How the CCP Is Embedding Itself in American Cities

Senator says China using 'sister city' initiative to groom US politicians and push propaganda

Xi Jinping (Feng Li/Getty Images)
April 19, 2023

China has embedded itself in more than 150 cities across the United States where Beijing is targeting local politicians to expand the Chinese Communist Party's espionage network, according to a Republican senator.

China has built these networks by exploiting the United States' sister city initiative, a nationwide program that teams up American communities with foreign partners to promote cultural exchange and increase diplomacy. But China, which maintains 157 of these partnerships, is using the network to groom young American political leaders, push propaganda, and embed its spy apparatus in local governments, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) told the Washington Free Beacon.

"They have used the sister city programs as a way to target local leaders in communities around the globe," Blackburn told the Free Beacon. "We know this is part of the way they use their spy network, working at the local level, so that they're building those relationships and friendships with people they deem as future leaders. They want to have that toehold with local individuals."

To combat these efforts and expose the Communist Party's propaganda machine, Blackburn and several of her Republican colleagues are pushing legislation that would give the federal government greater oversight over these sister city partnerships. The legislation, introduced in the House and Senate on Wednesday, would force the federal government to begin investigating these relationships to determine how deep the CCP's spy networks run throughout America. The legislation has broad Republican support in both chambers, and Blackburn said she is working to onboard Democratic supporters.

The legislation comes on the heels of a Justice Department investigation into a nationwide Chinese-run spy network targeting dissidents and other CCP critics. More than 42 Chinese nationals were charged in the espionage ring, which included individuals tied to China's Ministry of Public Security. A separate investigation also revealed this week resulted in charges against two Chinese government officials who were running a secret Communist Party police station in New York City. The operations shed light on China's ability to infiltrate American communities and establish clandestine CCP outposts.

While the federal government has long been on high-alert about China's spy schemes—which include hack attacks on various agencies—smaller American communities have proven to be a softer target. Local officials from small towns are feted by the Chinese government as part of these programs and fed what Blackburn termed "soft propaganda." In one of the most high-profile examples, Fang Fang, an alleged agent of China's domestic spy service, developed a years-long relationship with Rep. Eric Swalwell (D., Calif.) and helped raise money for Swalwell's campaign in 2014. The FBI warned Swalwell about Fang in 2015 after he joined the House Intelligence Committee.

"What we have to realize is that sister city programs, like Confucius Institutes, are a big part of the soft propaganda that the CCP exercises," Blackburn said, referring to a network of U.S.-based Chinese cultural centers that claim to promote diplomacy. "We also know the CCP claims soft propaganda is a big part of their initiative and push to global domination."

While sister city partnerships in America have been thriving for years, Congress has little concrete information about them, including what demands China is placing on its U.S.-based partners. Blackburn's bill, the Sister City Transparency Act, would instruct the federal investigators to launch a full-scale probe into these programs to "mitigate the risks of foreign espionage and economic coercion within sister city partnerships," according to an information document about the bill circulating among lawmakers and viewed by the Free Beacon.

"The CCP," the document says, "hides behind the veil of soft diplomacy and mutual benefit until its foreign partners exhibit political nonconformity. Thus, similar to Confucius Institutes, sister city partnerships may leave American communities vulnerable to foreign espionage and ideological coercion."

"It's embedded in the Chinese Communist Party's DNA to exploit cultural and economic partnerships," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), a supporter of the legislation. "Sister city partnerships with China require further scrutiny. This bill would push for greater transparency on the CCP's ongoing efforts to conduct influence operations upon our cities and nation."

As part of the legislation, the federal government will also seek to discern "the extent to which foreign communities could use sister city partnerships to conduct malign activities, including academic and industrial espionage."

The ultimate goal, Blackburn said, is to "make sure we don't have programs that are providing secret or sensitive info to the Chinese Communist Party."