Meet the one US lawmaker to dissent on Uygur and Hong Kong democracy votes that targeted China: Representative Thomas Massie
- The Republican’s holdout garners condemnation from human rights campaigners and praise from a Chinese government official
- Opposition to perceived ‘interference’ in China’s affairs overlooks Beijing’s meddling in the US as it coerces overseas Uygurs into silence, activists say
It is not difficult to see why US Representative Thomas Massie, feted in mainland China and reviled among many in Hong Kong, has come to be known as the “Mr No” of Capitol Hill.
Of the past 100 votes he has cast, the Republican from Kentucky has pressed the red “nay” button in the House of Representatives 71 times.
Massie, 48, has said that he doesn’t resent the moniker provided it is spelled correctly – “Mr. K-N-O-W” – and has argued that members of Congress are often given insufficient time to study a bill before having to vote on it.
Yet that wasn’t the explanation he gave for two recent high-profile votes on legislation targeting China over its human rights record – dissent that won him condemnation from human rights campaigners and praise from at least one Chinese government official.
“When our government meddles in the internal affairs of foreign countries, it invites those governments to meddle in our affairs,” Massie wrote on Twitter, explaining his objection to any legislation that sanctioned foreign governments.
Massie’s was the sole voice of dissent in the House’s passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in November and the Uighur Intervention and Global Humanitarian Unified Response (UIGHUR) Act in December, each of which received more than 400 votes in favour.
Among other things, the Hong Kong bill, which is now law, directs the US government to identify and sanction individuals deemed responsible for violating “internationally recognised human rights” in the territory, where protests against the city’s government and the rise of Beijing’s influence have raged since June.
The UIGHUR Act, currently under consideration in the Senate, would require the administration to sanction Chinese officials found responsible for or complicit in human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region under the Global Magnitsky Act. Such action would seize the individuals’ US-based assets and block them from entering the United States.
As part of small groups of Republicans, Massie struck down sanctions on Turkey for its invasion of Syria at the end of October, as well as legislation that imposed sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Russia in 2017.
Yet he was entirely alone in his dissent over human rights in China – one of the few issues that has united a bitterly partisan Washington.
It would be hypocritical to take such drastic action against China while continuing to do business with it, said Massie, asking his followers on Twitter to “please consider whether you committed enough to the issue that you would personally go a week without buying something made in China”.
The lawmaker himself, who is serving his fourth term, is no stranger to accusations of contradiction.
He staunchly defends the rights of US citizens to live life as they wish, yet believes the country’s Civil Rights Act should not afford protections to LGBTQ people because – according to a brief he and other lawmakers submitted to the US Supreme Court – they are defined by “actions, behaviours or inclinations” rather than “immutable characteristics” like race.
He drives a Tesla adorned with Kentucky’s signature “Friends of Coal” number plates.
And while he and his family used local timber and stone to build their own off-the-grid house running on solar-generated power, he disagrees with broadly held scientific consensus that human activity is the leading cause of climate change.
He also believes concerns that the world could face a catastrophic shortage of inhabitable land within this millennium are more far-fetched than the flat Earth theory.
Until his recent dissenting votes, Massie was perhaps best known on the internet for his grilling of climate action campaigner and former secretary of state John Kerry during a congressional hearing this year.
In one exchange, Massie accused Kerry of feigning scientific expertise because he holds a degree in political science, a humanity.
“I think it’s somewhat appropriate that somebody with a pseudoscience degree is here pushing pseudoscience in front of our committee today,” said Massie to ripples of laughter from the public gallery.
Massie’s office did not respond to multiple interview requests.
A staunch advocate of reducing the government’s role in the lives and choices of Americans, Massie traces his live-and-let-live philosophy to the culture of rural northeastern Kentucky, where he and his family live on a farm raising 50 head of cattle.
People there “don’t worry about what somebody’s doing in their holler if they don’t worry about what you’re doing in your holler,” Massie said in an 2018 documentary, Off the Grid, by the libertarian group Free the People.
Advocates of a firm US response to alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong did not take kindly to Massie’s treatment of China as any old “holler” – a Southern variant of “hollow”, or small valley.
Online, he was railed with insults, including accusations of being a traitor and a Nazi sympathiser.
But among the Uygur-American community living in and around Washington, many of whom have spent recent weeks lobbying lawmakers in the Senate to support the UIGHUR Act, hopes were for a constructive dialogue.
“We have a message for him,” said Virginia-based human rights campaigner Tumaris Almas, who hopes to arrange a meeting with Massie to persuade him that a strong congressional response on the Xinjiang issue is needed – even though his dissenting vote was inconsequential.
“We are facing threats by the Chinese government already,” said Almas, who came to the US in 2014 and whose parents remain in Xinjiang. “It affects every aspect of our lives, even [though] we live on US soil.”
Almas said that in August 2018, she was approached by a man who urged her to keep “good relationships” with the Chinese embassy in the US and cease her activism, otherwise her parents back in Xinjiang would be “endangered”. More recently, she said, her parents contacted her through WeChat to ask her to stop her campaigning, which she believes they did under pressure from local authorities.
Almas’ claims are consistent with the accounts of numerous other Uygurs living abroad who have received messages, either from their relatives in Xinjiang or people apparently working at the behest of local authorities, pressuring them not to speak out.
Indeed, the UIGHUR Act makes specific mention of Chinese efforts to “harass” members of the Uygur diaspora, especially journalists working on Xinjiang issues.
In China, meanwhile, reaction to Massie’s dissent has been overwhelmingly positive.
Zhao Lijian, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official and one of the Chinese government’s most vocal defenders on Twitter, praised Massie in a retweet of the lawmaker’s explanation for voting against the UIGHUR Act.
“Well said,” Zhao wrote. “The only sane person in US Congress.”
Many on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, agreed.
“There is hope that he will be the ‘Chinese people’s old friend in the future’,” wrote one user, employing a Communist Party expression for foreign leaders deemed friendly to China.
“The truth is not in the hands of the few, the truth is in the hands of one. I am touched,” said another.
Few acknowledged that Massie had told Fox Business that he agreed with “90 per cent” of the Hong Kong bill, taking issue only with its provision on sanctions.
Tao Wenzhao, a researcher focusing on US-China relations at the China Academy of Social Sciences, the country’s national think tank, said “there is a high degree of agreement when it comes to citizens and officials” on issues like Hong Kong, regardless of how American politicians may vote.
“Chinese citizens cannot see any country, including the UK and US, interfere in Hong Kong after 1997,” Tao said.
Yet despite protests by Beijing that the Hong Kong and Uygur bills are a violation of Chinese sovereignty, both only codify how the US should treat Chinese officials who have interests in the US and do not call for direct intervention in China’s domestic governance.
A small number of mainlanders who spoke out against Massie’s vote contested the congressman’s definition of interference in internal affairs.
A man surnamed Mai, who was born and raised on the mainland but now lives in Hong Kong, argued that barring Chinese officials from entering the US for human rights violations did not amount to interfering, adding that he supported such sanctions.
Massie “has his reasoning and freedom to do so, but [the vote] suggests that … he lacks leadership and global vision in a time when human rights are on the table again,” said Mai.
A young woman from Guangdong province surnamed Cai, who supports Hong Kong’s protesters and asked that her full name not be used for fear of official retaliation, said she knew little about Massie until hearing news of his vote.
“Antipathy,” she said, when asked to describe her reaction to his dissent.
“That one politician who voted against the act shows how little support the Communist Party has,” Cai said. “I don’t think there is any well-grounded reason to believe the acts are somehow foreign interference.”