When mayors from cities including Carmel, Indiana, and Oxford, Mississippi, went to China recently, they were feted in ways big and small. They test-drove the newest electric-vehicle models, some with seats that doubled as massage chairs. They were hosted by a deputy provincial governor and treated to aged Maotai, Mao Zedong’s favorite liquor, from one Chinese official’s private collection.
Their counterparts in China, starved of international visitors and potential investors during four years of pandemic and border controls, were “overjoyed” to receive the American mayors, said Min Fan, executive director of U.S. Heartland China Association, a U.S. not-for-profit that organized the trip for six mayors to five cities in China late last year.
“Everywhere we went, whether it was Hong Kong or Wuhan, they hadn’t had a delegation like this for a long time,” Fan said. Even more Chinese cities wanted to host them, Fan added. “Cities were fighting to get on our itinerary, but we literally couldn’t.”
Former Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard was on that trip, just a couple of months before leaving office. While in China, he ratified a sister-city agreement with Mayor Taihui Wang of Xiangyang, Hubei, that was established in 2012.
“I was very pleased to sign this agreement today to ratify the cultural exchanges that have already begun and will hopefully continue in the future,” Brainard said in a media release during the trip. “Despite the challenges of the global relationship between the U.S. and Chinese leaders, it is important that our people continue to build positive relationships under the Sister Cities agreement that will benefit both cities.”
Chinese provincial and city leaders have for decades appealed to their American counterparts to try to create investment and trade opportunities. Those efforts, stalled during the coronavirus pandemic, are ramping up again—with newfound gusto.
Chinese officials are seizing on opportunities to forge ties with mayors and other local American leaders, the kinds of connections that give Beijing leverage against an increasingly hostile government in Washington.
The United States’ relationship with China is at its worst since the two countries agreed to officially recognize each other more than 45 years ago, although there have been recent efforts to stabilize relations. Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s bid for global dominance means that, more than ever, Beijing is seen by Washington as a threat to the country’s national security and economy.
With Xi’s encouragement, leaders outside the Beltway are the next target of Chinese efforts to win friends and influence in the United States. But during a sensitive election year these friendships will be hard to come by as American leaders are wary of being seen as too close to China.
“What the Chinese are doing is trying to find supporters and advocates for the U.S.-China relationship and operationalize them,” said Evan Medeiros, head of Asia studies at Georgetown University, who served as a top Asia Pacific adviser during the Obama administration. “They want to activate the sources of ballast in the relationship to stop the deterioration.”
Before the pandemic, these exchanges—business delegations, governor visits, cultural and academic exchanges—were common between the two countries. U.S. states, after the 2008 financial crisis, actively sought Chinese investment and chances to benefit from China’s economic rise. More than 100 “sister city” agreements were signed, while dozens of Chinese-government-linked Confucius Institutes set up shop in U.S. universities.
That all slowed during the Trump administration as the relationship soured, and ground to a halt during the pandemic. Incidents such as the Chinese “spy balloon,” U.S. export controls limiting China’s access to advanced chips and back-and-forth threats over Taiwan didn’t help.
This past fall, things began to shift as China hosted a series of American politicians, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and a delegation of senators. In November, Xi, on his first visit to the United States in six years, called for building “more bridges and more roads for people-to-people interactions,” and had dinner with business executives from Apple, Nike, Pfizer and Boeing.
Chinese diplomats in the United States are doing their best to engage in what Chinese and American diplomats call “subnational diplomacy”—an area of new focus for both governments.
“Our purpose is quite simple: to promote subnational cooperation. For example, business investment and people-to-people exchanges,” said Zhou Zheng, head of the subnational affairs section at the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
Zhou, who said he was “cautiously optimistic” about restarting these exchanges, said a desire for Chinese investment means that U.S. city and county governments are “quite relaxed” about interacting with Beijing compared with more frigid national-level relations.
Even in Republican stronghold states where legislators have pushed laws limiting Chinese investment, some are actively scouting for Chinese money.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R)—who last year dubbed China’s ruling Communist Party an “existential threat” to America when signing into law restrictions on the use of Chinese technology on state networks—recently approved tax incentives for a $1.9 billion EV battery factory that is 10 percent owned by a Chinese firm.
“I think that we face challenges of, kind of, shooting ourselves in the foot by eliminating opportunities because we’re scared of them,” said Robyn Tannehill, mayor of Oxford—a town not far from the proposed EV plant—who joined the Heartland mayors tour.
Invites have started coming in for more U.S. mayors—as well as business people, university staff members, artists and others—to visit China. “A lot of people are like, okay, we have the marching order now,” said Fan, whose organization has been fielding some of those requests.
But these efforts are meeting resistance in an election season when China has become a campaign issue and public mistrust of Beijing is at historic highs. In 2023 at least 81 bills were introduced in 33 states to restrict Chinese land purchases.
Former president and likely GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has discussed with advisers the possibility of imposing a flat 60 percent tariff on all Chinese imports and has claimed that he is being pursued in lawsuits because of his efforts to “end the sellout of our country to Communist China.” His rival, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, in turn has criticized Trump for being soft on China, calling the country “the most dangerous threat America has faced since World War II.”
And Florida governor and former presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis in November criticized Haley for welcoming a Chinese fiberglass company into South Carolina while she was governor and writing the Chinese ambassador a “love letter, saying what a great friend they were.”
“That’s the difficulty we have right now. If we approach some local governments, in particular Republican governors, they just refuse to meet with us,” said Zhou, of the Chinese Embassy. “In the past these [were] things we just did normally, that’s just what two countries did normally, but these days everything is demonized.”
Analysts say there is a real risk that ground-level connections could undermine national policy or be used to disrupt the democratic process.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party has long had a strategy of using “the local to surround the center,” cultivating local support for its agenda in other countries, according to Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, who focuses on Chinese influence operations. And the United States is the main target.
“We have a hostile foreign state that’s deliberately trying to target your political elite to engage in political warfare,” she said, noting that lower-level American officials can go on to much more influential positions. (As governor of Arkansas, future president Bill Clinton visited China four times.)
“It’s an ongoing challenge, [and] we can expect now in the lead-up to the election that there will be more examples of foreign interference,” she said.
Another complicating factor in China’s campaign is Taiwan, the democratic island that the ruling Chinese Communist Party claims is part of its territory. Taiwan has for decades honed local ties in the United States – one of few available channels of engagement because it does not have official diplomatic relations with Washington.
In sister city agreements, China has required some U.S. cities to agree with Beijing’s one-China principle that Taiwan is part of China. But in recent years, support for Taiwan has become a badge of honor for officials keen to show their tough stance on China. Since then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited Taipei in 2022, angering Beijing, nine U.S. governors have made trips to Taiwan.
“Many governors are considering going to Taiwan, but they aren’t going to [China],” said Jessica Bissett, who manages subnational initiatives at the National Committee on United States-China Relations.
There’s been “a huge pullback” on the U.S. side, said Kyle Jaros, an associate professor at the University of Notre Dame working on a book on the topic. “China is reaching out and finding it hard to find partners.”
Still, China, with its gargantuan economy, has found some willing partners.
Mayor Kim Norton of Rochester, a town of about 120,000 in southern Minnesota, visited China for the first time on the Heartland trip. She was impressed by the abundance of high-speed trains and electric buses. Her city is on a years-long wait list for electric buses, but Washington continues to limit the import of Chinese EVs.
She has recently flagged her interest in high-speed rail with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “Can we have a partnership with a country like China that might help us along?” she said. “I wish there was a way to bridge that and have a better partnership.”