China is using sister city partnerships in the U.S. as an avenue for influence and spying, according to a Republican senator pushing legislation to address the issue.
“They have used the sister city programs as a way to target local leaders in communities around the globe,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) said, according to the Washington Free Beacon.
“We know this is part of the way they use their spy network, working at the local level, so that they’re building those relationships and friendships with people they deem as future leaders,” she added. “They want to have that toehold with local individuals.”
READ MORE: At least 6 more secret Chinese police stations in US, says report
Blackburn is the lead sponsor in the Senate for a bill, introduced this week to both chambers of Congress, to probe the partnerships between American and Chinese cities.
The bill would require the federal government to investigate the sister city programs to “mitigate the risks of foreign espionage and economic coercion,” Free Beacon reported, citing an informational document for lawmakers.
The bill’s full text is not yet available on Congress.gov.
There are at least 200 Chinese cities with sister city partnerships in the U.S., according to Asia Matters for America. Sister city partnerships vary, but can involve “municipal, business, trade, educational, and cultural exchanges and projects,” according to Sister Cities International.
An alleged instance of an Chinese intelligence operation targeting local U.S. politicians emerged in 2020, though it is not clear that it involved any sister city relationships.
Axios reported that a suspected Chinese spy named Fang Fang had ingratiated herself with American mayors, including through sexual interactions, to gather intelligence and influence China-related policies.
READ MORE: Solar panels at Fort Bragg ‘probably made in China,’ top Army official warns
Fang Fang also helped fundraise for Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) when he was still a local city councilor and later helped place an intern in his office in Washington, D.C., according to Axios.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), one of the bill’s co-sponsors in the Senate, told Free Beacon that it is “embedded in the Chinese Communist Party’s DNA to exploit cultural and economic partnerships.”
“Sister city partnerships with China require further scrutiny. This bill would push for greater transparency on the CCP’s ongoing efforts to conduct influence operations upon our cities and nation,” he said.