President Joe Biden’s nominee for CIA director spoke candidly on Wednesday about the Chinese government’s authoritarian bent, and its use of front groups to influence U.S. policy towards Beijing. William Burns also faced questions about his tenure at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which had a relationship with one of the Chinese government front groups. Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee that shortly after he took over at Carnegie in 2015, he severed ties with the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation due to “expansion of Chinese influence operations.” Despite the claim, Carnegie and the foundation maintained a relationship as late as 2017.
William Burns, the nominee for CIA director, called the Chinese government a “formidable, authoritarian adversary” during his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, while facing questions about his tenure as president of a foreign policy think tank that received funding from a businessman and Chinese front group with links to the Chinese Communist Party.
During the hearing, Burns addressed a relationship between the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which he took over in March 2015, and the Chinese-U.S. Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), a Hong Kong-based think tank that operates under the direction of the Chinese Communist Party.
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, a communist party-affiliated president of Tsinghua University.
The Daily Caller News Foundation reported this month that CUSEF contributed between $200,000 and $500,000 to Carnegie while Burns led the organization.
A Chinese businessman who serves on one of the communist party’s advisory boards joined Carnegie as a trustee. Zhang Yichen, the businessman, also donated between $750,000 and $1,550,000 to the think tank. Carnegie has used the contributions to help fund the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center, which is based in Beijing.
“We are very fortunate to have Zhang Yichen on our board,” Burns said in October 2016, when Zhang joined Carnegie.
While Burns’ tenure at Carnegie may have caused some concerns for Republicans, he offered an aggressive rebuke of the Chinese Communist Party (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 as part of a “whole-of-government approach…to try and influence political, economic, and cultural developments to benefit CCP interests.”
Burns said in the written response that he agreed that the government “mobilizes and directs” businesses, non-government organizations and members of the Chinese expatriate community “to diversify influence efforts and transmit their views in multiple channels.”
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 said in written responses released before the hearing.
During the Trump administration, U.S. officials ramped up 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 on Jan. 26.
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.”
Rubio also quizzed Burns about the DCNF’s reporting on invitations he issued on behalf of Carnegie to congressional staffers for an all-expenses-paid junket 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 (CPAFFC), a front group affiliated with the communist party.
Burns defended the congressional trip, saying that 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.