Several Chinese Communist Party-backed influence groups have sponsored events and trips to China for U.S. officials – including Joe Biden’s Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack – as part of a broader crusade to increase collaboration between the two countries on agriculture and farming.
The unearthing of the United States Heartland China Association (USHCA) ties to Chinese foreign influence groups follow reports of Chinese Communist Party members and firms buying up American farmland, raising national security concerns among lawmakers.
Founded by former Democrat Governor of Missouri Bob Holden, the USHCA purports to be a “bipartisan organization committed to building stronger ties between USHCA Region (20 states located in the USA between the Great Lakes to the Gulf) and the People’s Republic of China.”
“Our focus will be on Trust Building efforts connecting government officials; business leaders; educational and community interests with like minded institutions between the Heartland Region and the People’s Republic of China,” the group’s mission statement euphemizes.
In addition to partnering with various branches of the Chinese regime, the USHCA also is “proudly working with” the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF).
The organization is an integral component of the Chinese Communist Party’s “United Front,” an effort that seeks to “co-opt and neutralize sources of potential opposition to the policies and authority of its ruling Chinese Communist Party” and “influence foreign governments to take actions or adopt positions supportive of Beijing’s preferred policies,” according to the U.S. government.
The USHCA has also co-hosted events alongside the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), regarded as the “public face” of the United Front and an “avowed arm of the party-state.” The U.S. State Department has described the group as seeking to “directly and malignly influence” U.S. state and local leaders.
Through USHCA’s partnerships with the National Governor’s Association and The United States Conference of Mayors, the aforementioned Chinese Communist Party-linked influence groups have courted several American representatives with sponsored speeches or travel. Joe Biden’s Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has participated in events with the USHCA – which “celebrated” his appointment to Biden’s cabinet – as recently as May 2020.
The group also hosts an annual “U.S.-China Agriculture Roundtable”, which counted presentations from officials including Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, Director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture Chris Chinn, and Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture Thom Petersen in 2021.
In partnership with CUSEF, the USHCA has also sponsored trips to China for delegation consisting of American heartland mayors. CUSEF has also deployed this tactic on American journalists, offering free trips to the country in exchange for “favorable coverage,” according to Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) filings. The trips functioned as part of a broader effort to “effectively disseminate positive messages to the media, key influencers and opinion leaders, and the general public” regarding China.
USHCA delegation participants have also called for closer collaboration with the Chinese Communist Party on agriculture and farming, including Sioux Falls, South Dakota Mayor Paul TenHaken in an op-ed recently wiped from the internet, upon return:
It is time that Sioux Falls looks at developing deeper, more consistent relationships with key Chinese communities and businesses. Both the city leaders of Guangzhou and Shenzhen—with populations of 20 million each—expressed interest in forming some government partnership between Sioux Falls and one of their city districts. These relationships are critical first steps in establishing both trust and economic partnerships between our communities. One of our largest employers—Smithfield Foods—is owned by a Chinese parent company, and my office has had several other discussions with business development opportunities that have Chinese ownership ties. The Sioux Falls economy would strengthen via stronger cultural and business relations with key Chinese partners.
Among the other representatives joining USHCA’s inaugural 2019 delegation were Mayor of Carmel, Indiana James Brainard, Mayor of Youngstown, Ohio Jamael Tito Brown, and Mayor of Maumee, Ohio Richard Carr.