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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warns against Chinese influence in speech to state lawmakers
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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warns against Chinese influence in speech to state lawmakers

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned against Chinese influence on America in a speech to Wisconsin lawmakers Wednesday amid the final stretch of the presidential campaign.

In his 20-minute speech in the state Capitol’s Senate chambers, Pompeo warned of the grave threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party to the interests of the United States and its attempt to undermine U.S. interests by working to influence subnational groups, such as states and cities.

But with Pompeo making his speech in the final stretch of a presidential campaign in a crucial swing state, some said they smell the stench of pure politics. Democrats and some national security experts said Pompeo is violating the norm followed by his predecessors of not mixing politics and foreign policy, especially so close to the election.

“It’s very unusual for a secretary of state to delve into domestic politics in the final stretch of a presidential election,” said Charles Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and informal outside counsel to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign. “The nation’s chief diplomat is supposed to represent the country’s national interest, and to refrain from campaigning.”

Pompeo, who is rumored to be considering a presidential run in 2024, also turned heads in August for delivering a speech to the Republican National Convention, a move that national security experts say could detract from his foreign policy mission and erode the reputation of U.S. diplomacy abroad.

“As the pandemic hits a new high, Republicans are playing politics by inviting the Secretary of State to give a speech on foreign policy at the State Capitol,” Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley, D-Madison, tweeted.

But Pompeo brushed off those concerns Wednesday, telling a group of Republican lawmakers that what happens in Wisconsin, and the work of the state’s lawmakers, is important to the State Department’s mission.

Invitation offered

Senate President Roger Roth, R-Appleton, said he had invited Pompeo to give remarks in Wisconsin after they spoke following an attempt by the Chinese consulate in February to persuade Roth to pass a resolution praising China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Roth disregarded the first email from the Chinese government, but received a second email in March to which he replied, “nuts.”

The resolution the Chinese government wanted passed said China had been transparent and quick in sharing key information about the COVID-19 virus with the World Health Organization and the international community, creating a window of opportunity for other countries to respond.

But Roth and Pompeo flatly rejected that thinking and placed blame on China for a virus that has now killed more than 200,000 Americans. Biden has condemned the Trump administration for undermining U.S. efforts to control the spread of the virus by ignoring the warnings of health experts and intelligence agencies.

Trump has continued to downplay the virus’ effect on the U.S., recently telling a crowd at an Ohio campaign rally this week that COVID-19, a disease that has sickened about 7 million Americans, “affects virtually nobody.”

Chinese threat

Pompeo focused on the Chinese threat to American interests during the bulk of his speech, and the ensuing Q&A discussion. He said the Chinese government’s request for the Wisconsin Senate to pass a resolution praising China is just one example of Chinese attempts to undermine American interests by influencing state and local leaders and organizations.

“What happened here in Wisconsin is happening all across the world,” Pompeo said. “It’s happening all across the United States, it’s happening in statehouses all across America. It has a much more sinister view of this engagement. The party and its proxies aim to make Americans receptive to Beijing’s form of authoritarianism.”

Pompeo said China realizes the U.S. federal government is trying to push back against Chinese Communist Party influence, and that China, in order to undermine American sovereignty, is in turn seeking to influence states, localities and enterprises in the U.S. to circumvent the federal government’s efforts.

He also said the Chinese government is attempting to foment civil unrest in places such as Minneapolis over police violence.

“(Chinese President Xi Jinping) thinks local leaders may well be the weak link,” Pompeo said, adding that efforts toward cooperation by the Chinese government are really efforts to create arrangements that benefit the Chinese Communist Party.

Appeal to states

Pompeo said state legislatures can aid in the U.S. effort against Chinese influence by passing laws that help states work closer with federal agencies to assist in the protection of intellectual property, and by ignoring threats from the Chinese government or its surrogates.

He also said states should divest from Chinese corporations, and look to countries beyond China when seeking to collaborate internationally. He said the state’s pension system could assist by divesting from China Mobile and China Telecom, two state-owned telecom giants.

“We want to make sure that we get it all right, that we’re fighting to protect our wallets, our hearts, our minds, and our freedoms,” Pompeo said. “Each of us as public officials must never be complacent, or complicit in the (Chinese Communist Party’s) campaign to fracture American society and to silence American voices.”

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