China’s Sister City Influence Program

Forging Relationships Between Main Street and the Communist Party

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Apart from actual spying and espionage, the people’s Republic of China (PRC) exploits the basic freedoms and openness of democratic societies. Societies such as the US, to infiltrate and influence the political process, media, and academia. These influence operations are often designed to convince Americans to petition their government on behalf of the PRC. One example would be when Chinese Commerce Ministry spokesperson Gao Feng directly implored U.S. companies to “do more to lobby the US government and work hard to safeguard their own interests.” Investigations have discovered that most of the former US officials who have lobbied on behalf of PRC had business ties with China.

Some of China’s influence is very subtle. An example being where other countries have bilateral chambers of commerce like in the US, independent of government. The global network of Chinese chambers of commerce is operated by the Communist Party of China. This is overseen by United Front Work (UFW), the influence arm of the CCP. It is a tangled web of place-holder companies.

The China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF) is a China government organization which extends funding to US institutions. This includes Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Tung Chee Hwa, Chairman of CUSEF is a former vice chairman of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). That is an arm of United Front Work. Through all of these various acronyms and organizations, the Communist party of China monitors and controls the activities of Chinese students on US campuses. They often require them to assist in intelligence gathering. The CPC can also influence or control US institutions by threatening to cut-off funding.

Attack the Weakest Link

While Hollywood movies present stories of spies and influence operations at the highest levels of government, the reality is that China conducts influence operations at all levels of government and civic life. They use government employees, low-level politicians, governors, mayors and even local school boards. US mayors and politicians are regularly given free trips to China, where Beijing subtly or not so subtly sways them. The CCP’s International [Liaison] Department scouts, locates, and recruits US politicians for visits to China.

In July 2018, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was visiting Hong Kong when he declared that his city was independent of the Sino-US trade war. He stated that Los Angeles and China “have closely integrated economies, closely integrated cultures and closely integrated geography…We hope to be the leading Chinese city in America for investment, tourism and students.” 

Sister Cities with the PRC

Another, seemingly non-threatening, low-level tool of influence is the “sister city” relationship. Since 1979, when the US and the PRC established diplomatic ties, there have been sister-city agreements. US and Chinese cities were meant to share cultural exchange. According to Xinhua, Chinese state media, 277 pairs of sister relationships exist between China and the US, including sister cities, “sister counties, ports and schools.” US Secretary of State Pompeo has warned that these sister city relationships represent one more avenue for the Communist Party of China to influence US politicians and citizens.

Beijing refers to these programs as “Citizen diplomacy.” The organization which oversees the relationships is The Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC). It claims to be a nongovernmental organization (NGO). China, however, only has GNGOs governmental non-governmental organizations. Consequently, the association is funded and overseen by the Chinese government. High ranking Party officials sit on the administrative board and the organization is under China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Chinese government internal documents explain how the sister cities play a role in the overall influence strategy of the Communist party. “In a 2017 Party document, titled ‘Working Points of the Henan Provincial Party Committee’s Leading Group for Preventing and Handling Heretical Teachings,’ a section is devoted to the role of friendship cities.” The document goes on to explain how the sister city program should be used to suppress activism for the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. “(We must) fully utilize the channels of friendship cities, improve the quality of the work of friendship cities, and effectively suppress Falun Gong’s space for activities outside the country.”

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“(We must) fully utilize the channels of friendship cities, improve the quality of the work of friendship cities, and effectively suppress Falun Gong’s space for activities outside the country,”

Chinese Communist Party Document, 2017,  “Working Points of the Henan Provincial Party Committee’s Leading Group for Preventing and Handling Heretical Teachings”

In 2019, the 4th US -China Sister Cities Mayors’ Summit was held, in the US. On the agenda was a presentation titled, “Maritime Silk Road and Impact.” The US is not a member of the Belt and Road Initiative or the Maritime Silk Road. Clearly this presentation was meant to portray the Maritime Silk Road in a positive light, in order to encourage Mayors to join.

Going After States and Provinces Not Countries

As was the case with the Australian State of Victoria. Australia is not a member of the Belt and Road Initiative. Still the Chinese government was able to convince Victoria to sign up. This caused a tremendous row in the Australian government, as the debate between states’ rights and Federal authority raged. The same could easily happen in the US, where states generally have more autonomy than in other federal republics.

Another agenda item was “Energizing Sister Cities Relationships between US and China: Case studies on successful partnerships, documenting impacts on local communities; best practices; how to overcome challenges, and potential areas for strategic growth. Self-Introduction of Cities seeking new sister cities relationships.” This at once seems like a positive propaganda ploy, extolling the benefits of having a sister-city relationship, while also paving the way for an increase in the number of relationships by introducing other cities who would like to join the program.

One-China Cities

Sister city agreements often require cities to recognize the one-China policy, which means they cannot have official relations with Taiwan. In fact, the agreement signed between Beijing and Prague actually had a clause, which read “Supporting One-China Policy, Taiwan belongs to China.” After a dispute about its relationship with Taiwan, Prague decided to end its sister city relationship with Beijing. In retaliation, China ended the Friendship City agreement, ceased direct flights between the two cities, and cancelled its sponsorship of the Prague football club.

Mayberry PRC

The sister city program between the PRC and the US is presented as a benign, cultural and friendship, people-to-people exchange. It is supposedly directed at peace and understanding. In reality, it is one more way of connecting Main Street with the Communist Party of China. Speaking truths about it gets you removed from participation. Telling.

Antonio Graceffo
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