PRC Influence via the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 13

CPAFFC Chair Yang Wanming visiting Cagayan, Philippines, on December 16, 2023. (Source: Wikipedia)

Executive Summary:

  • The Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC; 中国人民对外友好协会) is one united front organization among thousands that, along with its affiliate organizations, continues to work with numerous local government officials and organizations across the United States.
  • CPAFFC supports people-to-people diplomacy, public diplomacy, and city-to-city diplomacy to advance the Party’s global agenda beyond the reach—and notice—of national governments overseas.
  • A lack of transparency about united front organizations’ perceptions leads to local officials in the United States and elsewhere unwittingly being coopted into promoting party narratives and burnishing the PRC’s reputation.
  • Examples of CPAFFC activity include the US-China Bay to Bay Dialogue at the UC Berkeley California-China Climate Institute, relationships cultivated with the ‘Flying Tigers’ veteran air force pilots, exchanges with the University of Virginia, and the series of China-US Sister Cities Conferences.

At the end of May, California Governor Gavin Newsom attended the US-China Bay to Bay Dialogue (中美湾区对话) in Berkeley (Xinhua, May 31). A UC Berkeley California-China Climate Institute press release proclaimed that the dialogue spurred new initiatives between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States (Berkeley CCCI, May 29). It neglected to mention, however, that the dialogue was cohosted by the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC; 中国人民对外友好协会). In October 2020, CPAFFC was called out by then-Secretary of State Pompeo for seeking to “directly and malignly influence state and local leaders to promote the PRC’s global agenda” (US State Department, October 28, 2020).

CPAFFC is a Ministry of Foreign Affairs-linked organization that falls under the united front system, which is used to control and mobilize organizations and individuals on the Party’s behalf. Like his predecessors, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Xi Jinping has emphasized that the united front is instrumental in realizing the Party’s domestic and international ambitions. [1] Despite being a key part of the Party’s united front system, CPAFFC and its affiliated organizations continue to work with numerous local government officials and organizations across the United States.

CPAFFC and its Three Missions

Established in 1954, CPAFFC was set up to “lay and expand the social foundation for friendly relations between the PRC and other nations, and garner broad international support for the cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics” (CPAFFC, May 2012). The organization usually forms part of the government’s foreign affairs offices at the local level despite self-identifying as a non-governmental organization (NGO). It is often headed by officials belonging to the united front system. Its current president, Yang Wanming (杨万明), was formerly deputy director of the Central Hong Kong and Macau Work Office. Its previous president, Li Xiaolin (李小林), was a member of the CPPCC—the highest-ranking body in the united front system, of which Li’s father, Li Xiannian (李先念), was once chairman. Another former president, Lin Songtian (林松添), is now deputy director of the CPPCC’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

Lin has stated that the organization’s three main roles are to “spearhead people-to-people diplomacy, serve as the backbone of public diplomacy, and act as a bridge in city diplomacy” (Huai’an City Government, March 7, 2023). At an event in October 2021 commemorating the centenary of the birth of American nuclear physicist Joan Hinton, [2] Lin stated that CPAFFC would continue to “unite all forces that can be united, actively engage in fostering mutual understanding between the Chinese and foreign peoples, and promote the great cause of building a community of common destiny for mankind” (Guangxi Government, October 22, 2021). [3] In this way, CPAFFC supports the Party’s global ambitions.

Spearheading ‘People-To-People’ Diplomacy

People-to-people diplomacy usually entails relationship-building via NGOs and individuals of different states. For the PRC, however, it reflects of the CCP’s mass line and its theory of the united front (CPIFA, 2019). At a Tsinghua University seminar in 2009, Li Xiaolin articulated the concept as “targeted cooperation with foreign organizations and individuals” through which they “come to understand and love the PRC.” The aim of these activities is to “create a favorable and friendly atmosphere … toward the PRC.” All this occurs “under the organization and support of the [PRC] government at all levels” (Charhar Institute, April 10, 2013). [4]

In May 2014 at an event to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the CPAFFC, Xi Jinping stated that the organization should “make friends widely and establish good relationships” and “create more platforms for cooperation and guide foreign institutions and outstanding talents to participate in the PRC’s modernization efforts” (Xinhua, May 15, 2014). Lin Songtian has also described people-to-people diplomacy as “mobilizing the enthusiasm of local friendship associations, sister cities, and friends to form a synergistic effort” (CIIS, May 24, 2022). If done successfully, it should lead to foreigners “sympathizing with, supporting, and explaining the cause of the CCP” (CPIFA, 2019).

A good example of CPAFFC’s people-to-people diplomacy is the relationship it has built with the First American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Republic of China Air Force, also known as the Flying Tigers. Following Xi Jinping’s letter to the Sino-American Aviation Heritage Foundation and Flying Tigers veterans in late October 2023, CPAFFC hosted the 80th Anniversary of the US 14th Air Force’s Participation in China’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression at Beijing’s museum to commemorate the war (China Diplomacy, October 31, 2023). The foundation, Flying Tigers veterans and their families, and California local government officials attended the event. Jeffrey Greene, the foundation’s current chair, stated at the event that “the veterans of the Flying Tigers, as well as the younger generation, will continue to tell stories of the friendly exchanges between our two countries when they return to the United States.” Earlier this year, CPAFFC President Yang visited the Jack Lund Schofield Middle School in Las Vegas, Nevada (Lhasa Government, February 5). The school is the first “Flying Tigers Friendship School” in the United States. It was established under an MOU signed in September 2022 by representatives from the school and the Liuzhou People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (柳州市人民对外友好协会), a local branch of CPAFFC. During the visit, Yang announced an exchange and study program for students to visit the PRC to enhance friendships and strengthen relationships between Chinese and American youth (China Military, June 15, 2023).

Another example is that of the Beijing People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (BPAFFC; 北京市人民对外友好协会), a branch of CPAFFC that receives guidance from CPAFFC. BPAFFC recently invited a student delegation from the University of Virginia (UVA) to visit Beijing (Tsinghua University, January 10). The trip constituted a January Term course titled “Game Change: Bridging the US-China Divide through Sport” whose instructors were Stephen Mull, Vice Provost for Global Affairs at UVA and former Acting Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, and Justin O’Jack, Chief Representative of the UVA China Office (UVA, accessed June 11). UVA students attended the US-China Youth Ping-Pong Exchange at Tsinghua University co-hosted by BPAFFC to commemorate China-US “Ping Pong Diplomacy” and the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the PRC and the United States (Tsinghua University, January 10). The delegation also attended a reception jointly held by CPAFFC and the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (CPIFA; 中国人民外交学会), an initiative established by then-PRC Premier and Minister of Foreign Affairs Zhou Enlai in 1949 as the first people-to-people diplomacy entity (CPIFA, Accessed June 14). As head of the delegation, Mull hoped that UVA students would “experience China’s long history and culture and establish a lasting friendship between both parties.” In the future, he added, UVA hopes to “organize more Chinese-American student exchange activities to encourage more American students to come to China and experience it” (News China, January 11).

People-to-people diplomacy is a proven tool for the PRC to foster favorable international perceptions and enhance its soft power. Student programs set up through CPAFFC promote the Party’s narratives of what the “real China” is like, while bypassing official diplomatic channels. These activities persist despite US State Department warnings that US citizens should “reconsider travel to Mainland China due to the arbitrary enforcement of local laws, including in relation to exit bans, and the risk of wrongful detentions” (US DoS, April 12). When executed effectively, such engagements create a dissonance between the participants’ personal experiences and the concerns expressed by their own government.

‘Serving as the Backbone of Public Diplomacy’

Public diplomacy, according to a Former Director of the State Council Information Office, covers international exchange activities that express and explain a country’s situation and policies to foreigners. This is done by the government, public organizations, the media, and individuals (Qiushi, April 11, 2018). For CPAFFC, public diplomacy is expected to serve the government’s needs by using its relationships and resources to support the dissemination of propaganda. Xi expects CPAFFC to “participate widely in activities of international NGOs, spreading China’s voice and telling China’s stories well, and presenting to the world an authentic, multidimensional, and comprehensive China” (Xinhua, May 15, 2014). In practical terms, Lin Songtian takes this to mean “mobilizing think tanks, the media, and online platforms both domestically and internationally, and effectively connecting, establishing, and utilizing these networks and platforms, and striving to achieve the ‘four haves (四有)’ goal of ‘having places to speak, having people to speak to, having people to listen, and having people to believe in what is heard’” (CIIS, May 24, 2022).

In October 2023, CPAFFC co-hosted the 8th China Global Think Tank Innovation Forum with the Center for China & Globalization (CCG), an organization that is part of the united front system (CCG, October 23, 2023). The event, says CPAFFC President Yang, “enabled CPAFFC and CCG to strengthen links and exchanges with think tanks around the world and lay a foundation for future dialogue and cooperation.” He encouraged attendees to “implement pathways to serve building a community of common destiny for mankind through their work.” Michael Pillsbury, Joseph Nye, Doug Bandow, and Colin Bradford were among those who took part. [5]

Earlier this year, Yang took a 12-day trip to the United States, visiting Washington D.C., Nevada, Texas, California, and Washington. The aim of the trip was to “promote the implementation of the important consensus reached at the San Francisco meeting between the PRC and US heads of state at the grassroots and local levels.” During his trip, he met with former US officials, including former governor of Missouri Bob Holden and former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas A. Shannon Jr., as well as think tanks such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Stimson Center, and the Wilson Center (Guangxi Government, February 5). Yang also met Clarence E. Anthony, CEO and Executive Director of the National League of Cities (NLC), which its website calls “the largest and oldest organization representing America’s cities, towns, and villages, and their leaders” (NLC, accessed June 11).

The PRC uses public diplomacy to shape narratives overseas and foster strategic alliances. Those who attend CPAFFC events provide platforms for advancing PRC messaging, implicitly condoning its activities regardless of the meetings’ outcomes. These meetings are then covered in state media for domestic audiences, allowing US entities to provide the CCP with a veneer of legitimacy.

‘A Bridge in City Diplomacy’

CPAFFC has a long history of helping build friendly relationships between cities. In March 1992, it initiated the China International Friendship Cities Association (中国国际友好城市联合会) to promote exchanges and cooperation between PRC and foreign cities and local governments in economic, political, cultural, and social domains (Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture Government, September 8, 2008; Dongguan City Government, February 15, 2012). This cooperation is, in part, intended to serve the development of the PRC and its provinces. In May 2014, at the 60th Anniversary of the Founding of CPAFFC, Xi Jinping used the term “city diplomacy” to describe this kind of work—the first time it had been used by a national leader (Charhar Institute, September 1, 2017). He demanded that CPAFFC “vigorously carry out the work of the PRC’s international sister cities, enhance exchanges between local governments at home and abroad, and promote resource sharing, complementary advantages, and win-win cooperation)” (Xinhua, May 15, 2014).

At this year’s Bay to Bay Dialogue in Berkeley, Yang Wanming said that he hoped to use this dialogue as “a new starting point to actively promote provinces, states, and cities in China and the United States to fully demonstrate local vitality,” aligning with the organization’s role in acting as a bridge in city diplomacy (Xinhua, May 31). The dialogue appeared to have achieved CPAFFC’s desired results. At the event, Governor Newsom stated that the two bay areas “have broad common interests in areas such as jointly addressing climate change, new energy technologies and industries, and sustainable development.” The fact that this other “bay area” is an initiative started by Xi Jinping that leverages Hong Kong’s international status to support Beijing’s military-civil fusion development strategy went unmentioned (China Brief, January 19).

In November 2023, CPAFFC hosted the Fifth China-US Sister Cities Conference (第五届中美友城大会) in Suzhou alongside the Jiangsu government. At the opening ceremony, Vice Chairman of the CPPCC Zhu Yongxin (朱永新) read out a letter to the conference from Xi (Jiangsu CCP Committee, November 4, 2023). Attendees came from over 10 PRC provinces and nearly 20 US counties and cities. California’s delegation included six city and county heads and was organized by the US-Sino Friendship Association (美华友好协会), a united front organization headed by Simon Pang (冯振发) (Shanghai Government, November 8, 2023). Pang has been awarded the honorary title of “Sino-US Friendship Envoy (中美友好使者)” from CPAFFC and is also an Overseas Honorary Director of Shanghai People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (SPAFFC) (Sohu, December 12, 2019; Shanghai Government, November 8, 2023). SPAFFC receives guidance from CPAFFC (Shanghai Government, September 7, 2022). In December 2021, Pang was appointed by President Biden as a commissioner to the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (White House, December 20, 2021). Carol Lopez, Chair Emeritus of Sister Cities International—an organization founded by President Eisenhower in 1956 to “bring peace through people-to-people diplomacy”—also attended the event, as did others such as the mayor of Rochester, Minnesota and a former majority leader of the California State Senate (People’s Daily, November 4, 2023).

Subnational diplomacy provides a key avenue for the CPAFFC to advance the Party’s agenda. The US officials and civil society members who attend the events and meetings it hosts are often not fully aware of how the CCP operates by using local partnerships to promote national-level strategies that harm US interests. The Party exploits these spaces where the United States currently lacks the capacity to respond effectively.


CPAFFC is one among thousands of organizations the Party instrumentalizes to achieve its global ambitions. Most of these organizations operate as nonprofits or NGOs, including a large number in the United States. CPAFFC is one of the few that have been noticed. In October 2020, the US State Department described CPAFFC as being “tasked with co-opting subnational governments” and consequently withdrew its participation in a 2011 MOU between the United States and the PRC that supported the creation of a US-China National Governors Forum (US Department of State, October 28, 2020). Nevertheless, the organization remains active in arranging meetings with local US officials and fostering relationships between the United States and the PRC. Many state and local officials, universities, think tanks, and other organizations in the United States seem unaware of the broader objectives behind the initiatives and exchanges that CPAFFC facilitates. More concerning is the sense that at least some of these officials and organizations appear comfortable ignoring CCP attempts to expand its influence in the United States.


[1] For more on how the CCP aims to use united front work to achieve its global ambitions, see the following: Tobin, Daniel. “How Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’ Should Have Ended U.S. Debate on Beijing’s Ambitions.” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, March 13, 2020.; Tobin, Liza. “Xi’s Vision for Transforming Global Governance: A Strategic Challenge for Washington and Its Allies.” Texas National Security Review, November 2018.; Jinping, Xi. “Speech at a Ceremony Marking the Centenary of the Communist Party of China.” Xinhua July 1, 2021.; Mattis, Peter. “Out with the New, In with the Old: Interpreting China’s ‘New Type of International Relations’.” China Brief, April 25, 2013.; Joske, Alex. “Reorganizing the United Front Work Department: New Structures for a New Era of Diaspora and Religious Affairs Work.” China Brief, May 9, 2019.; Mattis, Peter and Joske, Alex. “The Third Magic Weapon: Reforming China’s United Front.” War on the Rocks, June 24, 2019.

[2] Joan Hinton and her husband Erwin Engst were firm believers in communism and adherents of Mao Zedong, as was Joan’s brother, William H. Hinton, one of the most prominent pro-CCP Americans of the 20th Century. Between 1975 and 1977, they were invited by the US–China Peoples Friendship Association to give speeches in the United States, of which William H. Hinton was the first national chairman. They were all considered “Good Friends of the Chinese People.”

[3] The phrase “Unite all forces that can be united” is part of the guiding language of the united front. In April 1956, at a meeting with representatives from parties in Latin American countries, Mao Zedong said, “we must unite with all those who can be united. In this way, we can reduce the number of enemies to the smallest number … for us, the more friends the better and the fewer enemies the better.” In 1981, the CCP Central Committee passed a resolution that stated, “we must unswervingly unite all forces that can be united to consolidate and expand the patriotic united front.” In July 2021, Xi Jinping too said that the CCP “constantly consolidates and develops the broadest united front, unites all forces that can be united, and mobilizes all positive factors that can be mobilized” and that “the patriotic united front is an important magic weapon for the CCP to unite all Chinese people at home and abroad to realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” United front work is “the CCP’s efforts to strengthen and expand the united front by influencing and co‑opting targets.” See Joske, Alex. “The Party Speaks For You.” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, June 9, 2020.

[4] The full quote reads as follows: “People-to-people diplomacy is under the organization and support of the government at all levels. Specific institutions and individuals have emerged in a non-governmental form to carry out targeted cooperation with foreign organizations and individuals. Through these exchanges and collaborations, foreign organizations and individuals come to understand and love the PRC, and subsequently leverage these organizations and individuals’ influence in their own countries to gradually create a favorable and friendly atmosphere and public opinion toward the PRC, promoting the deepening of bilateral relations (在各级政府的组织和⽀持下,由特定的机构和⼈⼠以民间形式出现,有针对性地与国外组织和个⼈开展合作。 通过这些交流合作,使国外的组织和个⼈了解中国、热爱中国,进⽽借重这些组织和个⼈在本国的影响⼒,逐步在该国 形成对华友好的积极⽓氛和舆论环境,推动该国对华关系的发展深化。民间外交可以以更直接、更具亲和⼒的形式做好 外国公众和主流社会⼈⼠的友好⼯作,可以更有效地展⽰本国的⽂化吸引⼒和政治影响⼒,改善国际舆论环境,维护国家利益).”

[5] Michael Pillsbury is a Senior Fellow at The Heritage Foundation; Joseph Nye is University a Distinguished Service Professor, Emeritus and former Dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the CATO Institute; and Colin Bradford is a Senior Fellow of the Global Economy and Development Program at the Brookings Institution.