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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Bashing China is a bipartisan passion in evenly divided US Congress

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IN a politically fractured Congress, a spate of hearings demonstrated that going after China has become one of Washington’s most unifying causes.

Just back from a two-week recess, the House of Representatives held no fewer than three hearings and debated more than a dozen bills Tuesday focusing on the danger posed by what lawmakers argue is an increasingly aggressive Communist Party.

The flurry of activity was capped Tuesday night with the first meeting of the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, a new congressional body led by 38-year-old Wisconsin Republican Mike Gallagher. Designed to mimic the January 6 hearings on the insurrection at the capital, it featured videos and charts warning of President Xi Jinping’s global ambitions—and was even held in the same room where those hearings occurred.

“We must act with a sense of urgency,” Gallagher said in opening the three-hour hearing, which didn’t attract live television coverage. “Our policy over the next ten years will set the stage for the next hundred. We cannot allow the CCP’s tech-powered dystopia to prevail.”

The hearing underscored the depth of animosity that has blossomed within the US toward China as the world’s two largest economies spar over everything from Taiwan to the Covid-19 pandemic to high-tech semiconductors and the alleged spy balloon that the US shot down. That bipartisan anger has pressured President Joe Biden to double down on export controls and sanctions to counter Xi despite Biden’s promises to keep the relationship from deteriorating further.

Part of the pressure on Biden is to restrict the US operations of TikTok, the popular short-video app owned by a Chinese company. The House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a measure on Wednesday that would authorize Biden to ban TikTok in the US.

At Tuesday night’s hearing, witnesses including H.R. McMaster, who was national security advisor under former President Donald Trump, recounted China’s repression of dissent and the treatment of its Muslim minorities that led the US to accuse it of genocide.

Caution, protest

THERE were few notes of caution against ramping up tensions with China. But Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, the top Democrat on the new committee, said it must remain bipartisan and “avoid anti-Chinese or Asian stereotyping at all costs.”

“We must recognize that the CCP wants us to be fractious, partisan and prejudiced,” he said.

Otherwise, the only dissenting voices came from a pair of protesters who held up signs, saying “China is not our enemy” and shouting “we need cooperation, not competition” before police escorted them from the room.

Other House committees on Tuesday debated what lawmakers portrayed as threats from almost every aspect of China’s leadership, military and economy. There was a bill meant to fight alleged organ harvesting in China, and another authorizing the president to ban TikTok in the US. There was one to hold China accountable over the alleged spy balloon. Another would seek to deny China access to technology allowing it to build undersea cables. And another would have the US stop categorizing China as a developing nation at international organizations.

It is a mood that has clearly made investors uneasy. As the hearing was underway, the American Chamber of Commerce in China issued a report saying that for the first time in its 25-year history, fewer than half of respondents ranked China as a top three investment priority.

“Taken overall, China is no longer regarded by American companies as the primary investment destination it once was,” the organization said. Still, US-China trade endures, approaching record levels.

Meanwhile, China’s economy is showing signs of a stronger rebound after Covid restrictions were abandoned, with manufacturing posting its biggest improvement in more than a decade, services activity climbing and the housing market stabilizing.

Stark turnaround

THE tone of the China committee’s first hearing marked a stark turnaround from 2016, when then-Secretary of State John Kerry said that when the US and China cooperate, “we accomplish more for everybody,” or Trump’s 2017 visit to China when the US sought its help countering North Korea’s nuclear program. “We love each other,” Trump later said of Xi.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic changed all that, and animosity has only grown. The threat frequently cited in Tuesday night’s hearing was making sure China never feels emboldened to invade Taiwan.

“In the Pacific, we can’t afford to let deterrence fail,” Democratic Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts said.

The sharpened competition has ground conversations to a halt, and the bipartisan push to portray China as the fundamental threat of the era has led some outside experts to plead for caution—and more conversation between Beijing and Washington.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon said that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin hadn’t spoken with his Chinese counterpart in more than three months, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a trip to China after the balloon incident became known.

Blinken spoke with China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference but that meeting only strained ties even more. Blinken warned China against providing lethal military aid to Russia, while Wang accused the US of harboring a Cold War mentality.

“The priority should be quickly securing a new date for Secretary Blinken’s trip to Beijing before the zero-sum environment that has emerged hardens,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It’s clear a range of serious issues are mounting that only can be managed through direct, high-level dialogue.”

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