Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a stark message for the governors gathered in Washington this weekend: The Chinese government is watching them, and other state government officials, more closely than they think.
Pompeo told some 44 governors at the National Governors Association winter meeting that they are being individually analyzed by at least one Chinese government-backed think-tank on how malleable they are, and how prone to cooperate with China. And he warned governors to be cautious on everything from business deals to pension funds to D.C. Metro cards.
“They’ve labeled each of you friendly, hardline or ambiguous,” he said, describing a report put out by the think tank last year. “I’ll let you decide where you think you belong. Someone in China already has. Many of you indeed, in the report are referenced by name.”
Saying that China’s efforts have become more methodical than ever, Pompeo told the governors to verify business inquiries and “not to make separate individual deals” with China that could “undermine national policy.”
“And, in fact, whether you are viewed by the [Communist Party of China] as friendly or hardline, know that it’s working you, know that it’s working the team around you,” Pompeo, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, warned. “Competition with China is happening inside of your state, and it affects our capacity to perform America’s vital national security functions.”
But he argued that some Chinese activities, like Confucius Institute students spreading Chinese government-run messages, require a hyper-vigilance from governors.
“Today they have free reign in our system and we’re completely shut out from theirs,” he said.
Pompeo said the Trump administration is working to address the dynamic with actions like seeking international affirmation that Taiwan is a key business partner, and strengthening the review process for Chinese companies in the U.S. He advised states to consult with the federal government when approached with new propositions linked to China.
“You get curveballs every day from all across the place,” Pompeo said. “But don’t lose sight of the competition with China that’s already present in your state. Let’s all rise to the occasion and protect our security, our continent, and all that we hold dear, all of our freedoms.”
Governors seemed supportive.
“His word was simply to be cautious,” Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas said following the speech. “And obviously when you’re dealing with a communist nation that doesn’t have the same regard for freedom that we do, caution is a good word.”
In the spirit of the NGA event’s supposed bipartisan nature, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said the warning seemed at least an easy one to rally around.
“You’re talking to Democratic governors; you’re talking to Republican governors and it’s a politicized time,” he said. “I thought the topic was appropriate because it was not political. ‘Let me talk to you about China; you have to worry about China.’ It was a safe topic, it was not a political topic.”