Brookings Institution Boosts China Initiatives Linked to Board Member

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Choo Choo

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November 03, 2021

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The namesake of the Brookings Institution’s China Center chairs a company that facilitates investments in China’s global infrastructure initiative and has served on the board of an alleged Chinese propaganda agency, facts that were not disclosed in Brookings literature on those topics.

John L. Thornton, the chairman emeritus of the Brookings board of trustees, has served since 2016 as chairman of the Silk Road Finance Corporation, a Communist Party-backed fund that develops projects for the Belt and Road Initiative, which the U.S. government considers a national security threat. He is on the board of China’s Confucius Institutes, which Beijing allegedly uses to advance propaganda in American schools. Scholars at Brookings’s John L. Thornton China Center have defended “Belt and Road” and Confucius Institutes without disclosing that Thornton serves on organizations that support the initiatives.

Brookings and other prominent think tanks in recent years have come under intense scrutiny amid concerns that they serve as shadow lobbying organizations for their corporate and foreign government donors. The Chinese government’s partnerships with think tanks have especially drawn scrutiny because of Beijing’s intense foreign propaganda efforts. The Washington Free Beacon reported that Brookings partnered with Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, which the FBI has investigated for spy activity. Brookings and the academy have hosted multiple forums in recent years to encourage Belt and Road projects in the Middle East.

Thornton, a former president of Goldman Sachs, has since 2004 given at least $16 million to Brookings, including $5 million to form the China Center, according to Brookings’s annual reports.

Thornton’s perch at Brookings and his ties to Wall Street have given him extensive access to Chinese government officials. He reportedly spent six weeks this summer meeting officials in Beijing and Xinjiang as part of unofficial backchannel diplomatic talks. Thornton reportedly consulted with the White House before he made the trip, suggesting that he had some approval from the Biden administration.

Thornton, who in 2008 was awarded China’s friendship medal, in 2018 formed a consortium of Wall Street bankers to maintain dialogue with their Chinese counterparts amid escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing. Wall Street sees China as an untapped investment opportunity, while critics fear that investments in China will create national security risks and make companies beholden to the authoritarian Chinese government.

A leading transparency watchdog group says think tanks like Brookings are vulnerable to foreign overtures because of their ability to influence public policy. At least 17 Brookings scholars have joined the Biden administration. Former Brookings China fellow Rush Doshi serves as director of the National Security Council’s China portfolio.

“The more prestigious you are, that means you’re more of an attractive target for an international player like China, Saudi Arabia,” said Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, the government affairs manager at the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog group. “The more well known you are, the mor…

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