US lawmakers increase scrutiny of China with new House committee

US lawmakers on a new House committee on China slammed the Chinese Communist party over issues from espionage to human rights abuses in an inaugural hearing that exhibited Washington’s increasingly tough bipartisan stance on Beijing.

In opening comments that set a sharp tone for the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist party, chair Mike Gallagher said the panel would “investigate and expose the ideological, technological and military threat posed by the Chinese Communist party”.

“This is an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century and the most fundamental freedoms are at stake,” said Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican and one of the most vocal China critics in Congress.

Republican leadership in the House of Representatives had pushed to establish the committee to increase scrutiny of the CCP, but it was approved by a largely bipartisan vote, indicating the consensus in Washington on striking a more critical tone towards Beijing.

In an interview with the Financial Times this week, Gallagher said the panel would initially focus on human rights, but he also wanted to talk to companies operating in China and investing in groups connected with the Chinese military, raising concerns among some businesses about the committee’s direction.

Over three hours on Tuesday, lawmakers heard from four witnesses who argued that China had taken advantage of the US. HR McMaster, a retired general and former national security adviser in the Trump administration, said Washington had “fallen behind” in the competition with Beijing.

“For too long leaders across the private sector, in academia, industry and finance as well as in the public sector . . . clung to the assumption that China, having been welcomed into the international system, would play by the rules,” said McMaster. “The US and other nations across the free world underwrote the erosion of their competitive advantages.”

Several lawmakers claimed American companies had helped China undermine US economic and national security, with Gallagher saying Beijing had “found friends” on Wall Street, in lobbying firms and among corporate executives.

“This strategy has worked well in the past, and the CCP is confident it will work again. Our task on this committee is to ensure that it does not,” he said.

Michelle Steel, a California Republican, called the CCP “the greatest single threat” facing the US. “A lot of times we are very much discouraged when you see elected officials across Western countries, and global corporate companies, turn a blind eye to the CCP,” she said.

Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, urged lawmakers to revoke normalised trade relations with China, echoing debates during the administrations of George HW Bush and Bill Clinton about extending “most favoured nation” trade status to China.

“The CCP certainly doesn’t deserve the same trade status as our allies and reciprocate partners,” Paul said.

Mikie Sherrill, a New Jersey Democrat, said the CCP had helped “authoritarian regimes throughout the world through surveillance architecture” and had engaged in illegal subsidies and produce dumping in US markets.

Tong Yi, a Chinese human rights activist and former translator for famed dissident Wei Jingsheng, said Washington should fund programmes to bring down the firewall that Beijing uses to censor the internet.

“The Chinese Communist party is afraid of its people,” Tong told the panel. “If the Chinese people have access to [the] internet, free flow of information, then they will know the truth . . . and the lies the Chinese Communist party has built up over many, many decades could crumble.”

Several Republicans said the US should be more vigilant about pension funds investing in Chinese funds, particularly in order to avoid enabling human rights abuses.

Matt Pottinger, a former deputy national security adviser and architect of the Trump administration’s China policy, said a mechanism to halt investments in Chinese military linked-companies was “not being enforced” by the Treasury.

Pottinger said Beijing had engaged in a “magic trick” that had hoodwinked Washington. “But the magic is fading. There’s really no excuse any more for being fooled about Beijing’s intention,” he said.

Asked about the hearing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning on Wednesday called on Washington to “abandon ideological prejudices and cold war mentalities” and stop framing China as a threat”.

Raja Krishnamoorthi, the top Democrat on the panel, who last year accompanied then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on a trip to Taiwan, emphasised that the US was not seeking conflict with China but had to act to prevent hostility from Beijing.

“We do not want a war with the PRC [People’s Republic of China], not a cold war, not a hot war,” said Krishnamoorthi. “We seek a durable peace and that is why we have to deter aggression.”

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Additional reporting by Maiqi Ding in Beijing

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