When an email showed up in Sen. Virginia "Ginny" Lyons' inbox in April, written in both English and Chinese, the Democrat from Chittenden County assumed it was spam. That is, until she noticed the message included her home address, phone number and a reference to a bill she'd introduced in January to regulate the disposal of electronics, known as "e-waste."
It's not unheard of for foreigners to comment on proposed state legislation. However, this letter didn't come from a foreign lobbyist, trade group or even the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. It came directly from a government official with the People's Republic of China in Beijing.
In the six-page letter, China claimed that her bill, S.256, "lacks science," would "result in unfairness" and would create "unnecessary obstacles to trade." As a result, China "suggests canceling or revising" the proposed legislation, and offered several pages of possible amendments.
Lyons, who chairs the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, was initially "unnerved" by the official letter, then appalled by its audacity.
"The notion that a foreign national government would try to influence our democratic process and the work we do - in a citizen legislature, especially - was really of great concern to me," Lyons said. "Because it's a public health and an environmental bill, it's of even more concern."
An estimated 50 million tons of discarded electronics from the West are shipped to developing countries each year. S.256, which never made it out of committee, proposes recapturing and recycling some of those electronics, which often contain hazardous materials such as PCBs, mercury, cadmium and lead.
Lyons never responded to the letter from China and said she doesn't intend to. In part, that's because shortly after its arrival, she received an unsolicited message on her home answering machine from someone at the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), informing her that the China letter was "a mistake" and that she should "disregard it."
Lyons might have done so, had this been an isolated incident. But apparently, it's not. In the last year, lawmakers in other states have reported receiving similar letters. Last year, after Maryland House of Delegates Rep. James Hubbard introduced a bill banning lead in children's toys, he received a complaint from Beijing that described his legislation as a "barrier to trade." Hubbard got a second letter from the Chinese after introducing a bill to ban the use of bisphenol A, a compound commonly found in children's toys and plastic bottles. Like Lyons, Hubbard didn't acquiesce to any of China's demands.
Some observers of international trade issues are alarmed by this relatively new phenomenon and are concerned about its chilling effect on state sovereignty.
Peter Riggs is director of the Forum on Democracy and Trade, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., that provides advice to government officials on global trade matters. Riggs describes the letter Lyons received as "a major shot across the bow from Beijing to Burlington."
Riggs isn't sure what's motivating China to weigh in on state-level legislation in the United States, though he has several possible explanations. First, he said, China was only admitted to the World Trade Organization eight years ago and may have finally reached the point where it's comfortable pressing its own interests. The Chinese may also be looking for ways to "push back" against the United States for filing several cases against it with the WTO, including one, joined by Europe and Canada, on auto parts.
Riggs' third theory may be the most problematic: Since the United States is now a signatory to the Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement, it's obligated to notify foreign trading partners about state and local laws that potentially conflict with the terms of that agreement.
"This is about China, but it's also about to what degree do these international agreements intrude on normal state lawmaking powers?" Riggs adds. "We gave up some sovereignty when we joined the WTO. No one disputes that. But what exactly did we give up?"
Last week, in a letter to the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration, Lyons claimed that someone in the department or the USTR "notified Beijing" just days after her bill was introduced. Lyons wants to know whether it's U.S. policy to notify our overseas trading partners about "draft regulations" before those laws are passed or even debated.
A spokesperson for the USTR, which negotiates U.S. international trade deals, denies any knowledge of the letter Lyons received from China, and said the office only learned of the incident when Vermont reporters began calling them last week.
Michael Brown, a Commerce Department spokesperson, confirmed that the department reviews pending state legislation for conflicts with international trade deals. Brown said he's unfamiliar with the letter to Lyons, but that his office is "looking into it."
The irony of the situation is that, until Beijing banned the importation of e-waste in 2002, China was one of the world's largest dumping grounds for spent electronics. Still, the world's fastest growing economy generates millions of tons of its own e-waste each year, much of which is either landfilled or recycled in environmentally harmful ways.
Given that an important part of Vermont's economy is high-tech exports, Lyons is troubled by China's attempts to weaken global standards on the handling of e-waste.
"We intend to take every democratic measure necessary to keep e-waste out of our landfills," she said, "and to protect our environment and the health of Vermont's children."