The bipartisan consensus on China-U.S. competition is most evident on the Hill. Bipartisanship was the main joint of emphasis when members of Congress tried to define and brand the newly formed Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party. The resolution establishing the select committee passed the House with strong support from both parties, with 146 Democrats joining Republicans to pass the measure in a 365-65 vote.
Committee chair Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Republican, and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, the ranking Democrat on the committee, issued a number of joint statements and gave interviews to emphasize their unity on the subject. In one interview they mentioned the book “America Against America,” written by then-scholar Wang Huning – now one of the seven top leaders of China as a member of the Politburo Standing Committee. Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi interpreted the book as a sign of the Chinese leadership’s strategic comprehension and consistent exploitation of division in American politics.
“This is an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century – and the most fundamental freedoms are at stake,” Gallagher intoned in the first hearing of the new select committee.
The rhetoric makes the situation sound dire. You could put the same words into a speech given immediately after the 9/11 attacks, or in the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War. But the United States doesn’t face any evidenced threat that would draw a plane crashing into its skyscrapers, much less a threat of immediate nuclear warfare for the dominance of the world. So what is going on in the policy circuit in Washington?
One can look into the leading figures on this select committee to trace the deep-seated “cold war” attitude within the U.S. foreign policy community. Gallagher, and then-minority leader Kevin McCarthy wrote an op-ed last December arguing that in the face of “the dire threat” posed by CCP, “There is bipartisan consensus that the era of trusting Communist China is over.” Gallagher, a veteran of the Iraq War and a devoted researcher in cold war studies, said he is ready to win the war by responding to “Chinese aggression with tough policies.”
During the committee’s first hearing, a video was presented that highlighted historical events in China, including some from recent years. The clips were meant to provide context and created a comprehensive picture of China’s history. Michael Pillsbury, director of the Center on Chinese Strategy at the Hudson Institute, has written about China’s long-term strategy to expand its global influence and challenge American hegemony, which he calls “The Hundred-Year Marathon”; this was the perspective embraced by the committee. However, it’s important to note that opinions on this topic vary widely, and there is an ongoing debate among scholars and policymakers about the nature and extent of China’s ambitions.
There is also underlying tension in the committee’s ambition to achieve its policy goals. During the hearing, politicians carefully de-linked the Chinese Communist Party from Chinese people. Gallagher said, “We must constantly distinguish between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people themselves, who have always been the party’s primary victims.”
But it’s hard to deny the possibility that fear and anger toward the CCP and its ideology could be turned into a racial and ethnic weapon against Chinese citizens and Asian Americans. After all, there are currently 95 million party members in China from all walks of life, and about one-fourth of the Chinese people are family members of the party members.
Just look at the committee’s name for an example. The House carefully branded the select committee as focused on “Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party.” But in most media articles, that is quickly reduced to a less-nuanced shorthand: the China Select Committee.
It’s worth noting that Democrats, like Krishnamoorthi, are keenly aware of the potential negative impact the committee’s rhetoric could pose to Asian Americans, and countered with a more domestic-focused approach.
Furthermore, the over-simplified framework of blaming the CCP and efforts to re-emphasize the “communist” element are harmful when trying to reach a practical policy solution. By turning the complicated reality of China-U.S. relations into a morality play, the committee dangerously rewards politicians who are talented at manipulating public fear and discontent for votes and power.
On the other hand, the essentialist approach adopted by the committee sees China only through a distorted ideological lens. It intentionally downplays the role of a vibrant Chinese society in shaping China-U.S. relations. By putting the “Sources of Chinese Conduct” down to one actor – the dominant political party – the United States will prevent itself from participating in multidimensional engagement with China in areas like climate change, people-to-people exchanges, and public health. To understand China, one also needs to look at the centuries before the communists rose to the power. A short-sighted view without any further comprehension is irresponsible.
There is also concern the committee could trigger a witch hunt against independent China scholars. Anatol Klass, a Ph.D. candidate in Chinese History, wrote that the hearing reminds him of the “who lost China” congressional investigation and the alienation of top China experts at the height of McCarthyism. He also worried the committee was “prioritizing political theater over substantive inquiry.”
The select committee is trying to portray the Communist Party as an omnipotent force capable of threatening America on all fronts simultaneously. This narrative just dampens the United States’ confidence.
In another thought-provoking case, a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing to investigate TikTok’s presumptive national security risk, confirmed the anxiety by revealing that the Hill’s hysteria couldn’t contribute to a rational policy debate.
With all those concerns, the setting up of the select committee powerfully signals and reinforces the mistrust between United States and China, making limited areas of cooperation even more limited. Sun Chenghao, a researcher at the Center for International Security and Strategy (CISS) of Tsinghua University, argued that the committee “does little substantial harm to China, but the signal released by this behavior is not conducive to the recovery of the post-pandemic world.” After all, the committee is more than just a product of transformative sentiment; it also serves as a contributor to the narratives and framings that will create a new China policy orthodoxy.
Nevertheless, American views of China are diverse, competing in the marketplace of ideas. There is full potential for more rational approaches and tones to spread to more sectors and departments. As Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen marked last Thursday, a “growing China” that obeys “international rules” is good for the United States and the world.
As former Planning Staff at the Department of State, Jessica Chen Weiss, memorably commented on this strategic competition: If pursuing human progress, peace, and prosperity is the ultimate objective, then the United States does not need to beat China to win.