very problematic for a soft-on-China individual with conflicts of interest to visit China for negotiations," said Anders Corr, an intelligence analyst with the Journal of Political Risk. "Thornton did his own country a disservice while selfishly putting himself into the limelight," said Corr, who also blasted Thornton for visiting Xinjiang, where the Chinese government carries out genocide against Uyghur Muslims.

While Brookings scholars have at times criticized China for its human rights abuses, scholars with the China Center have defended the institutions linked to Thornton.

David Dollar, a senior fellow at the China Center, in a report last year urged U.S. officials to "dial down anti-China rhetoric" regarding the Belt and Road Initiative. He also called the popular criticism of Belt and Road as a debt trap for poor countries "exaggerated."

Jamie Horsley, another Brookings scholar, in an essay this year defended Confucius Institutes against allegations that they serve as espionage hubs for the Chinese government. Cheng Li, the director of the China Center, decried a growing divide between U.S.-China education exchange programs in a piece also published by the website for the China-United States Exchange Foundation, a think tank affiliated with the Communist Party. Li supports cultural exchange programs, which U.S. counterintelligence officials have said are hotbeds of Chinese espionage activity.

The China-United States Exchange Foundation has given Brookings at least $500,000 since 2005. CIA director William Burns testified this year that when he served as president of Carnegie Endowment, another Washington, D.C., think tank, he severed ties with the foundation over its influence activities.

Thornton's position at Silk Road Finance Corporation may pose an even bigger conflict of interest for Brookings.

Silk Road Finance vice chairman Shan Li in 2016 and 2017 attended forums that Thornton hosted for an exclusive group of former American government officials, Chinese officials, scholars, and business leaders. Li serves on the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a Chinese Communist Party-backed advisory group that supports Silk Road Finance. The Chinese government says the conference is an "important organ" for the Communist Party.

Former U.S. government officials, including Jon Huntsman and Janet Napolitano, attended the 2016 event, as did Commerce Department official Stefan Selig. Then-Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe (D.) attended the 2016 event. The Chinese delegation consisted of several Chinese university officials, the director at the official think tank for the People's Liberation Army, and then-Chinese ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai.

Cui has expressed gratitude to Brookings for the work the institution has done on U.S.-China relations. "I also want to thank the Brookings Institution for its long-term support for the development of the China-U.S. relationship," he said at a webinar hosted by Brookings in August 2020.

Officials with the International Monetary Fund, which monitors the success of Belt and Road projects, attended the events alongside Li. The president of the China Development Bank, one of the largest funders of Belt and Road projects, attended the 2017 forum. Silk Road Finance in 2016 partnered with the China Development Bank and other investors to build renewable power plants in Kuwait.

Li's position with Silk Road Finance is disclosed in literature for the forums, while Thornton is identified only by his position at Brookings.

Javier Solana, a distinguished fellow at Brookings, serves as international adviser for Silk Road Finance, though Brookings's biography for Solana lists numerous other affiliations. Solana "provides counsel" on research programs at Brookings and participates in policy debate.

Andrea Risotto, a Brookings spokeswoman, said that the Brookings China forums were held to bring "together stakeholders from the United States and China to foster greater understanding on pressing issues of the day and to develop pragmatic and innovative ideas on how to solve problems facing society."

Risotto also said Brookings prohibits its donors and board members from influencing its scholars' research and policy recommendations.

"Moreover, our supporters, including our Board of Trustee members, have a responsibility to safeguard the independence of the institution," Risotto told the Free Beacon.

"Our bylaws explicitly prohibit the Board or its members from determining, controlling, or influencing how research is conducted or the conclusions reached."

But Brookings has faced accusations in the past of tailoring its research and programming to the demands of its corporate and foreign donors. The New York Times reported in 2016 that Brookings promoted a project to support Lennar Corporation after the home builder donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the think tank. Brookings officials also lobbied the State Department on behalf of the Norwegian government, another major donor to the think tank.

Brookings has faced other conflict of interest allegations for its China-related activities. The Washington Post reported in 2018 that Brookings published a report sponsored by Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant that has since been blacklisted by the U.S. government. The report praised surveillance equipment used in African cities but failed to disclose that the products were Huawei's. Huawei donated $300,000 to fund the report.

UPDATE, Dec. 14, 5:50 P.M.: In a letter to the Beacon, Mr. Thornton's attorneys have stated that the Confucius Institute has no board, as reported, so Mr. Thornton did not serve on the board of that entity.  A Brookings Institute news release announcing Mr. Thornton’s appointment as Chair Emeritus of the Brookings Board of Trustees described Mr. Thornton as a "Trustee, Advisory Board Member or Member. . . of Confucius Institute Headquarters (Hanban)."  And Mr. Thornton has also previously been referred to as a "senior consultant" for the Council of Confucius Institute Headquarters.  We have corrected the reference and regret the error.