World News

Does Praise for China Make Group a ‘Foreign Agent’? Republicans Say it Might

Posted June 7, 2018 5:17 p.m. EDT
Updated June 7, 2018 5:18 p.m. EDT

HONG KONG — Two House Republicans have questioned a prominent U.S. environmental group, contending that by praising China’s efforts to reduce pollution while criticizing American shortcomings it could be working as an agent of Chinese influence.

A June 5 letter from two leading Republicans on the House Committee on Natural Resources to the nonprofit environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, requested documents on its relationship with the Chinese government and answers to questions on whether it should register as a foreign agent.

The NRDC, which was founded in 1970 and has about 2.4 million members, has fought efforts to scale back environmental protections in the United States, suing the Trump administration about once every 10 days, according to NRDC officials. The group has also worked for years in China to improve the country’s air quality and reduce carbon emissions.

The letter, from Reps. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, and Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., chairman of the panel’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations, suggested the difference between the group’s aggressive stance in the United States and a more moderate tone in China meant it was serving Beijing’s interests. The letter was addressed to Rhea Suh, the NRDC’s president.

“The committee is concerned about the NRDC’s role in aiding China’s perception management efforts with respect to pollution control and its international standing on environmental issues in ways that may be detrimental to the United States,” the letter said.

At a time when foreign influence in U.S. politics, particularly from Russia, is a subject of widespread national debate, the lawmakers’ attack on the NRDC could expose the group to criticism for differences in its approaches to working in China and the United States.

China is the world’s biggest source of carbon emissions and its air quality problems are well known, making cleanup efforts there a key goal for international environmental groups. Universities, energy and technology companies and state and local governments have all sought to work with China on curbing pollution.

But China’s authoritarian government is sensitive to criticism and has barred foreigners who have been vocal in exposing shortcomings. Groups that operate in the country and want to influence Chinese policy often have to tread carefully and refrain from the full-throated critiques more common in the United States.

The letter said that the NRDC appears to “practice self-censorship, issue selection bias, and generally refrains from criticizing Chinese officials.”

“The NRDC’s relationship with China has many of the criteria identified by U.S. intelligence agencies and law enforcement as putting an entity at risk of being influenced or coerced by foreign interests,” the letter added.

It said the NRDC had sued the U.S. Navy over sonar testing and its potential harm to marine life, but had not raised similar criticisms with the Chinese military. The environmental group has never condemned China’s extensive work building artificial islands in the South China Sea and praised reforms to its domestic fisheries months after a 2016 Greenpeace study that said Chinese commercial fishing was a threat to fish stocks around the world, the congressmen wrote.

The Republican lawmakers’ letter faced criticism that they were ignoring the difficulties of working in China. Some said their effort echoed Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting in the 1950s, and was a ploy to undermine legitimate criticism of U.S. environmental policy.

“As a former senior attorney working in this program, I can tell you that this is patently ridiculous,” Alex Wang, an assistant law professor at UCLA who was formerly an NRDC senior attorney in Beijing, wrote on Twitter. “NRDC has been trying to hold a Republican administration accountable for weakening environmental measures.”

Rachel Stern, an assistant professor of law and political science at the University of California, Berkeley, said that in a country with a more robust civil society, environmental groups could take a wide variety of approaches, from confrontational to closely cooperative with government and industry, but that because of China’s political environment, few environmental organizations were adversarial.

“I think the NRDC made a calculated decision to pursue different strategies in the United States and in China to be as effective as possible in two very different political contexts,” Stern, who did some consulting work for the group about a decade ago, said by email. “Is there valid criticism of that decision? Absolutely, and I’d expect that there’s been robust debate about this strategy among NRDC board members, donors and members. But is NRDC an agent of Chinese influence in the U.S.? That is a far more serious charge.”

Bob Deans, the environmental group’s director of strategic engagement, said its work to protect the environment was a promotion of American goals and values.

“As the most populous country on Earth, China has much to do with the kind of world the next generation will inherit, in our country and around the world,” he said in a statement. “We’re proud of our work, in China and elsewhere, helping to create a more sustainable future for everyone.”

NRDC officials “look forward to discussing that work with Chairman Bishop and the committee,” he added, referring to the Utah lawmaker.