In business and government, the Editorial Board writes, Utah is vulnerable to Chinese influence

Utah’s attempts to limit social media smell of the Chinese dictatorship.

Sample scripts provided for Utah lawmakers to read in videos requested by the government of Shanghai early in the coronavirus pandemic are photographed Feb. 13, 2023. As tensions with Washington rise, Beijing has focused its influence efforts on state and local officials. Security experts have warned that state lawmakers could be unwitting participants in Chinese government propaganda efforts.(AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

“When it comes time to hang the capitalists, they will vie with each other for the rope contract.”

V.I. Lenin (attributed)

If you had a vague feeling of unease reading about new Utah laws that attempt to control who gets to have social media accounts and what personal information they have to give up to get them, but didn’t know exactly why you felt that way, maybe this will help to explain it.

Utah’s political class, we learn, is increasingly cozying up to the government of China. A place where government control of the internet is widespread and effective. A detailed investigation by the Associated Press has outlined how official and unofficial connections between the Chinese government and people who hold state office in Utah are getting deeper as time goes along.

Nobody is accused of leaving an envelope of state secrets under a bench in Liberty Park. But the fear is that contacts are going beyond the normal cultural exchanges that benefit every nation.

The FBI has been questioning current and former government officials in Utah and others who are related to or have other connections with lawmakers. So far, it seems that the only red flags are moves in the Utah Legislature to say nice things about China. To express sympathy and solidarity for that nation’s COVID-19 outbreak, for example. Or to praise Chinese President Xi Jinping for writing friendly letters to Utah schoolchildren, building up the dictator’s desired image as a kindly grandfather figure.

Utah is seen as a particularly soft target for these operations because our politicians tend to be a more homogenous group — members of both the Republican Party and of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Members of the LDS Church may be particularly vulnerable, the theory goes, as the Chinese government knows how much that institution wishes to spread its influence in that otherwise walled-off society.

Those who run China and those who govern Utah start with much in common. While we may think of China as a communist dictatorship and Utah as a free market paradise, business in both places is often a form of crony capitalism, where who you know is more important than what you can do.

Examples of Beehive and Panda business interests coming together were common in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Utah attempts to scare up coronavirus test kits, protective gear and drugs of questionable value involved dubious deals with Chinese suppliers. At least one Utah businessman who wound up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of receiving from China a shipment of a medicine mislabeled as an herbal supplement.

Also, both are one-party states, where dissent is frowned upon and the government will sometimes move to crack down on personal expression in the name of cultural hygiene. The difference between them is a matter of degree. And success.

Over the years, Utah state officials have spent a lot of their time and your money trying, and failing, to shield their populace from porn, cable TV, the sight of alcoholic beverages being poured in public places and, now, social media.

Gov. Spencer Cox took great pride recently in signing two laws that seek to tell social media platforms who they may accept as users and what they must do to ensure compliance. Part of the process would involve making potential users prove that they are either over the age of 18 or that they have parental consent to be active on social media.

Which seems odd, when one of the most valid complaints about social media platforms is that they already have far too much of our personal information and that, even if those companies do not misuse that data, they are vulnerable to being hacked by some who might.

The stated goal is to guard the many teenagers who indeed seem to spend their lives on Twitter, Instagram and such, where they genuinely are vulnerable to bullying, shaming and other threats to their mental health. Those are real problems.

But these efforts are also clearly a government attempt to control and limit access to a communications medium that it does not own or license. Something that seems to smell much more of the People’s Republic of China than the Great State of Utah.

It is ironic that Utah state officials who are leading these efforts, especially Cox, practically live on social media, especially Twitter. Cox’s personal Twitter account began in 2009 and has more than 87,000 followers. His official governor’s Twitter account has nearly 19,000 followers. He can hardly clear his throat without tweeting about it.

Someone who is so clearly fluent in that form of communication might be more effective spreading good news, factual information and supportive messages to the vulnerable who he might encounter there. Not wasting his time on attempts to shred the spirit of the First Amendment and, in the process, push people away from mainstream platforms and further onto the Dark Web.

Utah state officials should more often ask themselves, “What would Xi Jinping do?” Then do the opposite.