William Burns, President Joe Biden’s nominee for CIA director, faced questions about his tenure as president of a foreign policy think tank that received funding from a Chinese businessman and front group with links to the Chinese Communist Party.
Burns called the Chinese government a “formidable, authoritarian adversary” during his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
During the hearing, Burns addressed the relationship between the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which he took over in March 2015, and the Chinese-U.S. Exchange Foundation, a Hong Kong-based think tank that operates under the direction of the CCP.
Burns told Sen. Marco Rubio that he “inherited” Carnegie’s relationship with CUSEF but cut ties with the group “not long after” he began his tenure.
The career diplomat told Rubio he was “increasingly worried about the expansion of Chinese influence operations.”
Despite Burns’ statement, Carnegie and CUSEF maintained a relationship for at least two years after Burns took over the think tank.
CUSEF’s last donation to Carnegie was in 2017, according to a spokesperson for Carnegie and its 2018 annual report.
Tung Chee-hwa, the founder of CUSEF, also visited the Beijing-based Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in March 2017, according to its website. Tung was joined by Chen Xu, the Communist Party-affiliated president of Tsinghua University.
CUSEF contributed between $200,000 and $500,000 to Carnegie while Burns led the organization.
Zhang Yichen, a Chinese businessman who serves on one of the Communist Party’s advisory boards, joined Carnegie as a trustee. Zhang has also donated between $750,000 and $1,550,000 to the think tank.
“We are very fortunate to have Zhang Yichen on our board,” Burns said when Zhang joined Carnegie in October 2016.
While Burns’ tenure at Carnegie may have raised some concerns for Republicans, he offered an aggressive rebuke of the CCP during his opening remarks at Wednesday’s hearing.
Burns testified that the Chinese government has strengthened its capabilities “to steal intellectual property, repress its own people, bully its neighbors, expand its global reach, and build influence in American society.”
He also acknowledged in response to written questions released before the confirmation hearing that the CCP uses CUSEF “to try and influence political, economic, and cultural developments to benefit CCP interests.”
Burns agreed with the assessment that the Chinese government uses various front groups, including CUSEF and Confucius Institutes, for propaganda efforts in the U.S.
“Beijing tries to advance its soft power and pro-China propaganda through cultural and educational programs at US academic institutions,” Burns wrote.
During the Trump administration, U.S. officials increased scrutiny of Confucius Institutes, which have partnered with more than 65 American colleges and more than 500 K-12 schools.
The Trump administration designated the institutes a “foreign mission” of Beijing — a category typically applied to foreign embassies and consulates.
The Trump administration attempted to push through a rule on Dec. 31, 2020, that would require American schools to disclose partnerships with Confucius Institutes. The Biden administration withdrew the proposal last month.
Burns was not asked about the proposal, but he did say that Confucius Institutes use access to university officials “to spread positive portrayals of China, and steer conversations from topics sensitive to the CCP.”
During her own Senate hearing, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the newly confirmed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, faced questions about a 2019 speech she gave to the Confucius Institute in which she praised Chinese initiatives in Africa.
Thomas-Greenfield said the speech had been a mistake and was not intended to be an endorsement of Chinese government policies.
Rubio also asked Burns about invitations he issued on behalf of Carnegie to congressional staffers for an all-expenses-paid trip to Beijing in 2019.
The staffers met with Chinese academics and government officials, including a member of the communist regime and the president of the Chinese Peoples’ Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, a front group affiliated with the CCP.
Burns defended the congressional trip, saying it was intended “to provide congressional staff members with an opportunity to engage directly with Chinese counterparts and to express their concerns about Chinese actions and malign behavior quite directly.”
“I share your concerns about foreign influence operations,” he told Rubio at the hearing.
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