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Sen. Marsha Blackburn's Big Idea: Review US-China sister city partnerships to protect against malign influence

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The Big Idea is a series that asks top lawmakers and figures to discuss their moonshot — what’s the one proposal, if politics and polls and even price tag were not an issue, they’d implement to change the country for the better? 

Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn will roll out legislation to require oversight of sister city partnerships between U.S. and Chinese communities to determine whether they leave American communities vulnerable to “foreign espionage and ideological coercion.”

Blackburn, R-Tenn., is set to introduce the Sister City Transparency Act in the coming weeks — legislation that she also rolled out during the last Congress.

The bill would require a GAO report on sister city partnerships operating within the United States, and more specifically would direct the comptroller general to conduct a study on partnerships involving foreign communities in countries with “significant public sector corruption.”

The legislation would identify the oversight practices that U.S. communities implement to mitigate the risks of foreign espionage and economic coercion within sister city partnerships and assess the extent to which foreign communities could use those partnerships to conduct “malign activities,” including academic and industrial espionage.

“Across the globe, China has exploited these relationships, which are ostensibly intended to promote cultural exchange, to achieve geostrategic goals,” Blackburn said upon first introducing the bill last year.

The bill would also require a review of best practices to ensure transparency regarding sister city partnerships’ agreements, activities and employees.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., heads into a Republican policy lunch on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday. Blackburn is pushing through legislation to decrease U.S. dependency on other countries for life-saving medication amid veiled threats from China to withhold coronavirus drugs. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., heads into a Republican policy lunch on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday. Blackburn is pushing through legislation to decrease U.S. dependency on other countries for life-saving medication amid veiled threats from China to withhold coronavirus drugs. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Blackburn warned that sister city partnerships allow China to use “soft power” and influence communities to establish relationships with local mayors, agriculture workers and school board members, and suggested the partnerships could be a “political weapon” of Beijing.

Fox News spoke with the senator from Tennessee about her legislation and her views on the threat of letting U.S. sister city partnerships with China remain unchecked.

There are 157 Sister City Partnerships with Chinese Communities in the United States. What does that mean? What are these partnerships? 

Many times, our cities in the U.S. will partner up with a city in another country and share information, best practices, visit back and forth and have good relationships with these communities.

Sister city partnerships are something our localities and chambers of commerce have used for years, and what has happened, is even though these relationships seem harmless, they have become the bread and butter for the Chinese Communist Party’s infiltration into U.S. culture, and they are using these, and have admitted that they are using these, as part of their Belt and Road initiative for the CCP — it is their push to go into infrastructure development and debt track diplomacy in any number of communities.

These programs have little oversight. China has worked their way into 157 different cities and through these, what they are doing is using them to spread soft power and propaganda and to build relationships with local mayors, school board officials and agriculture workers.

How is the CCP using the partnerships to achieve its objectives and long-term goals?

A community saying, we want to expand broadband in our community, or we want to have access to 5G technology, then, their partners with a Chinese city may say, we can help you with that, and we will give you the equipment that you need.

But that is Huawei equipment, which, of course, is embedded with spyware and we know China is aggressively working to build a database of images of individuals, so they have the ability to begin to track people. And if you have that spyware, then they are capturing your images — the images you are sharing on social media, they are looking at your search data — this is what their embedded spyware does.

They are seeking to build a data and health registry. They feel if they know the health care status of individuals, then they can weigh in on how that person seeks or utilizes medication.

They are trying to control you by controlling your virtual you.

How can Americans measure whether they are engaged in a potential situation that could pose a risk to national security, intellectual property, or any malign influence by China, as part of these Sister City partnerships?

One of the things they should realize is yes, indeed, these partnerships exist. They should call city hall, their local chamber of commerce, and ask if they have a partnership, and if so, what are the terms of that partnership.

Bear in mind, there are some countries, like Sweden, which have begun to ban partnerships with Chinese cities because they do not want that infiltration in their communities.

Tell me about your legislation. How do you propose these partnerships be studied? 

My legislation requires a study on the partnerships between American communities and corrupt foreign governments and it would answer some of the most pressing questions about the arrangement so that we know they are not damaging American communities.

My bill would require these cities to list and identify their oversight practices, assess the extent of foreign malign activity and review best practices to ensure transparency.

How did you decide to review sister cities?

The reason we started looking at these is because we became aware of how China was using Confucius Institutes and Confucius classrooms to expand their soft power and their propaganda.

And then we realized they were doing the exact same thing through sister city partnerships. It needs more oversight.

American communities and citizens need more protection from this propaganda.

What is the danger of leaving sister cities unchecked? 

The danger is that we know what China is up to. This all ends up being an invasion of privacy of the American citizen.

Let’s shift to Confucius Institutes. Are there any benefits in maintaining these institutes on college and university campuses? 

I can see no benefit in keeping these around. What they are doing is saying, under the guise of teaching Mandarin and Chinese culture, we are going to pay you to put this institute on this campus— those are very expensive dollars going into K-12 classrooms or on to our university campuses for Confucius Institutes.

We know and have learned that some of these visiting professors and researchers are actually spies for the Chinese Communist Party.

Intelligence and national security officials in both the Trump administration and now the Biden administration have warned that China poses one of the greatest long-term national security risks to the United States. Do you agree? 

Absolutely. With China, you cannot separate the threat, because they do what is called civic fusion, where their commercial and military sectors are combined and it makes it very difficult to separate these.

On the commercial side, they steal our intellectual property and do what is called “rob, replicate and replace.”

They steal the intellectual property, they replicate, or reverse engineer your product and then they try to replace you in the marketplace by doing it at a lower cost. Along the way, you have lost jobs.

Also, they take some of this technology that is needed in our military sector, and they exercise this and then you have a single source which is your supplier, and it beeches a very dangerous proposition.

The Biden administration has said it is not in a “rush” on China and is reviewing its “strategic approach” to U.S.-China relations. Does the U.S. need to be in a “rush” on China?

We know that the White House needs to step up their game and show that they get it — show that China is our adversary, they are not our friend. The steps they have taken, to date, have emboldened China. And it is deeply disappointing to people like me who have worked on this.

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They have been very lax on China and this is something that is not going to serve them well.

China is always in a rush. China is committed to having the 21st century beat. They do not want to be a part of the community of nations — they want to dominate the community of nations, and the sooner this administration figures that out and admits it, the better it is going to be for the American citizen.

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