Yesterday, the AP revealed an article entitled Amid Strained US Ties, China Finds Unlikely Friend in Utah. I spoke with an AP journalist final 12 months after they had been researching this story, and I do know and have spoken to a number of the folks talked about on this article. I’m not shocked about its tone or its angles, solely about its timing. And I do have some misgivings concerning the obvious conclusions of the article, which I focus on under.
That is Private in a Good Approach
This text is private to me however not in a foul approach. It’s all the time enjoyable to get up on a Monday morning and see your private home state, your faith, your loved ones, and your profession tied up in a single information story. I’m a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the “Church”) now residing in Utah, however I didn’t develop up in Utah. Meaning I grew up with thick pores and skin, and I discovered to not be too defensive about anybody throwing shade on issues I care deeply about and am invested in.
I obtained my begin studying Cantonese in 2001 on the Church’s Missionary Coaching Heart in Provo, UT for 12 grueling weeks earlier than transferring to and residing in Hong Kong for the following 22 months (additionally grueling however punctuated with some wonderful, soul-stretching experiences). Not lengthy after that, I spent a 12 months in Sichuan Province in Mainland China educating English whereas making an attempt to be taught Mandarin to enrich my Cantonese. Collectively, these had been such formative experiences for me that I modified my school main to Chinese language research once I returned to the US.
That was greater than half of my life in the past. Now, as a practising worldwide M&A legal professional, I exploit my Chinese language (Mandarin) frequently as a part of my skilled life and to keep up private relations with former college students and colleagues, in addition to potential purchasers.
I additionally use Chinese language for private enrichment as a result of studying Chinese language makes me a greater scholar of English and different languages. It additionally makes me a extra compassionate particular person who can empathize with individuals who undertake new languages and cultures, typically willingly and typically by necessity.
I even have taken concrete steps to make sure my household is steeped in Chinese language tradition, present occasions, and languages. My adventurous spouse joined me in Sichuan Province for that 12 months, although she has no Chinese language heritage and on the time had no Chinese language language coaching. One in every of our kids is among the many giant cohort of Utah Okay-12 college students within the dual language immersion program (“DLI”) that features Chinese language, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 20% of all US college students within the Chinese language immersion program are in Utah. I converse Chinese language with my kids at house in order that my non-Chinese language immersion kids will be uncovered to the language.
The AP’s reference that “a number of of Utah’s public faculties have strong Okay-12 Chinese language immersion applications” is considerably understated. There are 39 faculties at present educating this Chinese language program in Utah, out of 160 DLI faculties in Utah.
Why China “Likes” Utah, and Why Utah “Likes” China
In Utah, we actively promote second language acquisition in schooling, enterprise, and spiritual circles. The state is pro-immigration, pro-business, pro-underdog, and pro-collaboration. All these elements imply that many Utah companies, the state’s leaders in authorities, non secular, and schooling teams, and plenty of of its households have important and frequent reminders, incentives, and motivation to be as welcoming as attainable to all issues international.
However like virtually each seemingly simplistic topic, Utah has many layers under the floor, even for individuals who assume they know Utah effectively. The state has important ties to the protection and intelligence communities, with 10% of Utah’s financial system tied to the protection sector as of 2021.
Former Utah governor and 3x US ambassador Jon Huntsman (Singapore, Russia, and China), alongside many others who I do know by my work on the board of World Trade Center Utah, are virtually universally champions of a realistic viewpoint in coping with China, although there are various differing viewpoints and motivations right here.
China has Enterprise and Political Allies in Utah
That is true, although it’s much less sure whether or not these enterprise and political allies stay unaware of the CCP’s agenda. Some Utah universities saved their Confucius Institutes open longer than these in different states, however most have been shuttered. The College of Utah’s remains to be holding events, however the one different institute, at Southern Utah College, closed its doorways in 2022.
Taowen Le has a deeply embedded, outsized position in Utah attributable to his many years of residing and cultivating relationships right here, and he’s clearly a powerful advocate for China. Nonetheless, if he’s not being straight or not directly compensated for his position as a “international agent” that might in any other case deliver him below FARA’s oversight, he’s merely performing as an engaged citizen.
Dan Stephenson, who I do know personally, has a deep love and respect for China and its folks, because of his father’s bridge constructing with China as a state legislator. It’s not unusual for youngsters to construct enterprise ties on the backs of their dad and mom’ political legacies. Based mostly on his representations, Dan signifies that he has not taken any position representing the Chinese language authorities for remuneration that might require him to register below FARA.
Apart from these distinguished examples, many Utah-based businesspeople, together with me, are invested sooner or later success of US-China relations. The opinions and efforts vary from hand-wringing and finger-pointing at overreactions on the federal authorities degree to a couple unabashed requires decoupling. However most sit firmly in between making an attempt to advocate for full disclosures and degree heads. My buddies on the comparatively new firm Strider match within the “belief however confirm” class, providing a major SAAS product that permits corporations to see people-to-people connections that will improve an organization’s danger profile when coping with China or Chinese language-related staff.
China has a Constructive Picture in Utah
That is considerably true, relying on which circles you journey in and what you learn between the traces. The AP referred to as out Xi Jinping’s observe to a category of Utah twin language immersion college students encouraging them to change into younger ambassadors between the US and China. That’s exactly the rationale the DLI program was established. We’re making a era of future ambassadors that talk the language like natives, which doesn’t straight equate with being CCP ambassadors, even when the CCP propaganda machine suggests in any other case.
In my circles, everybody is aware of China is a major subject for quite a lot of causes. They’re torn on what to do about China sooner or later, however that doesn’t equate to unequivocal help for normalizing relations and ignoring the numerous downsides of participating with a CCP-run China. In my world, it’s common to do enterprise with buddies and frenemies. Folks can (and do) name China a buddy and nonetheless be cautious about sure sorts of interactions.
China Continues to Improve Relationships in Utah
That is true, and plenty of Utah corporations derive important parts of their income from China-related elements of their companies. Utah is the epicenter of the direct gross sales business and the nutraceutical business, and each industries rely closely on China as a market, welcoming their distributors and companions to Utah every year for enormous conferences. These corporations depend on their worldwide market leaders who stay of their house nations or journey again to their house nations to keep up their networks.
I’ve seen and know the enterprise involvement of many Utah legislators, who’re all in part-time legislative roles. Many personal or run internationally-focused companies, which isn’t shocking contemplating that greater than 25% of the roles in Utah are linked to worldwide enterprise. However I imagine that each one of Utah’s legislature ought to be required to reveal their enterprise ties to China for the sake of transparency.
China’s World Affect Marketing campaign is Distinctive in Utah
This isn’t essentially true. China is redoubling its grassroots efforts on the subnational degree, but it surely has been doing so since encountering important headwinds on the federal degree even earlier than the Trump administration declared a commerce battle towards China.
On my commerce mission journey final 12 months to Mexico with Utah Governor Spencer Cox, I used to be struck by his deep understanding of nationwide and worldwide occasions, in addition to his willingness to wade into troublesome conditions, asking for degree heads throughout. For this reason he was not moved by Taowen Le’s private request final 12 months to fulfill face-to-face with China’s ambassador to the US.
The US intelligence group may be very concerned in monitoring Utah-China and US-China enterprise relationships, largely to the explanations talked about within the AP article. Governor Cox has undoubtedly been briefed by his succesful advisors and native intelligence group members.
Utah’s Spiritual Group Targets Do Not Sync with US Nationwide Safety Priorities
That is true, and it’s not shocking. The CCP completely is aware of about Utah and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ objective to develop extra into China. Roughly 2/3 of the folks in Utah are members of the Church, so their usually unspoken wishes sync with this objective.
This messaging relating to China comes from the very best degree of Church management. In 2015, Church president Russell M. Nelson was honored as an “old friend” of China, courting again to work he carried out in China as a medical physician within the Nineteen Eighties that began along with his studying Mandarin after the overall encouragement to Church membership from a high Church chief to interact extra deeply with China. I acquired that very same recommendation in 2002 in Hong Kong.
Whether or not consciously or unconsciously, this China objective constantly dangles in entrance of lawmakers and businesspeople who’re members of the Church. And to my data, the Church doesn’t conduct any sort of background examine on any individuals who categorical curiosity in or be part of the Church by baptism. This may be seen as problematic from a nationwide safety standpoint if somebody linked to the CCP seeks to make use of Church membership as a shortcut to this group.
From a nationwide safety perspective, the Church conducts little or no due diligence on its potential members, which isn’t distinctive to spiritual organizations. Trying on the questions requested of every potential one who joins the Church, two stand out as potential methods to flag folks with lower than good intentions:
- Do you’re feeling that you’ve got repented of your previous transgressions?
- Have you ever ever dedicated a critical crime? If that’s the case, are you now on probation or parole?
And searching on the questions requested of every member of the Church in search of to enter one of many temples (requiring a better way of life), a number of stand out:
- Do you help or promote any teachings, practices, or doctrine opposite to these of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
- Do you … stay your life in concord with the legal guidelines and commandments of the gospel?
- Do you try to be sincere in all that you simply do?
These questions are all comparatively common, will not be fact-checked earlier than or after by the particular person conducting the interview, and are actually not tailor-made to account for the conflicting legal guidelines on the books in China and the US that will impression an individual’s solutions, although members of the Church promise to “obey, honor, and maintain the legislation” of their respective nations.
Relationships surrounding affinity teams, together with these round non secular beliefs, are and can proceed to be pure factors of weak spot that may be exploited. As one buddy on a nationwide safety listserv wrote yesterday, “Every time I hear these Utah tales about folks quoting scripture to push agenda, it provides me the heebee jeebies. Principally each time you hear a narrative about some bishop or distinguished enterprise man getting indicted in some con, ponzi scheme, or repay, the story is all the time how they used church ties to purchase belief. Appears the CCP has been studying those self same tales.”
This isn’t distinctive to Utah or to the Church. Affinity fraud is very efficient in non secular teams. I do know the Church’s high China lawyer. He’s no slouch, and the Church is actually discussing issues like this internally in gentle of the Church’s international objectives. Interactions by the Church with any Chinese language authorities officers are virtually actually seen as a doubtlessly helpful two-way avenue. Regardless that the US intelligence group closely recruits in Utah, nobody expects the Church to change into an arm of any US intelligence service.
The AP isn’t fallacious in lots of the conclusions drawn or lots of the key gamers recognized. However this story failed to say some important occasions, particularly the China Challenge Summit held in Utah final summer time the place the tone was very pragmatic because the summit title signifies. That occasion will repeat this summer time, and like final 12 months it’s going to draw enterprise and authorities specialists from everywhere in the United States and have a few of our homegrown corporations and specialists who’re completely within the learn about China.
The article appears unnecessarily conspiratorial and fairly late to the get together based mostly on my discussions and interactions right here in Utah. This is able to have been a narrative in 2019-2020, however in 2023 I feel that the enterprise and legislative group right here in Utah (simply as is true for the USA as an entire) is way more conscious than they had been a number of years in the past. I take some small credit score for that flip of perspective, however there are various sensible folks right here locally who’re additionally members of the Church who’re making an attempt to stroll this delicate line between protecting relations sturdy for Church functions whereas working to keep up and enhance enterprise relations.
As somebody who’s on the board of World Commerce Heart Utah, the AP additionally failed to say this key group’s position in shaping thought management and consciousness round China’s affect in Utah and the US.
These of us who’ve been working professionally on this area have by no means overlooked what each side are aiming to do, and many people are nonetheless making an attempt to string that needle. It’s not simple, however it’s completely crucial from geopolitical, navy, worldwide relations, enterprise, and for many people, private angles, that we get this proper.