The new House China Select Committee previewed its agenda for this Congress in a prime-time evening hearing on Tuesday that revealed early partisan fault lines in the body’s legislative agenda.
The hearing — whose witnesses included former deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger and former national security adviser H.R. McMaster — marked the climax of a full day of intensive congressional scrutiny of China through seven hearings on Tuesday.
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.
Pottinger spiced up his testimony with a video of quotes by China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping that suggested hostile intentions toward the United States. Pottinger accused the Chinese government of waging “information warfare” on the U.S. and likened it to a series of magicians, calling the Chinese Communist Party “the Harry Houdini of Marxist-Leninist regimes; the David Copperfield of Communism; the Criss Angel of autocracy.” McMaster echoed that assessment and argued that some of the blame lies with leaders in academic, industry, finance and government who’ve exercised “wishful thinking and self-delusion” about China’s intentions.
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.”
And Democratic members made implicit reference to Rep. Lance Gooden’s (R-Texas) 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. “Calling into question the loyalty of Chinese Americans, as a member of Congress recently did, is as dangerous as it is deplorable,” said Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.). Neither Chu nor Gooden are members of the committee.
Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi have also rejected Gooden’s comments. Still, the divisions on display at the hearing suggest they face serious challenges from day one in delivering on their commitment to keep the committee’s focus on China rather than GOP-Democratic bickering.
“Just because this Congress is divided, we cannot afford to waste the next two years lingering in legislative limbo or pandering for the press,” Gallagher said in opening remarks. And he warned that a failure by the U.S. to respond decisively to the Chinese government’s threat means “a world crowded with techno-totalitarian surveillance states where human rights are subordinate to the whims of the Party.”
That tone captures the growing congressional concern about China following the discovery and subsequent destruction of a Chinese spy balloon over the continental U.S. in February. Biden administration warnings that the Chinese government is considering providing lethal weaponry to Russia in its war against Ukraine have only fanned those fears. And a Department of Energy report leaked on Sunday that concluded 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.
Bipartisan antagonism toward the Chinese government led the House Financial Services Committee to approve 10 bills on Tuesday aimed to rein in Beijing’s economic power. That legislation included measures that would target Chinese manufacturing of synthetic drugs, and commission a Treasury Department report on the global economic risks associated with China’s financial sector.
But while GOP China committee members focused mainly on well-trod U.S-China hot button issues, including the role of Chinese-sourced precursor chemicals in the U.S. opioid overdose epidemic, concerns about Chinese purchases of agricultural land and the plight of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Democratic members called for domestic policy initiatives to offset challenges from China.
Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif) and Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) called for the U.S. to develop an industrial policy that would fund the development of manufacturers to supplant China’s dominance of global supply chains in areas including the supply of semiconductors for consumer products. “It provides dividends not only to our economy, but to our national security, to invest in R&D and invest in our manufacturing sector,” Stevens said.
There were no takers among GOP committee members. “The United States should not mimic the Chinese industrial policy and should not copy the Chinese command and control system. … We should not try to counter China by becoming more like China,” said Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.)
Democratic members argued, meanwhile, that facing down China’s authoritarian threat required a concerted effort to bolster what they described as America’s ailing democracy. Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.) described the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection as a propaganda gift to Beijing. That day “was Xi Jinping’s best day in office,” said Auchincloss. “I hope the bipartisan spirit of competing with the Chinese Communist Party overseas extends to defending democracy here at home.”