American and Chinese Flags

Nonprofit “Building Bridges” Between China and the American Heartland Has Deep Ties to CCP Influence Network

DCNF(DCNF)—A politically-connected Midwestern nonprofit focused on “building bridges” with China has extensive ties to groups and individuals who are affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) influence arm, the Daily Caller News Foundation has found.

The Missouri-based United States Heartland China Association (USHCA), a 501(c)3 bipartisan organization, characterizes its mission as “building bridges and promoting opportunities” between U.S. officials and businesses in Midwestern states and China. USHCA runs a number of U.S.-China programs, including agricultural roundtables, business seminars, student forums and political junkets to China.

Records show that USHCA-hosted events and trips are often conducted in partnership with organizations affiliated with the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD).

The UFWD is a “Chinese intelligence service” responsible for coordinating “influence operations,” according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which Congress created to study national security threats from China.

USHCA’s board of directors and strategic advisory team includes several individuals who also work for UFWD-affiliated groups, according to a DCNF review of those groups’ membership records.

Republican lawmakers have specifically flagged USHCA’s dealings with UFWD entities in the past.

In November 2021, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio singled out USHCA as a UFWD “conduit,” and, more recently, Indiana Rep. Jim Banks sent a letter to a local officials in his home state warning that USHCA has “collaborated with CCP United Front Work Department cut-outs and other Chinese state-sponsored organizations.”

A USHCA spokesperson told the DCNF that it stood behind its years-long work with Chinese entities.

“As an organization that promotes people-to-people exchanges in culture, education and business between the Heartland and China, USHCA will inevitably work with Chinese entities,” the spokesperson told the DCNF by email. “We seek out Chinese partners to support the execution of public programs that meet our objectives.”

USHCA’s mission is to promote “a stable and productive U.S.-China relationship to protect and advance the interests of the American Heartland,” the spokesperson wrote, adding the nonprofit pursues its mission by “organizing people-to-people exchanges in culture, education and business.”

The spokesperson also told the DCNF that the non-profit is “funded by American sources including membership dues, Heartland community supporters, private donations, grants from private foundations, corporate sponsors and contributions from state governmental agencies.”

Speaking generally, Wisconsin Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher, chair of the House Select Committee on the CCP, told the DCNF that the CCP has used the United Front Work Department to “manipulate the American people and interfere in all levels of our government, including state and local governments.”

‘United Front Work’

USHCA was founded in 2003 by former Missouri Governor Bob Holden, a Democrat, who is still the group’s president and board chairman. USHCA’s reach has grown to cover 21 states across the Midwest, Great Plains and South. The group’s political influence is evident from the composition of its board and strategic advisory team, which includes former governors, mayors and other prominent government officials.

For instance, USHCA lists former governors Matt Blunt of Missouri, a Republican, Ronnie Musgrove of Mississippi, a Democrat, and Brad Henry of Oklahoma, a Democrat, as strategic advisors. Export-Import Bank President Reta Jo Lewis and Mitch Landrieu, President Joe Biden’s 2024 campaign co-chair, both previously served as USHCA strategic advisors.

“The USHCA leadership has vast experience in both business and education that uniquely position the organization to forge deep and productive relationships between the people of the U.S. and China,” the nonprofit’s website states.

USHCA’s leadership also includes at least four individuals who appear to hold positions at various entities affiliated to one degree or another with the United Front.

USHCA board member Liu Yawei is the senior advisor on China at the China Focus program at the Carter Center, and he is also listed as an “expert” on the “academic advisory committee” of the Center For China And Globalization (CCG). CCG’s website includes a photograph of Liu and identifies him as the “director” of the China program at former President Jimmy Carter’s think tank.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission describes CCG as a “United Front-affiliated Beijing think tank.”

CCG’s website also lists USHCA strategic advisor “Sam” Zhao Suisheng as an “expert” on its “academic advisory committee.” CCG’s website includes a photograph of Zhao and identifies him as director of the University of Denver’s Center for China-U.S. Cooperation, which is where he works.

On multiple occasions — including in 2009, 2011 and 2018 — Zhao was a “representative” to events in China jointly held by CCG and the Western Returned Scholars Association (WRSA), according to records from both organizations. High-level CCP and UFWD officials attended these events, which concerned “talent” acquisition and other subjects, according to records from both groups.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2018 report identifies WRSA as a “United Front organization,” and its members founded CCG, the commission’s report notes.

Liu and Zhao were both listed as participants in a 2011 CCG and WRSA panel discussion in Beijing titled, “The Role of Returnees In China’s Public Diplomacy,” according to Chinese news website Sina.

In an interview, Zhao confirmed his CCG advisory position and his status as a representative to past CCG and WRSA events. Zhao also said he’d previously held several advisory roles with Chinese government agencies, including as an “overseas expert” for the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office.

Zhao gave conflicting answers regarding his CCP affiliation. First, he told the DCNF he applied to join the CCP before coming to the U.S. in 1985, but was not admitted. However, Zhao followed up with an email stating that he’d had to “refresh” his memory.

“I never applied [to the CCP] because I knew I would not be admitted due to my liberal-leaning thought and involvement in the pro-democracy movement,” Zhao wrote in the email.

“As a devoted and independent scholar with a focus on the study of Chinese politics (including the United Front tactics), foreign policy, and U.S.-China relations, I value all and every opportunity, particularly the opportunities on the ground, to research the subjects and promote the mutual understanding between the U.S. and China,” Zhao wrote.

“As a proud Chinese American living about 30 years in China and about 40 years in the U.S., I want to help promote people-to-people exchanges to benefit people in the two great nations and reduce misunderstanding and misperceptions,” Zhao wrote in the email. “That is why I agreed to be an advisor to the Heartland U.S.-China Association.”

“Swallow” Yan Xiaozhe, the chairperson for USHCA’s “Chinese Community Leaders” committee, was appointed as an “overseas committee member” for the All-China Federation Of Returned Overseas Chinese (ACFROC) in 2010, according to a release from the group. The release features a picture of Yan accepting a certificate from Consul General Huang Ping of the Chinese Consulate in Chicago.

ACFROC is a United Front organization “for returned overseas Chinese and their relatives,” according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

USHCA’s own website also identifies strategic advisor Alan Wong as a “special advisor” to the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), which is a Hong Kong-based nonprofit that’s registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

CUSEF “operates within a broader strategy of united front work, whose purpose ‘is to control, mobilize and otherwise make use of individuals outside the Party to achieve [CCP] objectives,’” according to the House Select Committee on the CCP.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission has described CUSEF as a “united front-linked” organization engaged in “efforts to cultivate domestic constituencies that further Beijing’s economic agenda.” The commission’s 2023 report specifically flagged USHCA’s partnership with CUSEF as “often providing a platform for the promotion of official Chinese views on agricultural trade and exchange.”

During his confirmation hearings, CIA Director William Burns agreed that CUSEF was part of Beijing’s effort to “influence political, economic and cultural developments to benefit CCP interests.” Burns was appointed by President Biden and sworn in as CIA Director in March 2021, making him the first career diplomat to hold the position.

USHCA’s spokesperson did not respond to the DCNF’s questions about its advisors’ and board members’ work with UFWD-affiliated entities.

CUSEF, CCG, Liu, Wong and Yan did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

"Sam" Zhao Suisheng served as an expert to the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office and is a member of the Center For China And Globalization's academic advisory committee. [Image created by the DCNF with pics from Chinese Social Sciences Today and CCG]

‘Reflects The Theory Of The Chinese Communist Party’

USHCA has promoted what it calls “people-to-people” diplomacy in collaboration with the Chinese Embassy and several UFWD-affiliated organizations.

The National Committee On U.S.-China Relations, a U.S. nonprofit, defines “people-to-people diplomacy” as “non-governmental exchanges between citizens of two countries that contribute to stronger relations between the two countries,” and cites the 1971 ping-pong games played between the U.S. and China as an example.

The U.S. State Department and Office of the Director of National Intelligence have sounded the alarm on UFWD influence operations targeting “subnational” leaders at the state and local level using “people-to-people” exchanges.

“People-to-people exchanges are being exploited by the United Front because while these exchanges present as a way to strengthen bonds, the tactics used to target high-value assets is in reality a grooming strategy, that from China’s perspective, is a way to gain favor and access to ‘confidential and privileged’ information at some point in the future,” Ina Mitchell, a Chinese intelligence expert, told the DCNF. Mitchell is the co-author of “The Mosaic Effect: How The Chinese Communist Party Started A Hybrid War In America’s Backyard.”

CUSEF has sponsored more than half a dozen of USHCA’s programs, the DCNF found, including USCHA’s “Way Forward” webinar series, which promotes “subnational and people-to-people exchange between the American Heartland region and China,” according to USHCA’s 2020 annual report.

USHCA has also promoted “people-to-people” diplomacy with the Chinese People’s Association For Friendship With Foreign Countries (CPAFFC). USHCA characterized CPAFFC as a “partner” in 2021.

CPAFFC is a “key organization in China’s united front network,” according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The National Counterintelligence and Security Center has also warned that the CCP has tasked CPAFFC with “overseeing and developing ‘sister’ relationships between China and localities in the United States” and “may exploit these pacts to press its agendas.”

USHCA’s spokesperson told the DCNF that the nonprofit “decided to work with CPAFFC and other Chinese partners because they were able to identify and recommend Chinese experts and participants.”

In 2021, 2022 and 2023, USHCA and CPAFFC co-sponsored a series of “U.S.-China Agriculture Roundtables,” which the U.S. nonprofit described as “the preeminent annual bilateral dialogue around agriculture with the most diverse participants.”

Chinese diplomats, elected officials from Midwestern states and U.S. agricultural executives were among those who participated in the roundtables, according to USHCA. Additionally, the roundtables have also featured Chinese People’s Institute Of Foreign Affairs (CPIFA) representatives — an institute that describes itself as “devoted to people-to-people diplomacy.”

In 2019, while commemorating CPIFA’s 70th anniversary, CPAFFC’s then-chairwoman, Li Xiaolin, said that “people-to-people diplomacy, as a theory and a practice, reflects the theory of the Chinese Communist Party on mass line and united front.”

CPAFFC did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

[Image created by the DCNF using images from Zhejiang Gongshang University's social media account]

‘On Behalf Of The Chinese Communist Party’

USHCA sent delegations of U.S. mayors to China in 2019 and 2023 with logistical support from various UFWD-affiliated organizations like CPAFFC, according to the nonprofit’s records.

In November 2019, USHCA led a delegation of four Midwest mayors to China. USHCA identified CPAFFC as one of several “key players in the planning and delivery of this trip.”

Four years later, USHCA announced that its vice-chair — former Carmel, Indiana Mayor Jim Brainard — led a bipartisan delegation of U.S. mayors to “visit their counterparts” in China in November 2023. The focus of the trip was to “underscore the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between the United States and China,” according to USHCA.

CPAFFC took credit for inviting the mayoral delegation, China Youth Daily reported. China Youth Daily is the official newspaper of the Communist Youth League.

The delegation also included Mayor Barbara Buffaloe of Columbia, Missouri; Mayor Lee Harris of Shelby County, Tennessee; Mayor Chokwe Lumumba of Jackson, Mississippi; Mayor Kim Norton of Rochester, Minnesota; and Mayor Robyn Tannehill of Oxford, Mississippi.

USHCA’s announcement thanked “the Ford Foundation, Henry Luce Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and Energy Foundation China for their support that made this delegation possible.”

The delegation attended a Sister Cities Conference in Suzhou and mayors’ roundtable in Wuhan. The roundtable was followed by “an in-depth discussion on opportunities for collaboration” and “the signing of sister-city agreement between the city of Carmel, Indiana and Xiangyang, Hubei, the newest pair of sister cities between the United States and China,” USHCA announced.

Mayor Norton told the DCNF she accepted USHCA’s invitation to travel to China to “build sub-national relationships and to participate in an opportunity that included meeting with our long-standing sister city.”

Rochester’s website lists its sister city as Xianyang in Shaanxi province. Norton’s trip took place nine months after CPAFFC and Xianyang officials visited Rochester, according to the city.

Norton said she was “very aware of the current international tensions and national security concerns and took recommended measures for this trip — no phone, no computer, etc.”

“I took part in this trip comfortably given that we were briefed and supported by the U.S. State Department and were completely transparent about the goals of the trip focused on the environment and heartland related (agricultural) issues,” Norton told the DCNF.

USHCA’s spokesperson also told the DCNF that the nonprofit has been able to “protect” itself by “working closely with U.S. governmental agencies.”

The November junket drew scrutiny from Rep. Banks, who wrote to Carmel Mayor Sue Finkam and asked for her city to withdraw from its Chinese sister-city agreement, alleging that USHCA conducts “work on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party to influence U.S. business leaders and lawmakers.”

Finkam did not end Carmel’s sister-city agreement, but terminated its $25,000-a-year membership with USHCA on Feb. 8, 2024, the Carmel Current reported.

“[T]he Chinese Communist Party will have no influence over the City of Carmel,” Finkam said, according to the Carmel Current.

“Now that Congress has the facts, we need to figure out a federal response,” Banks told the DCNF. “I’m confident that Indiana leaders will lead the way in the fight against the Heartland Association and other groups tied to CCP United Front activities. We need to drive this CCP influence operation out of our state and then the entire country.”

All content created by the Daily Caller News Foundation, an independent and nonpartisan newswire service, is available without charge to any legitimate news publisher that can provide a large audience. All republished articles must include our logo, our reporter’s byline and their DCNF affiliation. For any questions about our guidelines or partnering with us, please contact licensing@dailycallernewsfoundation.org.