Biden’s CIA Pick, William Burns, Leads A Think Tank With Close Ties To China

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Chuck Ross Investigative Reporter
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  • William J. Burns, the nominee for CIA director, is the president of a prominent think tank that has received as much as $2 million in recent years from a Chinese businessman and a think tank with links to the Chinese Communist Party. 
  • As part of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s work with China, Burns invited a group of congressional staffers on a junket to China in 2019 where they met with a professor who works for the Chinese Communist Party’s central committee. They also met with the president of a prominent Chinese front group. 
  • Zhang Yichen, a Carnegie board member and prominent donor, is a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which advises the Chinese Communist Party on policy issues. 

William J. Burns, who is President Joe Biden’s nominee for director of the CIA, is president of a think tank that has received up to $2 million from a Chinese businessman as well as from a think tank with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party.

As president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Burns also invited nearly a dozen congressional staffers to attend a junket to China, where they met with a communist party operative and a president of a Chinese front group.

Burns, who was paid $540,580 last year as president of Carnegie, will appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee for a confirmation hearing likely to be held this month. He has been president of Carnegie since March 2015.

During Burns’ tenure at Carnegie, a businessman named Zhang Yichen joined the think tank’s board of trustees.

“We are very fortunate to have Zhang Yichen on our board,” Burns, a former deputy secretary of state, said in a statement in October 2016. “I look forward to working with him to make Carnegie an even finer institution.”

Zhang, the CEO of CITIC Consulting, a China-based investment firm, donated between $500,000 and $999,999 to Carnegie from July 1, 2017, through June 30, 2018, according to Carnegie’s website. He gave between $250,000 and $549,999 in the 2020 fiscal year, according to Carnegie’s 2020 annual report.

Zhang is a member of two organizations linked to the Chinese Communist Party, according to his biography at CITIC Capital: the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the Center for China and Globalization.

CPPCC is an advisory group for the Chinese Communist Party that is affiliated with China’s united front system, which promotes Chinese government initiatives abroad.

It is described on the website of one Chinese embassy as “a united front organization under the leadership of the Communist Party of China and an organ for various other political parties, mass organizations and personages of various social circles to take part in the running of the state.”

The Center for China and Globalization, where Zhang serves as senior vice chairman, is a Beijing-based think tank also linked to the communist apparatus.

Zhang’s donations to Carnegie helped fund the Beijing-based Carnegie-Tsinghua Center, according to Carnegie’s 2018 annual report, which formed in 2010 in partnership with Tsinghua University, one of China’s top technological universities.

A spokesperson for Carnegie said that Zhang has provided general support funds for operations at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center.

“His funding does not underwrite research projects or support work in the United States,” the spokesperson told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

The Carnegie-Tsinghua Center has partnered with the Center for China and Globalization to host forums regarding U.S.-China relations.

In May 2018, Sen. Marco Rubio, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, raised concerns that Wang Huiyao, the president of the Center for China and Globalization, was set to speak at an event hosted by the Wilson Center, another U.S. think tank.

BEIJING, CHINA - DECEMBER 04: Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shake hands with U.S Vice President Joe Biden (L) inside the Great Hall of the People on December 4, 2013 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shake hands with U.S Vice President Joe Biden (L) inside the Great Hall of the People on December 4, 2013 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Rubio cited Wang’s position with the United Front Work Department, which he said Chinese President Xi Jinping had described as one of the communist regime’s “magic weapons.”

Carnegie has also received funding from the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), a Hong Kong-based think tank that is also a part of the united front system.

CUSEF donated between $100,000 and $249,999 to Carnegie in 2015 and the same amount between July 1, 2016, through June 30, 2017, according to archived versions of Carnegie’s donor page.

A spokesperson for Carnegie told The Daily Caller News Foundation that CUSEF’s funding ended in 2017.

CUSEF has come under increased scrutiny in recent years because of its ties to the united front system and the communist government. (RELATED: Jake Sullivan Trashed Trump’s Foreign Policy In Interview On Chinese Propaganda Network)

According to the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank led by retired U.S. intelligence officials, CUSEF is “a major player in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s organizational apparatus for conducting united front work in the United States.”

According to the Sept. 16 report, CUSEF’s lobbying activities in the U.S. “allows it to play a valuable role in Beijing’s efforts to sway public opinion and build influence in America.”

Several U.S. consulting firms disclose their work for CUSEF to the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

According to an Aug. 24, 2018, report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a congressionally-appointed commission, CUSEF has showed a “clear intent to influence policy toward China in the United States and other countries.”

Republicans have questioned whether the Biden administration will confront Beijing over its unfair trade practices and human rights abuses.

China’s influence efforts came under increased scrutiny under former President Donald Trump. His administration aggressively investigated economic and academic espionage and brought charges against Chinese intelligence officers operating under cover in the U.S.

Counterintelligence officials have also scrutinized China’s use of front groups as part of Beijing’s overseas influence efforts.

Bill Evanina, who served as the U.S. government’s top counterintelligence official until Biden took office, said in December that the U.S. had seen an uptick in “malign foreign influence” activity aimed at associates of potential Biden administration employees.

“We’re starting to see that now play across the country to not only the folks starting in the new administration, but those who are around those folks in the new administration,” Evanina said in an interview in December.

Carnegie is largely supportive of closer diplomatic ties between Beijing and Washington, a far cry from the more aggressive approach to China that has grown popular in recent years.

In May 2019, Carnegie hosted what it called a “1.5 track dialogue” in Beijing aimed at “reduc[ing] misperceptions and keep channels of communication open even at moments of pronounced tensions in the relationship,” according to its annual report that year.

Burns and Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the U.S., appeared together at a Carnegie event in 2018.

Tiankai has pushed multiple conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. And on Sunday, he denied in an interview on CNN that the Chinese government has mistreated Muslim Uighurs living in western China.

Carnegie also hosted a trip for congressional staffers to Beijing in November 2019 to meet with Chinese academics, journalists, business leaders and government officials.

Burns signed the letters inviting the group of staffers on the trip, which he said was aimed at creating “thoughtful bipartisan dialogue on U.S.-China relations,” according to documents filed with Congress.

An itinerary for the trip shows that 11 congressional staffers met with Chinese academics, journalists and think tank officials over the course of several days.

Liang Yabin, an associate professor at the Central Party School of the Communist Party, took part in one panel discussion with the staffers. A Chinese foreign ministry official named Liu Jun spoke to the delegation on the topic of “China’s Views of Security Concerns.”

Li Xiaolin, the president of the Chinese Peoples’ Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), another front group for the Chinese Communist Party and the united work system, also spoke to the staffers.

In October, the State Department designated CPAFFC a foreign mission of China, saying that the group “sought to directly and malignly influence” state and local leaders in the U.S.

One staffer who went on the Beijing trip told the Daily Caller News Foundation that the overall theme of the junket was a “diplomacy first” approach between the U.S. and China, rather than a more aggressive posture embraced by the Trump administration.

The staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described a luncheon held at the end of the trip with members of the communist party as “awkward,” but said they saw no overt signs of influence peddling.

The staffer said they were surprised Carnegie was “able to have that much access” to Chinese academics and government officials. Burns attended the first day of events, according to the staffer.

The Carnegie spokesperson downplayed any influence from Beijing on the think tank’s research and other programming.

“Carnegie takes no institutional positions on China or any other matter,” the spokesperson said, adding that Zhang’s funding “does not underwrite research projects or support work in the United States.”

Maurice Greenberg, the billionaire insurance mogul, is a major backer of Carnegie. Xi awarded him the China Reform Friendship Medal in December 2018, the highest honor that Beijing grants to foreigners.

Greenberg’s Starr Foundation gave at least $1 million to Carnegie, according to the think tank’s donor list.

Carnegie has also provided China Global Television Network (CGTN), a state-controlled news organization, access to its various foreign policy experts.

Jake Sullivan, who is Biden’s national security adviser, appeared for an interview in December 2017 with CGTN to criticize Trump’s policies in the Middle East. Sullivan was a senior fellow at Carnegie at the time.

In April 2017, Carnegie fellow David Livingston appeared on a panel hosted by CGTN America to discuss what Carnegie called “China’s emerging leadership on climate change internationally.”

In a February 2017 appearance on CGTN, Carnegie scholar Douglas Paal praised Trump’s decision to honor the “One China” policy, which does not recognize Taiwan as independent from mainland China. Beijing lobbies the U.S. and other countries aggressively to maintain the “One China” policy.

Paal also praised Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador.

On Friday, Britain’s communications regulator revoked CGTN’s license because it is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.

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