Mar 28, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Utah lawmakers under scrutiny for China ties and foreign travel

Illustration of a China map and star overlaying a map of the U.S.

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

An AP investigation into Chinese government efforts to influence Utah lawmakers has drawn scrutiny to elected officials' trips abroad — and a lack of transparency around who paid for them.

Driving the news: Rep. Candice Pierucci (R-Herriman) is renewing a call for state officials to disclose when foreign governments help pay for their travel to conduct state business.

  • It comes after AP found evidence of Beijing officials working with well-connected Utah-based advocates for the country's agenda to influence state policy in the country's favor.

Details: As many as 25 Utah lawmakers have traveled to China every other year since 2007, with the Chinese government and host organizations helping pay for the trips, AP reported.

  • Utah doesn't require state officials to report foreign travel in detail or personal financial ties to other countries.

Why it matters: AP identified several instances where Utah lawmakers acted to Beijing's benefit.

  • Lawmakers in recent years delayed or blocked legislation that was critical of China, including a resolution to condemn the ruling Chinese Communist Party's crackdown on the country's Muslim Uighur population.
  • Some of the CCP's policy victories in Utah came shortly after trips where lawmakers connected with government officials and made media statements supporting them, AP reported.
  • Utah-based advocates for China's policy goals have traveled with them. In 2020, a few months after a trip, one advocate drafted a resolution promising solidarity with China during the COVID-19 pandemic, which passed almost unanimously.

Catch up quick: Pierucci this year proposed disclosure requirements when someone else pays lawmakers' travel expenses, but the bill didn't get a vote in committee. She said she plans to reintroduce it.

  • "I am committed to continuing to work with my colleagues … to push back on the Chinese Communist Party's influence in our state and nation," Pierucci wrote Monday after the AP story was published.

Flashback: Last year, the state's Senate President Stuart Adams (R-Layton) and Attorney General Sean Reyes (R) faced criticism for accepting travel paid for by the Qatari government to attend the FIFA World Cup.

What they're saying: In a joint statement, Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson and Adams said: "Utah is part of the global economy, and lawmakers remain vigilant when working and building relationships with entities around the world."

Thought bubble, via Axios' China author Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian: The Chinese government's strategy to influence state and local governments has become more important as China’s ties with the U.S. federal government have deteriorated. The U.S. government has increasingly sought to push back.

  • In May 2019, the FBI added a China unit to its foreign influence task force focused in part on sub-national engagement and at times gives defensive briefings to people on the local and state level.
  • Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned about this strategy in February 2020 during a speech he gave to the National Governors Association.
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