Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A Chinese think tank has rated U.S. governors and White House advisors on how "friendly" they are to Beijing in a series of reports analyzed by Axios.

Why it matters: Washington's sharp turn toward hardline policies on China means there's a strong push in Beijing to find alternate channels of engagement, especially via U.S. local government leaders.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned one of the reports in a Feb. 8 speech to the National Governors Association, in which he warned that the Chinese Communist Party is trying to influence U.S. state and local government decision-making.

The U.S. governors report, dated June 22, 2019, was published by D&C Think, a think tank based in Beijing, in collaboration with Tsinghua University.

  • D&C Think is not officially affiliated with the Chinese government. But it states it partners with the United Front Work Department, the Chinese Communist Party's political influence arm, among other organizations.
  • The report is part of a series launched in response to the rapid deterioration of U.S.-China relations. At such a time, according to the report, "it is very important to understand the attitude toward China of all sectors of the United States, including the government, states, interest groups, and mainstream think tanks."

The report stated that while a hardline attitude towards China now prevails in Washington, the American federal system means that state-level governments may not be in lockstep.

  • "Governors can ignore orders from the White House," the report claimed, "and state governments can change or even cancel local governments such as cities, counties, and school districts."
  • State-level officials "enjoy a certain degree of diplomatic independence," the report stated.

The big picture: The Chinese government is trying to influence how local government officials around the world view Beijing.

  • It often uses a playbook of economic carrots and sticks to shape the behavior of foreign officials and lawmakers, an FBI official told Axios.
  • “The toolkit works just as well on a mayor as it would work on somebody in higher elected office," said the official.

The details: D&C Think's researchers scoured U.S. government websites and media reports for public statements relating to China in order to rate each U.S. governor.

  • The governors — categorized as hardline, friendly, or unclear/unknown position — were further analyzed by age, gender, political affiliation, and work history, and their respective states by economic size, geographic location, and level of trade with China.
  • The report did not find a correlation between a U.S. state's trade with China and the respective governor's perceived attitude towards China.
  • According to the report, the views of the six governors rated as "hardline" were largely due to "human rights and other issues," rather than trade.
  • The findings provide insight into how Beijing sees U.S. politics and its place in it. The ratings below should be taken as subjective.

How the report rated U.S. governors according to their views on China:

  • "Hardline:" 6 governors, including Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.), Mike Parson (R-Mo.), and Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.).
  • "Friendly:" 17 governors, including Eric Holcomb (R-Ind.), Janet Mills (D-Maine), and Jared Polis (D-Colo.).
  • "Unclear" or "no stated position:" All remaining governors, including Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) and Greg Abbott (R-Texas).

The bottom line: China's state-funded research ecosystem is placing a growing emphasis on nuanced analysis of U.S. domestic politics amid Chinese government efforts to quietly reshape America's China policy from the ground up.

Go deeper:

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