LOCAL NEWS

Key takeaways from AP’s report on China’s influence in Utah

Mar 27, 2023, 6:37 AM | Updated: Apr 1, 2023, 1:23 pm

In a letter photographed Feb. 13, 2022, Utah professor Taowen Le sent a letter to Utah Gov. Spencer...

In a letter photographed Feb. 13, 2022, Utah professor Taowen Le sent a letter to Utah Gov. Spencer Cox in 2022 urging him to meet with a Chinese ambassador. Le is among China's most vocal advocates in the state. An investigation found that China’s global influence campaign has been surprisingly robust and successful in Utah. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

(AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — China’s global influence campaign has been surprisingly robust and successful in Utah, an investigation by The Associated Press has found.

The world’s most powerful communist country and its U.S.-based advocates have spent years building relationships with Utah officials.

Legislators in the deeply conservative and religious state have responded by delaying legislation Beijing didn’t like, nixing resolutions that conveyed displeasure with China’s actions and expressing support in ways that enhanced the Chinese government’s image.

The AP’s investigation relied on dozens of interviews with key players and the review of hundreds of pages of records, text messages and emails obtained through public records’ requests.

Beijing’s success in Utah shows “how pervasive and persistent China has been in trying to influence America,” said Frank Montoya Jr., a retired FBI counterintelligence agent who lives in Utah.

“Utah is an important foothold,” he said. “If the Chinese can succeed in Salt Lake City, they can also make it in New York and elsewhere.”

Here are some key takeaways:

LEGISLATIVE AND PR VICTORIES

The AP review found that China and its advocates won frequent legislative and public relations victories in Utah.

Utah lawmakers recorded videos of themselves expressing words of encouragement for the citizens of Shanghai in early 2020, which experts said likely helped the Chinese Communist Party with its messaging.

The request came from a Chinese official as the government was scrambling to tamp down public fury at communist authorities for reprimanding a young doctor, who later died, over his warnings about the dangers posed by COVID-19.

Around the same time, Utah officials were thrilled when China’s authoritarian leader Xi Jinping sent a letter to fourth grade students in Utah. A Republican legislator said on the state Senate floor that he “couldn’t help but think how amazing it was” that Xi would take the time to write such a “remarkable” letter. Another GOP senator gushed on his conservative radio show that Xi’s letter “was so kind and so personal.”

The letter was heavily covered in Chinese state media, which quoted Utah students calling Xi a kind “grandpa” — a familiar trope in Chinese propaganda.

State lawmakers have frequently visited China, where they are often quoted in state-owned media in ways that support Beijing’s agenda.

“Utah is not like Washington D.C.,” then-Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, a vocal supporter of former President Donald Trump, told the Chinese state media outlet in 2018 as the former president ratcheted up pressure on China over trade. “Utah is a friend of China, an old friend with a long history.”

FBI SCRUTINY

Utah Republican Sen. Jake Anderegg told the AP he was interviewed by the FBI after introducing a 2020 resolution expressing solidarity with China in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. It won nearly unanimous approval. A similar resolution, proposed by a Chinese diplomat, was publicly rejected by Wisconsin’s Senate.

Anderegg said the language was provided to him by Dan Stephenson, the son of a former state senator and employee of a China-based consulting firm.

Stephenson and another Utah resident, Taowen Le, are among China’s most vocal advocates in Utah.

Both men have supported and sought to block resolutions, set up meetings between Utah lawmakers and Chinese officials, accompanied legislators on trips to China and provided advice on the best way to cultivate favor with Beijing, according to emails and interviews. Both have ties to what experts say are front groups for Beijing.

After embassy officials tried unsuccessfully last year to get staff for Utah Gov. Spencer Cox to schedule a get-together with China’s ambassador to the U.S., Le sent the governor a personal plea to take such a meeting.

“I still remember and cherish what you told me at the New Year Party held at your home,” Le wrote in a letter adorned with pictures of him and Cox posing together. “You told me that you trusted me to be a good messenger and friendship builder between Utah and China.”

Both men said their advocacy on China-related issues were self directed and not at the Chinese government’s behest. Le told AP he has been interviewed twice over the years by the FBI.

The FBI declined to comment.

TAILORED APPROACH

Security experts say that China’s campaign is widespread and tailored to local communities. In Utah, the AP found, Beijing and pro-China advocates appealed to lawmakers’ affiliations with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, better known as the Mormon church, which is the state’s dominant religion and one that has long dreamed of expanding in China.

Le, who converted to the church decades ago, has quoted scripture from the Bible and the Book of Mormon in his emails and letters to lawmakers, and sprinkled in positive comments that Russell Nelson, the church’s president-prophet, has made about China.

PART OF BROADER TREND

Beijing’s success in Utah is part of a broader trend of targeting “sub-national” governments, like states and cities, experts say.

It is not unusual for countries, including the U.S., to engage in local diplomacy. U.S. officials and security experts have stressed that many Chinese language and cultural exchanges have no hidden agendas. However, they said, few nations have so aggressively courted local leaders across the globe in ways that raise national security concerns.

In its annual threat assessment released earlier this month, the U.S. intelligence community reported that China is “redoubling” its local influence campaign in the face of stiffening resistance at the national level. Beijing believes, the report said, that “local officials are more pliable than their federal counterparts.”

Authorities in other countries, including Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, have sounded similar alarms.

A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington told the AP that China “values its relationship with Utah” and any “words and deeds that stigmatize and smear these sub-national exchanges are driven by ulterior political purposes.”

KSL 5 TV Live

Local News

Traffic was backed up on Interstate 15 near milepost 285 Saturday evening following a felony stop o...

Mark Jones

Kidnapping suspect arrested near Point of the Mountain

The Utah Highway Patrol says a kidnapping suspect has been arrested Saturday evening near the Point of the Mountain. 

6 minutes ago

With wildfires starting to pop up around the state, Stage 1 fire restrictions are now in place in s...

Alex Cabrero

Stage 1 fire restrictions now in place for southern Utah

With wildfires starting to show up around the state, Stage 1 fire restrictions are now in place in southern Utah as announced Friday by the Bureau of Land Management. 

39 minutes ago

Highway 128 covered in mud after a severe storm swept through Grand County on Friday. (Grand County...

Kyle Remund, KSL NewsRadio

Cleanup begins after severe storm in eastern Utah

The Grand County Sheriff’s Office issued a statement earlier Saturday detailing both the damage caused by the storm and the efforts of first responders because of it.

2 hours ago

FILE: Two crop dusting airplanes collided near an airport in southern Idaho on Thursday, June 20, 2...

Associated Press

2 crop dusting airplanes collided in southern Idaho, killing 1 pilot and severely injuring the other

Two crop dusting airplanes collided near an airport in southern Idaho on Thursday and crashed to the ground, killing one of the pilots and leaving the other with life-threatening injuries, officials said.

3 hours ago

A small town in France dedicated a memorial to a crew of a B-17 Bomber killed during World War II. ...

Alex Cabrero

Memorial dedication in France for Utah man killed during WWII

On Saturday, a small town in France dedicated a memorial to a crew of a B-17 Bomber killed during World War II. The plane was shut down 80 years ago to the day near the town. One of the soldiers honored was Utah resident 2nd Lt. John "Jack" Lundberg.

3 hours ago

A new report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute finds Utah's fertility rate is still dropping...

Emma Everett Johnson, KSL.com

Utah fertility rates still on the decline, mirroring nationwide trends

Utah's fertility rate continues to decline, and it doesn't look like there will be a turnaround anytime soon.

4 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Photo courtesy of Artists of Ballet West...

Ballet West

The rising demand for ballet tickets: why they’re harder to get

Ballet West’s box office is experiencing demand they’ve never seen before, leaving many interested patrons unable to secure tickets they want.

Electrician repairing ceiling fan with lamps indoors...

Lighting Design

Stay cool this summer with ceiling fans

When used correctly, ceiling fans help circulate cool and warm air. They can also help you save on utilities.

Side view at diverse group of children sitting in row at school classroom and using laptops...

PC Laptops

5 internet safety tips for kids

Read these tips about internet safety for kids so that your children can use this tool for learning and discovery in positive ways.

Women hold card for scanning key card to access Photocopier Security system concept...

Les Olson

Why printer security should be top of mind for your business

Connected printers have vulnerable endpoints that are an easy target for cyber thieves. Protect your business with these tips.

Modern chandelier hanging from a white slanted ceiling with windows in the backgruond...

Lighting Design

Light up your home with these top lighting trends for 2024

Check out the latest lighting design trends for 2024 and tips on how you can incorporate them into your home.

Technician woman fixing hardware of desktop computer. Close up....

PC Laptops

Tips for hassle-free computer repairs

Experiencing a glitch in your computer can be frustrating, but with these tips you can have your computer repaired without the stress.

Key takeaways from AP’s report on China’s influence in Utah