The Democratic majority leader of the California state senate and officials from some of the United States's top foreign policy think tanks will speak this week at a forum organized by a group with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party.
The China Public Diplomacy Association, a group founded by China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, will host the 2021 China-U.S. Public Diplomacy Summit in Beijing on Friday. The association, which has received little attention in the West, is led by several officials at Communist Party front groups. Robert Hertzberg, the majority leader of the California Senate, is slated to speak on a panel at the summit, as are scholars from the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Wilson Center, the Asia Society, and other prominent U.S. think tanks.
The forum comes as American officials sound the alarm about Beijing's foreign influence efforts. CIA director William Burns has warned that the Chinese government has ramped up its propaganda efforts by cultivating links to educational institutions and think tanks. The China-backed Confucius Institute, which is a member of the China Public Diplomacy Association, seeks to influence American students on college campuses.
"Every think tank, every university, every lawmaker, and every corporate executive should realize that meetings like these are influence operations orchestrated by the Chinese Communist Party intended to slowly undermine America," Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the Washington Free Beacon about the summit.
Burns testified at his confirmation hearing on Feb. 24 that the Chinese government uses myriad front groups "to advance its soft power and pro-China propaganda through cultural and educational programs at U.S. academic institutions."
Burns spoke of his own experience as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which he led from 2015 until his confirmation as America’s top spy. Burns told Rubio at his confirmation hearing that he ended Carnegie's relationship with a group called the Chinese-U.S. Exchange Foundation over concerns about its influence activities.
Douglas Paal, a top China scholar from Carnegie Endowment, is listed as a panelist at the summit.
The forum will be held in person at Renmin University in Beijing and streamed live on the internet. The itinerary does not say which American speakers will attend the event in person and which will attend virtually. One panelist, Daniel Schrag, will speak on a panel via Zoom, according to a spokesman for his think tank, Harvard University's Belfer Center. The other think tanks did not respond to requests for comment.
John L. Thornton, the global co-chairman of the Asia Society and the namesake of the Brookings Institution's China Center, is scheduled as a keynote speaker at the event, as is Stephen Lakis, the president of the State Legislative Leaders Foundation. Daniel Victor of the Brookings Climate Change Initiative and Jerrold Green of the Pacific Council on International Policy are also listed as panelists. Craig Allen, the president of the U.S.-China Business Council, will also speak at the forum.
Another panelist is Robert Daly, the director of the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China. In May 2018, Rubio called on the Wilson Center to disclose that a participant in its event on China's influence efforts was a member of the United Front Work Department, a network of agencies and Chinese Communist Party apparatchiks that Beijing uses to influence Westerners.
Wang Huiyao, the controversial panelist, is scheduled to appear at the upcoming summit to discuss "subnational exchanges and economic cooperation," according to an itinerary. Hertzberg, the California lawmaker, will appear on the same panel with Wang, who is president of the Center for China and Globalization, one of China's top think tanks.
The Chinese Communist Party uses the United Front Work Department to neutralize potential sources of opposition to the party, according to a 2018 report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a congressionally mandated commission formed to study China's influence efforts. Chinese president Xi Jinping has called the department one of Communist Party's "magic weapons" and, in an Oct. 2017 speech, praised it as an "important way to ensure the success of the Party's cause."
Other forum participants on the Chinese side have ties to the Communist Party, government agencies, and influence groups affiliated with the United Front Work Department.
One panelist is Yang Xinhua, the deputy editor of china.org.cn, a news organization operated by China's main propaganda agency, the State Council Information Office, and the China International Publishing Group, a foreign-language publisher fully controlled by the Communist Party.
Gao Anming, the vice president of the China International Publishing Group, is a keynote speaker at the event, as is Zhu Guangyao, the former deputy minister of finance of China. Li Junfeng, a vice president at China's National Development and Reform Commission, the agency that sets macroeconomic policy for the Chinese government, is speaking on a panel about carbon neutrality.
Qiu Xiaoqi, the vice president of the China Public Diplomacy Association, is also one of the forum's keynote speakers.
The China Public Diplomacy Association's board of directors includes multiple officials at groups affiliated with the United Front Work Department, including the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries and the China Association for International Friendly Contact.
Beijing uses those associations and other groups to cozy up to influential Westerners to advance Chinese government interests, American officials have said. Burns said at his confirmation hearing that the Chinese government uses a "whole-of-government approach … to try and influence political, economic, and cultural developments to benefit [Chinese Communist Party] interests."
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which Rubio chairs, said in its 2018 report that the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries "performs dual roles of intelligence collection and conducting propaganda and perception management campaigns."
The Trump State Department pulled out of a conference in October 2020 that the association cosponsored with a coalition of state governors due to concerns that the group sought to "malignly influence state and local leaders."
The association is also affiliated with the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, one of the groups represented on the panel with Hertzberg and Huiyao. Hertzberg is a director of the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, which says it provides professional development to present and future state lawmakers.
Neither Hertzberg nor the foundation responded to requests for comment.
A former president of the China International Publishing Group is also a director for the Chinese Public Diplomacy Association.
The public diplomacy association's website lists other United Front Work Department and Communist Party affiliates as members. The Confucius Institute, which U.S. officials have labeled a propaganda vehicle for Beijing, is listed as a member of the association. State-controlled media agencies, such as China Daily, Xinhua News Agency, and People's Daily, are also members of the association.
Another member is the China Association of International Understanding, which also operates under the Chinese Communist Party.
It is unclear whether the China Public Diplomacy Association or its affiliates are paying the American scholars to speak at the summit.
A spokesman for the Belfer Center said its scholar, Daniel Schrag, is not being compensated for his participation.
"Dan intends to speak freely and critically on climate matters, as he would in front of any audience," said spokesman Josh Burek.
The China Public Diplomacy Association did not respond to a request for comment.