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Sister City Relationships With China Demand Scrutiny: US Senators

Published: November 20, 2020
The Lan Su Chinese garden in Portland, Oregon, USA, a result of the sister city program with Suzhou, China.
The Lan Su Chinese garden in Portland, Oregon, U.S., a result of the sister city program with Suzhou, China. (Image: sstrieu via FlickrCC BY-ND 2.0)

Owing to concerns over the Sister City programs between American and mainland Chinese cities, four U.S. senators have introduced a bill demanding serious inquiry and transparency over the economic and cultural exchange agreements. 

The legislators introduced a bill called the Sister City Transparency Act. It requires the Government Accountability Office director to conduct a study on foreign sister city operations in the United States. The Government Accountability Office Director also has to assess the potential risks of foreign espionage and economic coercion.

According to Sister Cities International, there are 157 such partnerships between the United States and China since 2005. This program provides members with hand-in-hand assistance in researching potential partners, developing a communication line through various channels, consulting in international protocol matters, and ultimately serving as a resource for any questions throughout the correspondence, according to their website.

However, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has utilized these partnerships as tools to spread its propaganda narratives, restrict academic freedom, and facilitate espionage in American classrooms.

Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn) spearheads this legislative effort.  In a press release dated Nov. 17, Blackburn said: “In name, the partnerships are to promote cultural exchange and economic collaboration. However, the Chinese regime has exploited these relationships. It is Beijing’s ‘newest political weapon.'”  She added:  “We must shed light on these partnerships to determine whether they leave American communities vulnerable to foreign espionage and ideological coercion.”

‘Malign activity’

In the press release, Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo) said: “The Chinese Communist Party wants to spread its influence wherever it can. There is reason to believe Beijing uses partnerships to spread lies, steal ideas, and gather information to use against Americans.”

Another sponsor of the bill is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who noted that the “Chinese government and the Communist Party has a history of exploiting cultural and economic partnerships to conduct malign activities.”  

“We must do more to better understand, and then counter, Chinese influence operations at the state and local level, which are often conducted under the benign auspices of sister city relationships,” he said.

In his speech, during the National Governors Association’s Meeting in February, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned about these Chinese sister programs. He explained that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials are “cultivating relations with county school board members and local politicians” through these programs.  

As reported by The Epoch Times, the Chinese regime has been piggybacking off sister city agreements to drive its establishment of Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes (CIs) worldwide. The Epoch Times article also noted that CCP mouthpiece Xinhua reported in 2007 that 123 CI’s were established in 49 countries and regions as of July 2005, a sign of China’s “soft power.”   

As of Sept. 7, of the 157 CI’s in the United States, 54 CIs closed or are closing, with 67 CIs remaining, according to The National Association of Scholars.  

One of Beijing’s propaganda methods is to integrate the “One China” narrative into the CI agreements and other international partnerships with other countries, in an attempt to delegitimize Taiwan, the self-ruled democratic island that is officially known as the Republic of China. 

The CCP considers Taiwan, which it has never controlled, a part of the communist People’s Republic of China. However, Beijing’s attempt to include the “one China policy” in sister-city agreements with Prague was unsuccessful last year. After dropping Beijing, Prague signed a sister-city agreement with Taiwan’s capital Taipei this January.

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