U.S. Institutions Must Get Smarter About Chinese Communist Party Money

Joshua Eisenman and Michael Sobolik

In June, the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations honored California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger with lifetime achievement awards for their contributions to U.S.-China relations. “I’m grateful to accept this award from the Bush China Foundation,” Feinstein said. But what she did not seem to know was more than 85 percent of the foundation’s operating budget—a total donation of $5 million—came from the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), an organization controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Amid the intensifying strategic rivalry between the United States and China, the CCP is increasingly using cash to infiltrate influential U.S. institutions using tactics broadly known as foreign-focused propaganda and United Front influence campaigns. These activities trace back to the party’s creation in 1921, when it began “educating the masses” and “mobilizing friends to strike at enemies.” At the National Meeting on Propaganda and Thought Work in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized cadres should “use innovative outreach methods … to tell a good Chinese story and promote China’s views internationally.”

But when these tactics, which the CCP calls “soft power” or “people-to-people” relations, target the United States and other liberal democracies, they have a corrosive influence on objective China studies research. By forging close partnerships with prominent foreign “opinion-setters,” Beijing aims to shape perceptions so they adopt and share views consistent with those of the CCP.