Karen Bass Met With a Chinese Influence Group After Intelligence Officials Warned It Was Targeting Local Politicians

Los Angeles mayor met with the head of Beijing’s top influence outfit

Rep. Karen Bass (D., Calif.)
March 16, 2023

American intelligence officials warned last month that the Chinese Communist Party is directing its influence operations at "more pliable" local officials. That could explain why the head of Beijing’s top influence outfit just met with the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles Karen Bass.

Lin Songtian, the president of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, met with Bass, California treasurer Fiona Ma, and several pro-China think tanks during a 10-day stateside tour last month, according to Chinese state media. Lin said he had "extensive, candid, and friendly exchanges" about the "stabilization and improvement of Sino-U.S. relations."

The meeting came just weeks after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a report warning that China has adjusted its influence activities, aiming them at local and state officials because of growing bipartisan skepticism of China in Washington. "Beijing has adjusted by redoubling its efforts to build influence at the state and local level to shift U.S. policy in China’s favor because of Beijing’s belief that local officials are more pliable than their federal counterparts," the intelligence report said. The office had issued a similar warning in July 2022.

By meeting Lin, Bass flouted American intelligence officials, who have warned that Beijing uses the Chinese People’s Association to "malignly influence state and local leaders" to advance China’s "global agenda." In 2020, the United States government pulled out of a decade-old partnership to promote "subnational cooperation" with China over the Chinese People’s Association’s participation in the event.

"Whether they know it or not, the Los Angeles officials who met with Lin's delegation were the targets of a CCP influence campaign," said Michael Sobolik, a fellow in Indo-Pacific Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council.

According to Sobolik, Lin’s agenda—which included discussions of China’s Belt and Road Initiative—bears all the hallmarks of a Beijing-backed influence operation.

"Whenever Americans meet with CPAFFC-affiliated groups or other people with CCP ties, they risk advancing the Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing's interests," Sobolik told the Washington Free Beacon.

California Democrats have been a frequent target for Beijing’s influence operations, including one that may have targeted Bass and Ma. As members of the California assembly in 2009, they blocked a vote on a resolution to recognize Tibet and the Dalai Lama. Chinese diplomats had lobbied aggressively in Sacramento to block the measure.

More recently, a Chinese spy cultivated a relationship with Rep. Eric Swalwell (D., Calif.) when he served as a city councilman and later as a congressman. The spy, Fang Fang, planted a mole in Swalwell’s congressional office and also had sexual relationships with at least two mayors from the midwest. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) for years employed a suspected Chinese intelligence officer in her district office.

The Chinese People’s Association has targeted the Los Angeles mayor’s office before. Nina Hachigian, who leads the State Department’s subnational diplomacy program, met at least twice with the head of the Chinese People’s Association when she served as deputy mayor of Los Angeles to discuss cooperation "in areas such as sister city, environmental protection and youth." The director of national intelligence has said that the Chinese government "may exploit" its sister city pacts to advance its political agenda. Lin said he discussed sister city projects in his recent meetings.

The Chinese People’s Association sponsored overseas trips for California lawmaker Robert Hertzberg when he served as state senate majority leader. The trips were co-sponsored by the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, a group that organizes events for state lawmakers. The State Legislative Leaders Foundation, which until recently was partially funded by the Chinese People’s Association, facilitated Hunter Biden’s first business trip to China in 2009.

In 2015, Biden, his business partners, and the State Legislative Leaders Foundation lobbied the State Department to publicly bless a partnership between the Chinese People’s Association and the State Legislative Leaders Foundation as part of an elaborate plan to drum up business in China, the Free Beacon reported. Biden offered to provide "whatever you need" to assist the endeavor, which was ultimately successful. The Biden consortium arranged meetings to discuss the initiative with then-State Department official Evan Ryan, who now serves as President Joe Biden’s cabinet secretary. Ryan is married to Secretary of State Tony Blinken.

According to Lin, he was invited to the United States by the president of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, to meet in New York. The Ford Foundation gave $9.3 million in 2021 to Chinese organizations, including three universities that the Australian Strategic Policy Institute designates as "high risk" or "very high risk" due to their "high level[s] of defense research," the Free Beacon reported.

Lin met with other pro-China organizations, including the Asia Society, the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, and the US Heartland China Association, a pro-China trade group that recently included Biden infrastructure czar Mitch Landrieu on its board of directors.

Bass’s office did not respond to a request for comment.