By Roslyn Layton, PhD
- Who conducted the study?
- Why was the study conducted?
- How was the study conducted?
- How are governors classified?
- How does the Minzhi analysis match ChinaTechThreat findings?
Early in February, when the Coronavirus was still in its infancy in the United States and public events had not yet been canceled, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to a gathering of governors about the rising economic and security competition with China.
Early in his speech, Secretary Pompeo briefly mentioned a study conducted by a “Chinese-backed government think tank in Beijing” that assessed US governors as “friendly” or “hardline” by their attitudes towards China. Secretary Pompeo dryly noted, “I’ll let you decide where you belong. Someone in China already has…. Whether you’re viewed by the [Chinese Communist Party] as friendly or hardline, know that [China] is working you and the team around you.”
If you are surprised to be reading about the existence of this study for the first time, then you are not alone. The fact is that only one major news outlet appears to have written about it and, as far as we can tell, no other publicly available English-translated version of the study exists besides the one that ChinaTechThreat.com has posted here.
Since the study must be of enormous interest to governors and state policymakers, it is hard to understand why it has been so scarcely reported. In any case, because the Minzhi study offers a rare window into Chinese thinking, we provide a summary, a cursory analysis, and three concluding recommendations.
Who conducted the study?
The study was authored by the Minzhi International Research Institute and Tsinghua University Globalization Research Center. The Minzhi group also goes by “D&C Think.”
Axios’ story notes that Minzhi / D&C Think “partners with the United Front Work Department, the Chinese Communist Party’s political influence arm.” In a subsequent podcast, Axios’ reporter explained that China does not have a system of think tanks, as in the US, and that Minzhi was founded in 2017 to “bridge the gap.”
Released in June of 2019, we may see additional reports since, according to the study’s preamble, this is the first in a series.
Why was the study conducted?
Minzhi notes that US-Chinese relations have worsen, but their hope is to “prevent misjudgments and continued deterioration of relations.”
The study writes that, “Since Trump took office, the United States has exerted full pressure on China in terms of the economy, trade, science and technology, and actively seek to decouple from China in the economic, humanities, education and other areas….it seems that a strong voice against China has become mainstream, and there is a growing momentum.”
But why focus on governors? The answer may be that states may represent an opportunity to circumvent icy relations with Washington, DC. As the study explains, “Because of the federal system… a governor can ignore the White House’s orders… The state government can change or even cancel local governments such as cities, counties, and school districts.”
How was the study conducted?
The Minzhi study includes two main components. First, the research cites very basic data about the governors (age, gender, party, and previous offices held) paired with economic information about the states they represent, such as GDP, the role of trade generally, and trade with China specifically.
More interestingly, the study ranks governors based on cryptic, subjective standards explaining only that, “The criteria for friendly judgment is whether any pro-Chinese speech has been published publicly. Taxes, launching trade wars and other events that clearly target China have shown dissatisfaction, we will summarize them as vague; obviously anti-China speech, critical speech, or explicit support for trade war speech, we classify it as tough.”
The report then provides three examples of friendly, ambiguous, and tough governors without further clarification:
- Friendly: “For example, Charlie Baker, Governor of Massachusetts, said at an event in December 2018: “The U.S. should see China as a valued partner not only in our economic growth but in solving problems around the world “, so we regard him as friendly to China.”
- Ambiguous: “Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson said in an interview with CNBC on June 9, 2019: “I continue to support the president … But we feel it is appropriate to say there is a point that you should not squeeze us further “, so we classify it as a vague attitude toward China. And publicly said “he supports whatever decision the president makes on delicate trade negotiations.”
- Tough: “Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp was classified as tough.”
How are governors classified?
Ultimately, the report assesses 17 governors as friendly, 14 as ambiguous, and 6 as tough. About the half dozen tough governors, Minzi explains, “Among them, 4 have very close personal relations with Trump, and 3 have questions about human rights and accuse China of human rights violations. In terms of parties, there are 5 Republicans and 1 Democrat, ranging in age from 41 to 70 years old. In terms of gender, they are all male.”
How does the Minzhi analysis match ChinaTechThreat findings?
ChinaTechThreat.com has been studying state government relations with Chinese government-affiliated manufacturers since late last year.
This past February, shortly after Secretary Pompeo’s remarks and Axios’ resulting story, ChinaTechThreat.com published an analysis titled “Stealing from States: China’s Power Play in IT Contracts.”
Our study reviewed state government contracts with two Chinese technology manufacturers that have been banned from US military and intelligence networks, Lexmark and Lenovo. We note that, once installed, the these Chinese companies “can access sensitive personal and financial information held by courts, police departments, elections departments, education departments, children and family services, and other social service providers and agencies.”
While we do not suggest that readers should put too much emphasis on just two Chinese manufacturers, our findings corroborate Secretary Pompeo’s warning: China already has deep and wide reach into state governments, as we identify than forty states with existing contracts with the banned manufacturers, including nearly a dozen states with specific, verified payments. (We have send more than thirty Freedom of Information Act requests to the remaining states to ascertain what payments they have made to the manufacturers.)
Given the existence of this extraordinary study, Secretary Pompeo’s concerns, and our confirming evidence, we suggest three subsequent actions:
First, U.S. news media and experts must further explore Minzhi and other Chinese government-affiliated policy researchers: How broad is their effort to assess US policymakers and what are their real motivations for doing so?
Second, federal lawmakers in the Trump Administration and Congress must make it more difficult for local governments to invite Chinese government-backed companies that have been banned by military and intelligence agencies in the US and among our international allies.
Finally, state and local policymakers should no longer ignore the Chinese government’s foray into American’s technology infrastructure. As our report demonstrates, one immediate step that states must take is to review current contracts for security vulnerabilities and eliminate existing contracts with Chinese-owned manufacturers for the sake of maintaining data privacy and confidentiality.