Chinese diplomats have for years worked behind the scenes to pressure state and local officials into adopting policies friendly to Beijing.
But this issue has only recently gained national attention as the Trump administration raises the alarm on the communist regime’s influence activities across the country.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned in a Sept. 23 speech at the Wisconsin state capitol that the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) covert influence operations targeting state and local politicians have been “in full swing for years” and “increasing in intensity.”
He cited one example of a Californian state senator who in 2017 sought to introduce a measure denouncing the CCP’s persecution of the spiritual group Falun Gong. The Chinese consulate in San Francisco then initiated a campaign to scuttle the resolution, writing letters of protest to the state legislature.
To Joel Anderson, the then-state lawmaker who proposed the Senate resolution, such “placating” was “outrageous” and deeply disappointing, he said in an interview with The Epoch Times’ sister media NTD. Anderson left office in 2018 and is currently running for San Diego County Board of Supervisors, a five-member county legislature.
When “people saw that one letter and a phone call had such a chilling effect on my colleagues, it begged the question why—why would they be so tied to the Chinese Consulate? Why is it so important to them not to offend, and put a blind eye to atrocities?”
Adherents of Falun Gong, a traditional meditation practice featuring slow-moving exercises and moral teachings centered around truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance, have faced brutal persecution in China since 1999. U.S.-based Falun Dafa Information Center estimates that millions have been detained and hundreds of thousands tortured. Disturbing evidence has continued to surface about the regime’s state-sanctioned practice of killing adherents and selling their organs for transplant surgery.
As a symbolic stance to commend Falun Gong practitioners’ “uncompromising courage” and condemn “any government-sanctioned persecution” against them, the resolution passed unanimously through the state’s judiciary committee on Aug. 29, 2017, but was blocked just two days later, after an unsigned letter from the Chinese Consulate reached every member of the state Senate. The U.S. House of Representatives, along with multiple state legislatures such as Minnesota, Arizona, Missouri, Illinois, and Colorado, has passed similar resolutions.
Framing the bill as “anti-China” and “anti-human,” the consulate letter claimed that it “may deeply damage the cooperative relations between the State of California and China and seriously hurt the feeling of Chinese people.”
Anderson called the letter “stunning.”
“It was very forceful. It told them that people would be held accountable who moved forward with it,” he said. A “phone chase” ensued, whereby the consulate called up senators to make sure they saw the letter, according to Anderson.
Days later, the former senator denounced the threats at a rally in front of the Chinese Consulate. He also made persistent attempts to bring the resolution to a floor vote—at least 18 times during the last week of the Senate session—in the hopes that “people would come around to their senses.”
At one point during a speech on the Senate floor, he called on his colleagues to look around the gallery, which was seated with victims and relatives who fled China due to the persecution, and appealed to them to “look in their faces.”
“It was a chilling moment,” he said. “I just thought, for people who say they care about stopping atrocities, standing up for innocent lives, for always being for the underdog, I was deeply disappointed.”
“To think that California or any U.S. legislator would be influenced or intimidated by the Chinese government is scary,” he added. “We should feel confident in our own country to call out atrocities when we see them.”
He further pointed to the hypocrisy of politicians who were “quick to call people out” for not being “woke” on social justice issues, but refrained from speaking up in the face of such atrocities.
An email inquiry to Kevin de León, then-president pro tempore for the California state Senate and now a Democratic member-elect of the Los Angeles City Council, wasn’t immediately returned.
Anderson, who hadn’t had a chance to speak with de León about the issue, had learned from several senators new to the legislature at the time that they were “acting on orders from leadership to vote against it,” he said.
“They felt pressured. They weren’t sure what was expected of them. And they weren’t confident enough to be their own person,” he said. “In hindsight, I know that they have regrets.”
The threat letter is but one facet of the Chinese regime’s influence operations over the years.
Most recently, a New York City police officer was arrested on suspicion of spying under the directives of Chinese consular officials. And in March, the Chinese consulate in Chicago emailed Wisconsin state senator Roger Roth twice, asking him to pass a resolution drafted by the consulate to praise Beijing’s leadership in containing the CCP virus outbreak.
Roth, in response, introduced a resolution laying out “point by point” how Beijing has been “lying to the world” and covered up the outbreak.
The regime has blacklisted Anderson and called him a “terrorist” over a letter he drafted to Chinese officials in 2008, urging the release of a San Diego Falun Gong practitioner detained in China. Anderson, however, vowed to continue advocating for China’s human rights whenever possible.
“This is a tipping point in history,” he said. “People of good nature … have to stand for those being persecuted. Otherwise, this world is going to fail.”