Xinjiang bill shows China-bashing isn’t just a game for America’s hawks any more

  • Chi Wang says views of China have changed across the US, evidenced by broad support for the resolution on Uygur persecution
  • China should recognise this and begin taking steps to mend ties, starting at the G20 meeting between Xi and Trump
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2018, 2:01am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2018, 2:39am

As a Chinese-American with 50 years’ experience working with the State Department and Library of Congress, I interacted frequently with members of Congress, including such prominent figures as Ted Kennedy, Charles Percy, Henry Jackson, Mike Mansfield and Bob Dole. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, there was strong, open support and sympathy for China and Chinese people among Congress. Yet, in the past 10 years, much appears to have changed. While Congress used to speak of engaging and cooperating with China, it now seems committed to competing and containing. 

Dating back to the late 1970s and the normalisation of China-US relations, successive administrations and Congresses have argued that engaging with China and promoting its growth would lead to eventual democratisation. In 2000, when Congress agreed to grant China permanent most-favoured-nation status, Congress attached a provision requiring the establishment of a joint commission that would submit an annual report on the status of human rights in China. Congress made this stipulation to appease the concerns of members who criticised granting China this status on human rights grounds.

The most recent annual report by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China was released in October. In the opening statement, the committee’s co-chairs, Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Chris Smith, question the previous logic behind US-China ties, and suggest the dawn of a new era in relations between the two countries, requiring a recalculation of the strategic and economic interests of the United States regarding Beijing.

Rubio summarised his position in a recent interview with The Washington Post, critiquing the prior logic behind China policy as an “enormous miscalculation and, frankly, it was probably an assumption that early in my career I somewhat shared. And it is now clear that it's not going to work out that way.”

Already, there are new and compelling indicators that Congress will take a harder stance towards human rights issues in China. Legislation was introduced in the House and Senate targeting China’s crackdown on Uygurs and other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang. Rubio, chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and Senator Bob Menendez introduced the Senate version of the bill on November 14.

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This bill is co-sponsored by prominent members of both parties, such as Republican Senator Cory Gardner, the current chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, and Democrat senator and possible 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. A version of the bill was also submitted to the House of Representatives by Smith and Representative Thomas Suozzi.

Why do some members of Congress feel so strongly about China? Some feel compelled because of their personal backgrounds. Rubio has been one of the most outspoken China critics in either house of Congress since he was elected in 2010. Rubio, a Florida Republican, is the child of Cuban immigrants. His background, and his ties the Cuban community in Florida, are probably responsible for his opposition to the Chinese government and his commitment to calling out human rights abuses.

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Texas Senator Ted Cruz, whose father is also Cuban, has likewise been a strong critic of China and an advocate for human rights. He spearheaded a campaign in 2017 to rename the street where the Chinese embassy in Washington is located after Liu Xiaobo. Additionally, representatives of states and districts with large Chinese-American populations have a constituency with strong ties to China. Menendez, a Democrat, and Smith, a Republican, are both from New Jersey, one of the states with the largest Chinese-American populations.

The relationship between the US and China remains dynamic and includes concerns from interests as diverse as manufacturing, intellectual property, national security and human rights. I have witnessed many complicated stages in US-China relations in my 70 years in the US. Now, it is becoming ever-clearer that perceptions of China are changing across the spectrum of US government and policymaking.

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Amid this change, I wonder how Chinese perceptions of America are changing. Before I left China in 1949, America was thought of as the best place to study, and regarded as the “beautiful country” where the American dream was in reach for anyone. As the US Congress’ perception of China continues to sour, China’s perception of America is likely to deteriorate.

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How can China reverse this course? It would be easy to dismiss congressional hostility as coming only from a few loud anti-China hawks. But if the early support for Rubio’s Xinjiang bill is any indication, congressional opposition to China is spreading beyond the usually identifiable sources. This shows why congressional perception of China is so important; while the primary power to conduct foreign policy lies with the executive branch, Congress can still play a critical role in influencing the White House.

The best that both Chinese and Americans can hope for is that progress on any front of US-China relations will help soften overall tensions in the relationship and foster renewed interest in engagement on both sides. The much awaited Trump-Xi summit, alongside the G20 meeting in Argentina, is an excellent opportunity to begin this process. The news that notorious China hawk and trade war architect Peter Navarro will not be there during the meeting is already a cause for optimism.

Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress and former university librarian at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation