What it looks like when Congress takes on China

What it looks like when Congress takes on China

Hi, China Watchers. This week we examine the flurry of China-focused committee action on Capitol Hill and unpack the roots of a congressional fracas over allegations and counter-allegations of disloyalty and racial profiling. We’ll also assess the multi-decade resilience of Chinese Communist Party propaganda icon Lei Feng and profile a book that argues that China and Russia’s fleeting periods of authoritarian-lite reform emerged from “old grudges” fought with “compromising material” rather than cogent policy arguments.

Let’s get to it. — Phelim

The fractious U.S.-China relationship — and assertions of Beijing’s blame for those tensions — dominated legislative discussions on Capitol Hill this week. Hearings of seven congressional committees — including the Senate’s Space, Science and Technology Committee and the House Oversight Committee — aired concerns about the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s perceived threat to U.S. economic and national security on Tuesday.

House Foreign Affairs Committee chair MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-Texas) set the tone by titling his hearing “Combatting the Generational Challenge of CCP Aggression” and declaring that U.S.-China competition had morphed into a “struggle for the global balance of power.” HFAC members responded by passing no fewer than 11 China-related bills and resolutions on Tuesday. Those ranged from ranking member GREGORY MEEKS’s (D-NY) bill to hold Beijing accountable for last month’s spy balloon incursion, Rep. CHRIS SMITH’S (R-N.J.) Stop Forced Organ Harvesting Act of 2023 and Rep. MICHAEL CLOUD’s (R-Texas) resolution demanding China release jailed U.S. citizen MARK SWIDAN.

Bipartisan antagonism toward Beijing bled into the House Financial Services Committee hearing with the approval of 10 bills on Tuesday aimed at reining in Beijing’s economic power. Those included measures targeting Chinese manufacturing of synthetic drugs, and commissioning a Treasury Department report on the global economic risks associated with China’s financial sector.

That legislation distills congressional anger at Beijing following the discovery and subsequent destruction of a Chinese spy balloon over the continental U.S. in February. Biden administration warnings last week that the Chinese government is considering providing lethal weaponry to Russia in its war against Ukraine have only fanned those fears. And the conclusion of a Department of Energy report published on Sunday that concluded (albeit with low confidence) that a laboratory leak in Wuhan, China sparked the Covid pandemic has renewed congressional anger toward China’s role in a pandemic that has killed more than a million Americans.

But the climax of this week’s congressional China-targeted slam-fest was the prime-time Tuesday evening debut hearing of the new House China Select Committee that revealed early partisan fault lines in the body’s legislative agenda, as I reported after the arguments wrapped around 10 p.m.

In a three-hour event complete with multimedia presentations and hecklers from the activist peace group Code Pink, the committee’s 24 members heard from witnesses who painted a lurid portrait of an America at acute risk from malign Chinese government activities. Witnesses and committee members raised perennial bilateral tensions ranging from Taiwan, trade and TikTok to supply chain security and human rights. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson MAO NING accused the committee of “ideological bias and zero-sum Cold War mentality.”

But the hearing revealed stark differences in how GOP and Democratic committee members perceive the U.S.-China rivalry and the strategies to approach it.

Committee chair MIKE GALLAGHER (R-Wis.) laid out a GOP vision of an external facing “existential struggle” against China’s “ideological, technological, economic and military threat.” Democratic committee members countered with a more domestic-focused approach hinged to bolstering U.S. democracy and backed by government funding for an industrial policy that ranking member RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI (D-Ill.) said could thwart China’s challenge “through investments in technologies of the future, workforce improvement and by fixing weaknesses in our economy.”

A widening quarrel between Rep. JUDY CHU (R-Calif) and Rep. LANCE GOODEN (R-Texas) that began over President JOE BIDEN’s appointee to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Business Advisory Council, DOMINIC NG, spilled over into the House China Select Committee’s hearing on Tuesday.

Democratic members made an implicit reference to Gooden’s statement on Fox News on Feb. 22 in which he questioned Rep. Judy Chu’s (D-Calif) loyalty or competence — a sign of the divides that could undermine the committee. “Comments that question the loyalty of Asian American members of Congress are completely unacceptable and must be rejected,” ranking member RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI (D-Ill.) told the committee. Such allegations “only feed the scapegoating and targeting of Chinese Americans, further endangering them and other Asian Americans,” said Krishnamoorthi.

The fracas started last month after four Asian-American lawmakers accused several GOP colleagues of ethnic profiling after they requested the FBI probe Ng for alleged “Chinese Communist Party ties.” Those GOP lawmakers, including Gooden and Reps. LAUREN BOEBERT (R-Colo.) and TOM TIFFANY (R-Wis.), urged the FBI to “investigate and provide a report to Congress” on those alleged ties in a letter to FBI director CHRISTOPHER WRAY last month.

“No Chinese Americans — indeed no Americans — should face suspicions of disloyalty or treason based on their ethnicity, nation of origin, or that of their family members,” Reps. JUDY CHU (D-Calif), TED LIEU (D-Calif), GRACE MENG (D-NY) and MARK TAKANO (R-Calif.) shot back in a statement in Ng’s defense. Rep. Gooden responded in a statement shared with China Watcher by accusing the four lawmakers of “race-baiting” in defense of what Gooden said was “one of their party’s biggest donors.” Ng didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Gooden’s Feb. 22 comments prompted the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, of which Chu is chair, to issue a statement that complained of “racist targeting and profiling of Chinese Americans by right-wing extremists.” Democratic lawmakers rallied behind Chu, with Rep. ADAM SCHIFF (D-Calif) tweeting that Gooden’s comments were “xenophobic and racist.”

Criticism of Gooden went bipartisan when China committee chairman Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) told CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday that “we should not question anybody’s loyalty to the United States.” But the acrimony sparked by the Gooden-Chu dispute suggests that Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi may struggle in delivering on their commitment to keep the committee’s focus on China rather than GOP-Democratic bickering.

Gooden isn’t backing down. “Democrats crying ‘racism’ haven’t denied Dominic Ng’s involvement in CCP front groups and Judy Chu was criticized only after she defended him and led the race-baiting charge,” Gooden told China Watcher in a statement on Monday. “I would question the loyalty or competence of anyone, regardless of race or political party, who defends him or does the CCP’s bidding.”


 White House scales back plans to regulate U.S. investments in China

President Joe Biden is expected to forego expansive new restrictions on American investment in China, denying a push by some hawks in his administration and in Congress. According to five people on Capitol Hill and K Street with knowledge of the White House discussions, Biden is scaling back a planned executive order to oversee American investments in China to focus largely on increasing transparency of those deals. POLITICO’s GAVIN BADE has the full story here.

 U.S. cyber official: China would likely pair Taiwan invasion with attack on U.S. networks

 Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director JEN EASTERLY warned Monday that China is likely to go after U.S. critical infrastructure in the event of an invasion of Taiwan, arguing that Beijing will have fewer reservations about targeting U.S. critical infrastructure than Russia has had. POLITICO’s MAGGIE MILLER has more in her full story here.

China weighs sending drones, ammunition to Russia for Ukraine war

China is considering sending Russia drones and ammunition to aid Moscow’s war efforts in Ukraine, a person familiar with the matter said Friday. Another person aware of the intelligence also said Beijing was considering sending ammunition, along with other small arms. No shipments of lethal aid have been made, the people stressed, but Washington is increasingly concerned about that possibility and has been gathering intelligence to that effect in recent months. POLITICO’s ERIN BANCO and I have the full story here.


—SENATORS SEEK U.S.–TAIWAN TAX DEAL: FIRST IN CHINA WATCHER – A bipartisan group of lawmakers will introduce a Senate resolution today making the case for a U.S.-Taiwan tax agreement. Such a deal could “boost bilateral trade and investment by reducing double taxation and increasing economic efficiency and integration,” says the resolution drafted by Sens. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-Md.), BILL CASSIDY (R-La.), TIM KAINE (D-Va.), and TODD YOUNG (R-Ind.).

“Right now Taiwanese and U.S. businesses are double-taxed, putting an undue burden on these enterprises and hampering opportunities for further partnership and investment,” Van Hollen told China Watcher in a statement.

—GOP LAWMAKERS PURSUE A TIKTOK PURGE: Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee forced through a bill on Wednesday that could effectively ban TikTok from all mobile devices in the U.S. despite united opposition from Democrats — a rare breakdown of congressional bipartisanship on the alleged threat posed by Chinese tech.

The legislation would grant the president new authority to ban foreign-owned applications, and would require the imposition of sanctions on companies with ties to TikTok or other Chinese-owned apps, POLITICO’s BRENDAN BORDELON reported on Wednesday. That followed a White House order to federal agencies on Monday to remove TikTok from devices and systems within 30 days,” as Reuters reported.

 —CHINA COMMISSIONERS: SANCTION HK AUTHORITIES: The bipartisan Congressional Executive Commission on China wants the Biden administration to impose sanctions on Hong Kong authorities implicated in the ongoing mass trial of 47 Hong Kong pro-democracy activists. Biden should sanction “police, prosecutors, judges, and other officials responsible for the arrest and prosecution of the ‘Hong Kong 47’ and other democracy advocates,” CECC chair Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and co-chair Sen. JEFF MERKLEY (D-Ore.) said in a statement published on Tuesday.

 —BURNS BASHES CHINA’S ‘ORWELLIAN’ BALLOON RESPONSE: The U.S. ambassador to China, NICHOLAS BURNS, had harsh words on Monday for China’s response to last month’s spy balloon incident. “We’re now in this surreal moment where the Chinese, who lost the debate over the balloon [and] globally lost influence and credibility around the world because of what they’ve done, they’re now blaming this on us. It’s a little bit Orwellian,” Burns said via video link during a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event.

—COVID LAB LEAK REPORT RILES LAWMAKERS: Lawmakers have pounced on the Energy Department report that concluded that a laboratory leak in Wuhan, China sparked the Covid pandemic. That determination differed from that of the Biden administration’s 90-day investigation into Covid origins in 2021 which didn’t produce enough evidence to determine where and how the pandemic emerged. The Biden administration should “hold the CCP accountable” Rep. Michael McCaul said in a statement on Sunday. The DOE report merits a probe “to uncover why high-ranking government officials, with help from Big Tech and the media, sought early on to silence any debate into a plausible theory of a lab incident,” GOP leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said in a statement on Sunday.

U.S. ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, piled on by urging Beijing on Monday to be “more honest” about Covid’s origins. The White House urged calm. “There hasn’t been a final conclusion arrived at here. And not everyone in the intelligence community or across the government necessarily has come to a consensus view here on how [Covid] started,” National Security Council spokesperson JOHN KIRBY told reporters on Monday. The Biden administration should “stop politicizing origins-tracing,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Mao said on Monday.

—VOLKSWAGEN CHIEF’S XINJIANG COMMENTS DRAW FIRE: Volkswagen’s China chief, RALF BRANDSTAETTER raised hackles on Tuesday after saying he saw no sign of forced labor during a short visit to VW operations in Xinjiang last month.  That sparked a broadside from Sen. MARCO RUBIO (R-Fla.) who accused the automaker Volkswagen in a tweet on Tuesday of being “apologists for an ongoing genocide in #Xinjiang.”.

Foreign criticism of China’s Xinjiang policies aim to “suppress China’s development,” China’s Foreign Minister, QIN GANG,said via video link to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday.

—LEI FENG’S RUSTING SCREW: Sunday marks the 60th anniversary of China’s annual “LEI FENG Day,” commemorating the Chinese Communist Party’s icon of selflessness and altruism. The official story — details of which fact checkers have questioned — is that Lei was a soldier who devoted his life to selfless public service ranging from hand-washing his colleagues’ uniforms to exposing counter-revolutionaries. He reportedly died at the age of 21 in a traffic accident in 1962.

The dissemination of Lei’s good deeds recorded in his diary by propaganda organs made him a generations-spanning model of Chinese revolutionary spirit, said ROBERT WEATHERLEY, a lecturer of politics at Cambridge University who has written extensively of Lei Feng’s role as a political tool.

In 1963, then-Chinese paramount leader MAO ZEDONG declared March 5 an annual day in Lei’s honor and immortalized him in calligraphy that urged the masses to “Learn from Lei Feng.”

Even Western companies got into the game. Kentucky Fried Chicken used Lei Feng as a sales gimmick. The company branded one of its China-based outlets with a Lei Feng theme in 2019 that included Lei’s quotes on the walls and “words from his poems playing as background music,”Chinese state media reported. Yum China Holdings, Inc, KFC’s China parent company, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“Lei likened himself to a small yet indispensable ‘screw’ inside a machine, and vowed to ‘never rust,’” said a Chinese state media tribute last year.

Xi Jinping declared last year that Lei was a “role model of an era.” And he announced last week that “learning from Lei Feng” was essential to “building a modern socialist country.” Public opinion may not be on his side. A trio of official Lei Feng biopics in 2013 played to “near-empty” theaters,state media reported.

Lei Feng’s relevance “has withered over time,” said RONGBIN HAN, associate professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia and an expert on authoritarian propaganda. But old habits die hard. Lei Feng “doesn’t generate a huge resonance, especially among the middle class… but it’s still a propaganda symbol, so I don’t think the [CCP] is going to give it up anytime soon.”


The Telegraph: Why Taiwanese are volunteering to fight in Ukraine

Australian Outlook: Wandering Earth II: Can hard Chinese science fiction be a source of soft power?

CNN: Chinese fighter jet confronts U.S. Navy plane with CNN crew aboard as tensions simmer in the South China Sea


 —CHINA’S PARLIAMENT CONVENES IN ANNUAL MEETING: China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, kicks off its annual meeting on Sunday. It’s a carefully choreographed exercise of Chinese Communist Party unity and legislative initiatives pre-approved by CCP leadership – complete with camera-ready ethnic minority legislators in colorful traditional dress – where the government issues its annual Work Report on the achievements of the past year and publishes projections of future economic growth.

The NPC “is a signaling exercise of what the leadership’s goals are, and what they want everyone to think about going forward,” SCOTT KENNEDY, Trustee chair in Chinese business and economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told reporters on Wednesday. This year the CCP will emphasize “continuity” and stress that China is “‘getting back to normal’ – the pandemic is over,” Kennedy said.

 The Book: Prestige, manipulation and coercion: Elite power struggles in the Soviet Union and China after Stalin and Mao

The Author: JOSEPH TORIGIAN is an assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service and an expert on elite power dynamics in authoritarian regimes.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What is the most important takeaway from your book?

We used to think that the political successions in the Soviet Union and China after Stalin and Mao were triumphs of inner party democracy, leading to a victory of “reformers” over “conservatives” or “radicals.” I show that in fact the post-cult of personality power struggles in history’s two greatest Leninist regimes were instead shaped by the politics of personal prestige, historical antagonisms, backhanded political maneuvering and violence.

Neither former First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union NIKITA KRUSHCHEV, nor China’s former paramount leader DENG XIAOPING deserve the credit often given to them for establishing a system of collective leadership.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching and writing this book?

Real policy differences mattered very little for elite power struggles. Elites were more often motivated by loyalties forged during war and revolution, old grudges, and the use of compromising material. Even figures at the very top often had a poor understanding of each other’s views on policies.

But most importantly, political maneuvering in an environment with weak institutions mattered more than the potential “size” of a competitor’s constituency.

What does your book tell us about the trajectory and future of U.S.-China relations?

Chinese politics are not a popularity contest. Leaders are not usually punished for foreign policy failures or because some group within the leadership thinks another approach is more suitable. Xi Jinping is a cagey individual capable of some pragmatism, but it is unlikely that some oppositional force within the elite would force a fundamental course correction with regard to Beijing’s overall approach to the world.

Got a book to recommend? Tell me about it at [email protected].

Thanks to: Mike Zapler, Heidi Vogt, Gavin Bade, Maggie Miller, Erin Banco, Brendan Bordelon, Matt Kaminski and digital producer Sinobia Aiden.Do you have tips? Chinese-language stories we might have missed? Would you like to contribute to China Watcher or comment on this week’s items? Email us at [email protected].

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