In Washington, money talks. Long aware of this basic fact of life in the U.S. capital, many an authoritarian regime has sought to build support for its government through well-placed gifts to think tanks. Often, such influence operations are designed to get the U.S. to give preferential treatment to foreign dictatorships, such as the Chinese party-state, often to the detriment of national security.
The law has yet to catch up to these efforts, but a group of House Republicans hopes to push back against these regimes with a bill that subjects think tanks and research institutions to stricter disclosure requirements. If their proposal, set to be announced this morning by Representative Lance Gooden and the Republican Study Committee — which initially called for these reforms in June — becomes law, it stands a chance at complicating these foreign-influence operations.
“For too long, left-wing think tanks have influenced American politics while taking money under the table from the CCP and other foreign adversaries,” Gooden will say in a statement announcing the bill. “We must shed light on the unreported financing behind the research organizations and nonprofits shaping our foreign policy.”
Foreign funding of think tanks is an extensively documented problem. Greater awareness of the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign-influence operations has injected new urgency into the debate over transparency requirements for think-tank funding. But China’s not the only player on the field. An abundance of reporting on the topic has also raised concerns about the ways in which Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and numerous other regimes advance their viewpoints, buying the cachet granted by the names of revered research centers, such as the Atlantic Council and the Brookings Institution.
The Trump administration had started to take aim at the problem of foreign funding of research institutions, and in an October statement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo requested that think tanks that interact with the State Department disclose foreign sources of funding on their websites, though such a disclaimer is not required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
The Gooden bill will require think tanks to report any donations from foreign governments and political parties that exceed $50,000 annually, though its introduction reflects a growing concern on Capitol Hill about the CCP’s foreign-influence campaigns in particular.
Chinese efforts at swaying public and elite opinion in foreign governments have been outlined in greater deal by a number of researchers. In one of the most recent reports on the topic, Nadege Rolland, a senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research, wrote that think tanks play a key role in Beijing’s foreign policy, as the CCP is a Leninist party-state, meaning that the party’s foreign political operations are intertwined with China’s foreign policy.
“Think tanks, like media, are seen as playing a major role in changing the way others, including democracies, speak and think about China, its regime, and its policies,” Rolland wrote in the report for the National Endowment for Democracy.
This can take a number of forms, the most obvious of which is when foreign governments set up their own institutions in Washington. These can be obvious targets, though: Following the assassination of columnist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi authorities, Rolland notes, a Saudi think tank in the city closed down.
The Republican proposal would apply to those organizations, since they are funded by foreign governments, but it also targets those nominally independent U.S. institutions that accept donations from foreign governments. A January 2020 report by the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative notes that China has donated to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Inter-American Dialogue, and the World Resources Institute.
China’s funding of think tanks, however, is even more elaborate than that, as it is also routed through a number of intermediaries and united-front foreign-influence entities, which include large corporations such as CEFC China Energy, and influential nonprofits with CCP ties, such as the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation. While the RSC proposal won’t close this loophole, it targets direct foreign-government funding, which is the most immediate problem.
But a Republican staffer familiar with the matter said the Gooden bill is just the first step. “If this were passed today, more could be done to be built on [this bill]” to tackle CCP shell games, said the staffer, noting that Democrats have “no excuses” to oppose the legislation.
The RSC hopes that all of this will upend the Chinese influence game in Washington. “The CCP pays major Washington think tanks to advance China’s global interests, then many of those same outfits give Congress foreign-policy recommendations,” Representative Jim Banks, chairman of the RSC, told National Review. “That’s not a revolving door; that is a trap door. Our bill names and shames firms that collaborate with America’s chief global adversary — which is a lighter sentence than they deserve. Even better, it would basically give the federal government an official list of untrustworthy think tanks. Many Democrats would benefit!”
The Gooden bill, in addition to making those disclosures mandatory above $50,000, requires that the Treasury Department create a publicly accessible database displaying the relevant think tanks’ ties to foreign governments.
When it comes to deterring U.S. collaboration with pro-Beijing entities, naming and shaming the worst perpetrators would be a monumental change, and with any luck, this bill will be the first of many bipartisan measures to increase accountability for taking money from foreign dictatorships.