After Russia invaded Ukraine early last year, the Biden administration decided to hit Moscow where it hurts the most — in the pocketbook.
The U.S. Treasury imposed sweeping sanctions on nearly 80% of all banking assets in Russia, a move designed to have a “deep and long-lasting effect on the Russian economy and financial system.”
Though the sanctions haven’t prevented Russian President Vladimir Putin from financing the war, they have tightened the screws on Russia’s financial transactions and disrupted supply chains throughout the global economy, reverberating even on Washington’s K Street with its lucrative foreign lobbying contracts.
Former Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, and his team at Mercury Public Affairs, a big D.C. lobbying firm, were forced to terminate a contract with Russian bank Sovcombank to comply with the new U.S. sanctions. Vitter had begun working for Sovcombank just the month before, and the bank had agreed to pay Mercury $90,000 a month for its services, according to required Foreign Agent Registration Act, or FARA, disclosures filed with the Justice Department.
In his role as co-chairman of Mercury, Vitter since 2018 has maintained another far more lucrative FARA contract with Hikvision, the U.S.-sanctioned Chinese surveillance tech firm. Over the last several years, the United States has found Hikvision responsible for assisting the Chinese government’s genocide against the Uyghur Muslims through the Chinese Communist Party’s broad use of its cameras to track and surveil Uyghur populations and monitor an estimated 1 million Uyghurs forced into detention camps.
The United States also has deemed Hikvision a national security risk and imposed wide-ranging restrictions on using, buying and selling Hikvision video surveillance products in the U.S. Yet Hikvision and other Chinese companies under U.S. sanctions can still lawfully hire D.C. lobbyists and lawyers – at least for now, though there’s a growing movement to impose new restrictions on the practice.
Vitter and former Rep. Toby Moffett, a Democrat who represented Connecticut in the House for eight years from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, both lobby their former Capitol Hill colleagues on behalf of Hikvision. The Chinese-controlled camera and surveillance company has paid Mercury a total of $6.35 million for the service since 2018, according to an analysis of required Justice Department filings by IPVM, a U.S. security and surveillance research group.
Mercury is just one of five lobbying firms representing Hikvision’s interests in Washington. Since 2018, Hikvision has spent a combined $25.23 million on D.C. lobbying, more than double that of Huawei, China’s biggest telecommunications firm, in the same period, IPVM found. Huawei faces nearly identical U.S. sanctions as Hikvision.
“These former members and top staffers are all being highly paid -- it’s a second career for them,” said Donald Maye, head of operations for IPVM.
“It’s just confounding to me that people who speak so highly of their public service are helping a Chinese company navigate sanctions designed to limit exposure of this spying technology on the American people, and the U.S. government is allowing it,” he added.
Vitter and Moffett are hardly alone. China has vastly expanded its U.S. lobbying efforts in recent years, hiring bipartisan teams of former members of Congress and key Capitol Hill and administrative staff even as Washington has increasingly grown far more critical of China, its stepped-up military power, and growing financial influence around the world.
Former members of Congress who have lobbied for Chinese businesses include Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley, and Rep. Jeff Denham, a California Republican and former U.S. Air Force veteran, to name just a few.
Since 2016, China has spent nearly $334 million on its lobbying efforts and propaganda outlets in the United States, more than any other nation and twice as much as Russia, according to an opensecrets.org analysis of lobbying registration and disclosure reports.
Those figures, however, don’t tell the whole story. Some Chinese businesses, such as TikTok, have U.S. operations and are only required to file lobbying disclosure forms with the U.S. Senate, not the more stringent FARA disclosure required by Justice Department.
Human rights advocates and national security experts urging a tougher line on China are outraged by the revolving door of former members willing to cash in on their public service to help a U.S. adversary. During the height of the Cold War, they argue, no reputable Washington law or lobbying firm would have taken on a Soviet client.
“It’s unconscionable that any government official would shop their connections and expertise to a foreign adversary, let alone the Chinese Communist Party,” Rep. Mike Gallagher, who chairs the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, told RealClearPolitics in an emailed statement. “If you’ve had the privilege of serving the American people at the highest levels of government, you should not be able to sell out the country when you retire.”
Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican, and Rep. Jared Golden, a Maine Democrat, plan to re-introduce a bill they co-authored in 2021 that would prevent members of Congress and high-ranking government officials from lobbying on behalf of U.S. adversaries.
In 2021, the measure died after being referred to a House Judiciary subcommittee. Gallagher and other proponents of stricter foreign lobbying laws believe there is far greater momentum for it now with growing concern over Beijing’s greater military power and spying threats, as well as increased worldwide recognition of China’s human rights abuses.
Gallagher released his first set of policy recommendations earlier this week following the select committee’s three hearings laying out the threat posed by China and detailing the ongoing abuses against Uyghur Muslims. One report calls on Congress to pass additional sanctions to hold China accountable for its crimes against the minority group. Another report stresses the need to enhance U.S. military capabilities to help deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
Other critics of China lobbying want to ban the practice altogether. For the first time, the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, a bipartisan federal agency that monitors religious freedom violations around the world, officially called for a federal prohibition of all lobbying groups and law firms representing the Chinese government and Chinese entities.
The commissioners in early May called on Congress to reintroduce the Stop Helping Adversaries Manipulate Everything, or SHAME Act. The bill, which would prohibit any U.S. individual from accepting compensation for serving as an agent of or a lobbyist for a foreign adversary, is sponsored by GOP Reps. Joe Wilson, Jim Banks, Chris Smith, and Democrats Elissa Slotkin and Steve Cohen.
“Untold profits are being raked in by lobbyists willing to whitewash the record and aims of the Chinese Community Party and government,” all nine USCIRF commissioners wrote in a statement in its annual report. “It’s time to make this activity illegal.”
“As the commission’s report documents, the Chinese government is an equal opportunity persecutor of people of faith — Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Uyghur Muslims, and Falun Gong practitioners,” the commissioners added.
Frank Wolf, a USCIRF commissioner and a longtime human rights champion who served 3½ decades in Congress, argues that nothing but a total ban will prevent the Chinese influence operation funds from seeping into Washington.
“If you believe in the Reagan Doctrine, no one should represent China in the U.S. today,” he said in an interview. Placing piecemeal restrictions on lobbying for China won’t be effective, Wolf argued, because the big firms with foreign clients, such as Squire Patton Boggs and Mercury Public Affairs, will still hold fundraisers for members of Congress and get the access they need even if they abide by some new restrictions.
In 1998, then-Rep. Wolf authored the International Religious Freedom Act, which made faith-based liberty a greater priority in U.S. foreign policy. While serving in Congress, Vitter also was known for standing up to China on human rights. In 2015, the Louisiana Republican co-sponsored an amendment requiring the Obama administration to consider countries’ religious freedom when negotiating trade agreements.
Those bills didn’t prevent Congress from continuing permanent normal trade relations status for China, as it has done since 2000 after a years-long push by free traders and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Advocates for granting China easy access to U.S. markets and vice versa argued that it would help democratize China as its citizens gained more access to U.S. goods and technology.
“They kept saying this will change China, and they will become just like us, but that has not worked out,” Wolf recalled. The Virginia Republican cited the genocide against the Uyghurs, a crackdown in Hong Kong, and a series of repressive CCP campaigns against Christians and Catholic churches and their leaders, Tibetans, Falun Gong practitioners, and dissidents of any kind.
So far, at least, lawmakers have shown little shame over their lucrative contracts with Chinese entities, and the harsher Washington rhetoric and actions against Beijing have only increased the flow of Chinese money to the nation’s capital.
Over the past two years, tensions have repeatedly flared between Washington and Beijing over China’s lack of transparency about the COVID pandemic’s origins, its new ties to Russia after the Ukraine invasion, its aggression against Taiwan, and conflict over a visit to the U.S. by Taiwan’s president. In February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a planned trip after a Chinese surveillance balloon traversed the United States.
As the G-7 summit in Japan came to a close last week, President Biden said he predicted a coming “thaw” with China even though the meeting between top U.S. allies took several steps to tackle Beijing’s economic intimidation tactics. Afterward, China retaliated by announcing that it had warned its telecommunications companies and state-owned banks against purchasing products from Micron Technology, a U.S. semiconductor manufacturer that China said poses national security risks, a charge the Biden administration vehemently disputes.
Denham and Crowley, who was the No. 4 House Democrat before losing a 2018 primary election challenge from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are lobbying on behalf of TikTok as lawmakers weigh banning the popular social media platform.
Other former lawmakers and prominent U.S. dignitaries, including former Sen. Max Baucus, who served as Obama’s ambassador to China, and former Speaker John Boehner, aren’t required to register as lobbyists but still can accept lucrative contracts advising Chinese entities in Washington.
Even before Obama tapped him to be the chief U.S. diplomat in Beijing, Baucus had advised the U.S.-China Policy Foundation, which was funded by U.S. branches of Chinese banks and Huawei.
The rules governing disclosure are loose, with obvious loopholes. For instance, individuals advising a company that is technically not considered subsidized or controlled by a foreign government, such as TikTok, don’t have to register as lobbyists if their lobbying activities constitute less than 20% of their services for that client over a three-month period. The law allows the lobbyists themselves to determine the 20% filing threshold.
In addition to TikTok, Hikvision has hired several former members of Congress and top U.S. officials to help it fight increasingly severe U.S. sanctions.
In 2018, Congress banned the use of Hikvision and Dahua (another Chinese video-surveillance company) products throughout the U.S. government and for U.S.-funded contracts. The following year, the two companies were two of 28 entities added to a sanctioned blacklist of firms implicated in human rights violations and abuses in implementing China’s campaign of repression against the Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minority groups in China’s Xinjiang region.
The Federal Communications Commission has layered on more sanctions over the last two years, while U.S. intelligence agencies have warned of Hikvision’s attempts to circumvent the ban on sales to the U.S. government by disguising it as the source of the products.
In early March, Mike McCaul and Gregory Meeks, the top Republican and Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, respectively, called on the Biden administration to impose harsher human rights sanctions on Hikvision.
A warning about Hikvision’s deceptive U.S. sales practices, which cited a Defense Intelligence Agency finding, also was part of last month’s massive trove of classified documents leaked by 21-year-old National Guardsman Jack Teixeira.
In addition to Vitter and Moffett, Mercury hired Peter Kucik, a former senior sanctions policy adviser at the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions, and added him to the Hikvision account. Kucik’s 2021 hiring was announced just days after the Wall Street Journal reported on new research on Hikvision’s ties to the Chinese military. More recently, Hikvision added Pierre-Richard Prosper, an attorney for ArentFox Schiff, a D.C. law and lobbying firm, to its U.S. advocacy and legal team, although he has not registered as a lobbyist for Hikvision and may not have to according to complicated disclosure rules. Prosper served as the U.S. State Department’s ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues in the mid-2000s and previously as a war crimes prosecutor at the United Nations in the late 1990s.
At least one former lawmaker-turned-Hikvision lobbyist cut ties to the company after a public intra-party backlash. Sen. Barbara Boxer signed on with Mercury and registered as a foreign agent for Hikvision in early 2021 but quickly de-registered after Biden’s Inauguration Committee returned her donation of $500, citing her work for the massive Chinese tech company.
Vitter and Moffett, however, have continued their lobbying roles, with Vitter proclaiming himself as a “proud member of the Hikvision team” and disparaging Sen. Marco Rubio as “anti-China” in an audio recording of a Hikvision USA employee conference call, obtained by IPVM in 2019.
Vitter’s political donations also have continued to flow to several GOP members, including now-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who has made investigating China a top priority of his House leadership this year. Vitter sent a $1,500 check to McCarthy’s re-election committee in 2022 and another $2,500 in 2020.
After RCP asked about the Vitter donations, a McCarthy campaign spokesman said it plans to donate the funds to charity at the end of the quarter, a sign of the growing unease about foreign influence-peddling especially by sanctioned Chinese companies.
After becoming speaker earlier this year, McCarthy created several select committees to investigate the threat China poses to the U.S. and called the CCP “the greatest geopolitical threat of our lifetime.”
"We need a whole-of-government approach that will build on the efforts of the Republican-led China Task Force and ensure America is prepared to tackle the economic and security challenges posed by the CCP,” he said, previewing his plans in late December.
Aside from national security concerns, Wolf and others also say China’s egregious human rights abuses should be enough to stop the revolving door from Capitol Hill to K Street.
Wolf points to new well-documented evidence of CCP-directed organ harvesting from detained Uyghurs and other prisoners of conscience while they remained alive or before they were declared brain-dead, a severe violation of international ethical norms.
Louisa Greve, the director of global advocacy for the Uyghur Human Rights Project, said every U.S. law and lobbying firm faces a clear choice on whether to help support companies involved or directly implicated in egregious human rights violations.
“It is un-American and unconscionable for anyone — and certainly public servants who in their time promised their voters they would serve the public good and who retain the title of honorable after they serve — to immediately go and help a genocidal regime,” she said in an interview.
In the case of Russia, it took the Ukraine invasion to force U.S. lobbyists to end their lucrative contracts and comply with the sweeping new laws.
Does Greve think only an invasion of Taiwan will force similar U.S. prohibitions on China lobbying?
“The red line should be genocide,” she said, “and a recognition of our strategic interest to preserve the basic framework of freedom for ourselves and our allies and anyone else who wants to join a world governed by the rule of law and peaceful trade.”