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House Democrats attempt balancing act on China competitiveness bill

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) discusses the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act
Greg Nash

House Democrats are attempting a balancing act, trying to promote their legislation aimed at easing supply-chain woes and making the U.S. more competitive with China — without making it all about China.   

Leaders of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus are urging fellow lawmakers not to engage in fearmongering against China as they talk about the bill out of concerns that it could stoke discriminatory sentiment against Asian Americans. 

They warn debate on the legislation, titled the America COMPETES Act, comes in the wake of a spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic – which stems from a virus first identified in China. 

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus chair, sent a letter to colleagues last week warning that reliance on a “fear of China to make our case” would encourage xenophobia. She also spoke up during a House Democratic caucus meeting on Wednesday to further stress her point. 

“I said that I was very excited to pass the America COMPETES Act. It is so important to ensure that we maintain our global leadership and that we make vast improvements in our science and technology resources,” Chu told The Hill as she recounted her remarks to colleagues in the closed-door meeting. “But I said I also had trepidation because the rhetoric will be heightened and heated, and that I wanted them to all consider the way our messaging on China could impact Asian Americans across the country.”  

Hate crimes against Asian Americans have skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 10,300 incidents against Asian Americans have been reported since March 2020 and September 2021, according to the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate. And data from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism released this week found that anti-Asian hate crime increase by 339 percent last year compared to the year prior.

Chu further pointed to the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man who was beaten to death by two white autoworkers who blamed their job losses on the growth of Japanese auto manufacturers at the time.  

“Many Asian Americans are afraid of history repeating itself regarding economic issues,” Chu said. 

Top Democrats have made a point of sharply limiting discussion specific to China while promoting the bill ahead of its expected passage on Friday or even avoiding it altogether.  

They have largely focused on highlighting the bill’s provisions providing funds to incentivize domestic semiconductor chip production amid the global shortage, help build domestic supply chain resilience and increase investments in scientific research, and how that would benefit Americans. 

Yet numerous provisions of the legislation are clearly aimed at the Chinese government, such as sanctions for its human rights abuses against the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region and the creation of a “China Watcher” program that designates Foreign Service officer positions to “monitor and combat Chinese malign influence” at U.S. posts abroad. 

Other elements of the bill formally condemn the Chinese government for its actions undermining Hong Kong’s established autonomy and provide temporary protected status and refugee status for qualifying Hong Kong residents. 

A Statement of Administration Policy from the Biden White House this week notably did not make any mention of China. Instead, it described the bill as an “important step to strengthen our supply chains, revitalize domestic manufacturing, and reinvigorate the innovation engine of our economy.” 

A statement from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) after the bill was first unveiled last week similarly did not contain any references to China.  

During a 12-minute House floor speech on the bill on Wednesday, Pelosi mentioned China – or the alternative name of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – a total of four times. One of the mentions was while reading aloud a statement from the Teamsters in support of the bill, while two others were in the context of criticizing China for its human rights violations and trade practices.   

“A vote for this bill would strengthen our supply chains and lower costs for families. And it would bring forceful action to assure that America – not the People’s Republic of China, but America – writes the rules of the road for the 21st century,” Pelosi said to conclude her speech. 

By contrast, virtually every Republican speaking during House floor debate centered their arguments around the threats to U.S. competitiveness posed by China.  

And they criticized the Biden administration for omitting any mention of China in the Statement of Administration Policy, arguing it’s counterproductive during a debate over how to assert the U.S. geopolitically. 

“They left the word China out of their anti-China bill. I think that speaks volumes about the lack of content when it comes to countering the malign influence. This is the greatest threat, a generational threat, to our national security,” Rep. Michael McCaul (Texas), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters. 

As they’ve pressed for greater sensitivity to discussion of countering China on the world stage, leaders of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus successfully secured amendments to the bill that formally condemn anti-Asian hatred and ensure that the bill’s provisions aimed at countering the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) influence are implemented in a way that doesn’t lead to discrimination against people of Asian descent.  

Chu said that lawmakers can achieve a balance while discussing China by using more precise language to criticize the Chinese government’s policies. Rather than broadly condemning China and its people, she said, they should specify their criticisms are about the government controlled by the CCP.  

“I’m not saying don’t talk about China at all. But let’s make clear that these are the policies of the CCP and not the policies of all the Chinese people from China. So instead of saying, ‘China is immoral,’ then why don’t you instead say on the Uyghur issue, ‘The CCP, the Chinese Communist Party, is guilty of human rights abuses against its own people,’” Chu said.  

“Because remember, the Chinese people are victims too.”  

Tags Judy Chu Michael McCaul Nancy Pelosi

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