In its effort to cultivate foreign influence, the Chinese Communist Party boldly mixes economic incentives with requests for political favors. Its dealings with Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) this year offer a success story for Beijing.
Last month Daines announced a breakthrough in his long-standing effort to win access for Montana's beef exports to China — a $200 million deal with a leading Chinese retailer.
Then, on Dec. 5, the regime of Xi Jinping got something at least as valuable from Daines. The senator hosted a delegation of Chinese Communist Party officials who oversee Tibet, at the request of the Chinese Embassy — thereby undercutting a simultaneous visit to Washington by the president of the Tibetan government in exile.
Lobsang Sangay, the Tibetan leader regarded as an enemy by Beijing, was in Washington to meet with lawmakers and members of the Tibetan community. The House Foreign Affairs Asia subcommittee held a hearing Dec. 6 on Chinese repression in Tibet.
The rival meeting hosted by Daines the day before included Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). After the meetings, the state-owned China Daily claimed the congressmen had praised Chinese officials in Tibet for doing "a good job in environmental protection and traditional cultural preservation."
The episode illustrated China's growing practice of enlisting Western politicians to blunt criticism of the regime — and also its determination to haunt its opponents wherever they travel. "Everywhere I go, I'm followed by a high-level Chinese delegation" denying human rights abuses in Tibet, Sangay told me, adding that Chinese officials pressure governments across the world not to meet with him.
Sangay was in town to push legislation calling for foreigners to have the same access to Tibet that Chinese officials who oversee Tibet have here. The Chinese Communist Party did allow one congressional delegation to visit Tibet in April — led by Daines — which met top Chinese officials.
Daines's office couldn't produce any record that he, either in China or Washington, publicly raised the fact that the Chinese government is perpetrating brutal, systematic repression in Tibet, including attempted cultural genocide, environmental destruction, mass surveillance, mass incarceration and severe denial of freedoms for Tibetans.
The senator had another agenda — selling Montana beef. He presented four frozen steaks to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing and hosted Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai at a Montana ranch. The $200 million contract was the first reward for his efforts.
Daines has done other favors for the Chinese government. Early this summer, he discussed with other senators his opposition to a bill that would rename the street in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington after Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who later died in Chinese government custody, his office confirmed.
Spokeswoman Marcie Kinzel told me Daines has long fought for human rights in China and pushed to visit multiple Chinese regions where human rights are a concern. Daines believed the Liu Xiaobo bill was the wrong strategy at the time because it would complicate efforts to negotiate his release, she said. The senator doesn't criticize China much in public because his "focus is on making change with tact and wisdom, not flashy headlines," she added.
Daines's approach to Chinese human rights is "not connected" to his push for beef exports, Kinzel said. Yet for the Chinese government, economics and politics are always linked. By helping the Communist Party squash political criticism in Washington, Daines's actions constituted a victory for Chinese foreign influence operations, said Derek Mitchell, former U.S. ambassador to Burma.
"It confirms everything the Chinese believe about us and folks around the world, that anyone can be bought," he said. "We're only as strong as our weakest link, and that Daines would do this only encourages them to continue."
There's no evidence of a direct quid pro quo or any illegal behavior, just multiple favors between Daines and the Chinese government. But by using his power to protect China from accountability on human rights, Daines compromised American values and helped perpetuate the suffering of innocent people abroad.
In Australia last week, a senator resigned after it was revealed he took money from a Chinese donor and then parroted Chinese government lines on the South China Sea issue. It's the same pattern: China dangles economic incentives and, soon enough, its friends begin helping China's political aims.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is leading a national drive to excise Chinese foreign influence from Australian politics. "Foreign powers are making unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts to influence the political process, both here and abroad," Turnbull said.
In Washington, political and policy leaders are just waking up to the scope and scale of China's efforts to interfere. But if the Chinese government can claim U.S. lawmakers as defenders of its repression in Tibet, it's clear the problem is much worse than we realize.