Center for Strategic and International Studies, China, idea laundering, Im-Politic, Jeanne Whalen, lobbying, Mary E. Lovely, multinational corporations, offshoring, Peterson Institute for International Economics, Scott Kennedy, Steven Zeitchik, think tanks, Trump, Washington Post, William P. Barr
As masterly as Attorney General William P. Barr’s Thursday speech about China’s sweeping “whole-of-society” challenge to the United States was – and “masterly” is an entirely fitting description – it still missed one key danger that’s been created by big Americans businesses’ determination to advance China’s agenda. And conveniently, the nature and importance of this danger was (unwittingly, to be sure) made clear by the Washington Post‘s coverage of Barr’s alarm bell-ringing.
The Attorney General’s address was unquestionably a landmark – and a badly needed one – in the history of U.S.-China relations. The decisive break of course was Donald Trump’s election as President. For decades, American administrations had permitted and even encouraged U.S. multinational corporations and their recklessly shortsighted offshoring- and tech transfer-happy agenda to dominate policymaking toward China. (See here for the Bill Clinton-era origins of this approach.) Sometimes raggedly to be sure, the Trump administration has been reversing decisions that had exponentially increased China’s wealth and therefore military to the detriment of U.S. prosperity and national security.
But Barr’s speech indicates the launch of a new phase in this America First strategy – not only spotlighting corporate activities that keep endangering America, but naming and shaming some of the leading perps.
Especially important was the warning about Chinese leaders “and their proxies reaching out to corporate leaders and inveighing them to favor policies and actions favored by the Chinese Communist Party.” As Barr explained:
“Privately pressuring or courting American corporate leaders to promote policies (or politicians) presents a significant threat, because hiding behind American voices allows the Chinese government to elevate its influence and put a “friendly face” on pro-regime policies. The legislator or policymaker who hears from a fellow American is properly more sympathetic to that constituent than to a foreigner. And by masking its participation in our political process, the PRC avoids accountability for its influence efforts and the public outcry that might result, if its lobbying were exposed.”
In other words, Barr was talking about a form of “idea laundering” – the practice of pushing proposals that would benefit special interests first and foremost in ways meant to disguise their source of sponsorship and funding.
I identified one variety of idea laundering way back in 2006 – when I testified to Congress about how prevalent it had become for these offshoring-happy multinationals to pay think tanks to create the illusion that their self-serving objectives were also strongly supported by disinterested experts solely dedicated to truth-seeking. Barr has now pointed out that the multinational executives who have been funding idea laundering through think tank studies and op-eds and the like have also begun serving themselves as lobbyists-on-the-sly for China. In addition, he usefully warned them that they risk running afoul of U.S. laws requiring transparency from any individual or entity shilling for foreign interests.
But I wish Barr had mentioned the think tank version of idea laundering because a reminder of its perils came the day after he spoke, in the form of that Post coverage. Reporters Jeanne Whalen and Steven Zeitchik described and cited verbatim most of Barr’s indictment of corporate behavior. They rightly sought and received reactions from some of the companies fingered (Apple and Disney).
But then they played into the hands of the idea launderers when they claimed that “The attorney general’s warnings drew criticism from some economists, who said he at times exaggerated the threat China poses and downplayed benefits American industry has gained by trading with China….”
That’s surely the case, but the two individuals whose views the Post presented were hardly just any old economists. In fact, one – Scott Kennedy – isn’t even an economist, in the sense that he holds no academic degree in economics. Far more important, though, is that both of these authorities work for and get paid by think tanks that are heavily funded by offshoring multinationals – the Center for Strategic and International Studies (which employs Kennedy) in the academic-y-sounding position of “Senior Adviser and Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics” and Mary E. Lovely, who is an economist (at Syracuse University) but who’s also a (academic-y-sounding) “Senior Fellow” at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Moreover, it’s crucial to note that both the Center for Strategic Studies and the Peterson Institute are also financed both by foreign multinational companies and even foreign governments with stakes in returning to the pre-Trump U.S. China trade and global trade policy status quo just as great as that of U.S.-owned multinationals. In fact, the Center even lists a contribution in the $5,000-$99,000 annual range from the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, which, like all Chinese think tanks, is an arm of the Chinese regime. (It receives U.S government funding as well – in the greater-than-$500,000 annual neighborhood.)
To repeat a point I’ve made…repeatedly… there is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these individual think tankers, the think tanks themselves, businesses, or even foreign governments trying to influence U.S. public policy. But as Barr has noted, there is everything wrong with these activities being conducted deceptively, which is the case with both forms of idea laundering. And the dangers to American democracy and U.S. interests are greatly compounded when journalists who should know better (and the two Washington Post reporters named above are hardly the only examples) help sustain this charade.