The partnerships, they say, are vehicles through which the Chinese regime expands its influence in local communities across America.
There are 157 such sister city agreements with China in the United States. Most of these are not made public and thus have not been scrutinized. But a new bill, introduced by Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) on March 11, would direct the U.S. Comptroller General to conduct a study of these partnerships to identify how the Chinese regime and other foreign governments with significant public corruption could exploit them to carry out “malign activities,” such as academic and industrial espionage.
“The opacity of sister city partnerships impedes proper oversight and could enable malign activity,” a fact sheet (pdf) released by Blackburn’s office reads.
Blackburn, in a statement, called the agreements “yet another tool in Beijing’s campaign to infiltrate our culture to achieve their economic ends.” She described one incident in which the Chinese regime used a sister-city partnership to force an unnamed local government “to abide by Chinese policies or face economic retaliation.”
The push comes amid growing calls to combat the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) malign influence activities targeting academia, businesses, and governments from local to national across the United States.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), co-sponsor of the bill, said sister-city agreements require more oversight because “Beijing has a history of conducting its malign activities by exploiting cultural and economic partnerships.”
“It’s in our national and economic security interest to better understand, and counter, China’s growing malign influence at the state and local level,” Rubio said.
Companion legislation was also introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas).
Conduit to Expand Influence
Last year, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned about these Chinese sister programs during a speech to U.S. governors, saying that CCP officials were “cultivating relations with county school board members and local politicians” through these programs.
For years, the Chinese regime has also been piggybacking off sister city agreements to drive its establishment of Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes worldwide. Billed as language and culture centers, Confucius Institutes have drawn intense scrutiny over their role in spreading Chinese propaganda and stifling academic expression across college campuses around the world.
In January 2007, Chinese state-run media Xinhua reported that 123 institutes were established in 49 countries and regions as of July 2005, a sign of China’s “soft power.” The article said that many Chinese schools, with government support, were establishing Confucius Institutes and signing language-learning agreements through sister-city programs.
China’s Ministry of Education, when announcing its global Confucius Institute development plan for 2012 to 2020, pointed out that sister-city programs should be one of the mechanisms that regional authorities “take advantage of” to establish more centers.
The regime also seeks to leverage its sister-city relationships to aid its repression of overseas dissident groups. A 2017 internal document previously reported by The Epoch Times said sister city channels should be “fully utilized” to “effectively suppress Falun Gong’s space for activities outside the country.” Falun Gong is a spiritual practice that has been brutally persecuted by the CCP for more than two decades.
Beijing has also sought to include certain CCP political narratives in sister-city agreements.
In 2019, Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, dropped its sister-city agreement with China’s capital Beijing when the latter refused to re-negotiate wording related to the “one China policy” in the agreement, according to Taiwanese media.
Beijing sees Taiwan as a part of its territory and has forced foreign governments, international organizations, and companies to adopt its “one China” principle, as a way to legitimate its territorial claim over the island. Taiwan is a de-facto independent country with its own democratically-elected officials, military, and currency.
After dropping Beijing, Prague signed a sister-city agreement with Taiwan’s capital Taipei in January 2020.
Eva Fu and Frank Fang contributed to this report.