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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

In May 2019, the FBI's Foreign Influence Task Force quietly added a unit aimed at countering China's political influence in the United States. In an exclusive interview, an FBI official reveals for the first time the bureau's approach to countering China's interference in local and state politics.

Why it matters: "This is ultimately a potential systemic challenge to the world order that we've had for the past several decades," the FBI official tells Axios of China's efforts.

The big picture: There is a growing body of evidence that China devotes massive resources to influencing the political environments of foreign countries, including the United States.

  • Unlike Russia, the Chinese Communist Party focuses on cultivating long-term relationships and using economic levers to coerce people into compliance, rather than targeting a specific election event.
  • “For a long time we focused on the federal level, but we really have come to understand that the Chinese are playing a long game with the political influence in this country," the FBI official said. "So we have spent a lot more time and energy trying to understand the state and local people-to-people influences going on."
  • Over the weekend, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that China is targeting U.S. local and state officials.

China's influence playbook centers around economic leverage stemming from its growing wealth. That includes:

  • The use of economic “carrots and sticks” at the local and state levels.
  • “Conduit contributions” to illegally funnel Chinese funds into U.S. politics.
  • The use of Chinese government-linked proxies to cultivate relationships of dependency with a variety of American individuals and organizations.
  • And it happens at every level of government and society. “The toolkit works just as well on a mayor as it would work on somebody in higher elected office," the official said.

The FBI task force's threshold for determining what counts as malign foreign influence is a four-word rubric: “subversive, undeclared, criminal and coercive.” The FBI official, who spoke to Axios anonymously, defined the terms:

  • Subversive: "Activities that are undermining democratic processes, or people's ability to cast a vote."
  • Undeclared: "Any activity where the hand of the government, the hand of the foreign government is opaque, is non-transparent to the target audience.”
  • Criminal: "There's a suite of election crimes in the U.S. And we're concerned about those crimes. .. So campaign finance violations, this is a big part of what we're concerned about — foreign money entering U.S. political races."
  • Coercive: "If there is some sort of quid pro quo, some sort of economic carrots and stick, it's a tool that the Chinese use quite a lot.”

The focus is on party-connected actors, the official said.

  • “We're certainly not looking at, you know, all Chinese students or all Chinese Americans," said the official. “This isn't something that we only see happening with ethnic Chinese.”

How the task force works: The initiative, which is part of the FBI's Foreign Influence Task Force, is housed within the agency's counterintelligence division, with embeds from the criminal investigative, cyber and counterterrorism divisions.

  • The task force investigates illegal activity and provides defensive briefings — essentially a way to educate companies, organizations, academic institutions and government officials about the potential risks of specific situations.
  • The bureau is seeing an "increased demand signal" for briefings and similar engagement "from academic partners, from the private sector, from our U.S. government customer and policymakers," the official said.

Their advice: Do everything possible to manage risk.

  • That means understanding where funding comes from and any organizational ties back to China, as well as engaging in secure travel practices with personal electronic devices and business laptops.

The bottom line: China is increasing its efforts to hold sway over cash-strapped local and state governments.

  • Companies and organizations must aim for smarter engagement to lessen the risk because “most folks who are already engaged with some aspects of the Chinese government or with a Chinese institution can't just say no,” the official said.

Go deeper: China’s playbook for hooking local governments

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the China-focused unit's connection to the FBI's Foreign Influence Task Force.

Go deeper

More corporations are requiring workers to get vaccinated

Graphic: Axios Visuals

Life for the unvaccinated could get more difficult as bosses increasingly move to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory.

The big picture: The federal Government in May said that it is legal for companies to require employees to get vaccinated for coronavirus.

White House: Over 500,000 new shots recorded Friday, highest since July 1

Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The United States recorded more than half a million new COVID-19 vaccine shots on Friday, the highest number since July 1, White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

Why it matters: The Delta variant is continuing to spread across the United States and it now comprises over 80% of the coronavirus cases in the country, Jean-Pierre said. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that "vaccination is the most important strategy to prevent severe illness and death."

Biden to announce sanctions, other efforts to address crisis in Cuba amid protests

Photo: Sarah Silbiger/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Biden will announce sanctions against one entity and two Cuban individuals this afternoon and provide details on his administration's efforts to improve internet connectivity in Cuba, a senior administration official said Friday.

Why it matters: After initially hoping to place the issue on the back burner, the White House has recently ramped up its focus on Cuba amid protests on the island and in the United States, congressional backlash and political pressure from the South Florida Cuban community.

  • The president is also expected to make announcements on remittances and plans for U.S. embassy augmentation, the official said.
  • The official noted that the administration is in talks with private sector providers about the possibility of providing wireless LTE communications to the Cuban people.
  • "Given the protest of July 11, it is important for U.S. diplomats to engage directly with the Cuban people and if we can do that in a way that ensures the safety of U.S. personnel, that is something that we will undertake," he said, noting that the president would announce more details later this afternoon.

The details: The president will meet today with Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a Cuban-American, and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), among other political and community leaders and artists.

  • Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), an outspoken voice on Cuban issues, is not expected to attend the meeting.
  • The meeting follows a series of engagements by Cedric Richmond and the Office of Public Engagement with the Cuban-American community, the official said.

What they're saying: "We're gonna do everything we can to keep Cuba on the front burner, so we can keep the conversation on the rights of the Cuban people and their rights to manifest peacefully," the official said on the call with reporters.

Be smart: Cuba is a tricky political issue for Democrats, who are split on the matter. The president was defeated by Donald Trump in South Florida during the 2020 election, and Democrats fear similar results, particularly in the upcoming midterms, if they mishandle the situation.

Go deeper: The newly announced sanctions today will follow already imposed sanctions against Cuban officials and entities allegedly responsible for human rights abuses during the government's crackdown on island-wide protests earlier this month.