China’s influence campaign has extended to Utah, a conservative and deeply religious state in the US, where the country and its US-based advocates have built relationships with officials and lawmakers over the years. An investigation by The Associated Press has revealed that this campaign has paid off for China, with lawmakers delaying legislation and nixing resolutions that conveyed displeasure with Chinese actions. This is part of Beijing’s wider efforts to secure allies at the local level as relations with the US and its allies become increasingly acrimonious.
The Chinese campaign in Utah is seen as widespread and tailored to local communities. Beijing and pro-China advocates have appealed to lawmakers’ affiliations with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the state’s dominant religion, which has long sought to expand in China.
The campaign has raised concerns among state and federal lawmakers, drawing the scrutiny of the US Justice Department. The Chinese embassy in Washington has dismissed such concerns as being driven by “ulterior political purposes”.
US officials and security experts have warned that few nations have courted local leaders so aggressively in ways that raise national security concerns. The National Counterintelligence and Security Center issued a warning to state and local officials last year about “deceptive and coercive” Chinese influence operations. The FBI has also accused China of cultivating state and local officials to advocate on behalf of Beijing’s agenda.
Tensions between the US and China have escalated over trade, human rights, the future of Taiwan, and China’s tacit support for Russia during its invasion of Ukraine. In Utah, China-friendly lawmakers delayed legislation for a year to ban Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes at state universities.
These institutes have been described by US national security officials as propaganda instruments. The University of Utah and Southern Utah University closed their institutes by last year. China’s efforts to win friends and shape policy in the US have taken root in Utah, a state that appears to have few overt ties with China.
While the campaign has been successful, concerns have been raised about the potential national security implications of these efforts, with warnings issued by the National Counterintelligence and Security Center and the FBI. Tensions between the US and China continue to escalate, and it remains to be seen how this will affect China’s influence campaign in Utah and beyond.