Conservatives Craft Bill to Counter China

The People’s Republic of China flag and the U.S. flag fly on a lamp post along Pennsylvania Avenue near the U.S. Capitol. (Hyungwon Kang/Reuters)

Disappointed with Democratic efforts to confront Beijing, congressional Republicans propose a comprehensive alternative.

They don’t have the majority yet, but they’re plotting out their next China policy steps for when they retake it.

The Republican Study Committee (RSC) has proven its salt as a de facto policy shop for conservatives in the House of Representatives, in recent months releasing a spate of China-focused proposals designed to shape Washington’s intensifying competition with Beijing.

The latest step in this monthslong policy rollout: The Countering Communist China Act, the RSC’s answer to the Democratic China agenda, which goes by the name of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) in the Senate and the EAGLE Act in the House.

The Senate passed USICA in June, and the EAGLE Act, its House companion, awaits a vote on the floor, likely in September following an upcoming recess; conservatives remain unimpressed. (The first is the 2,376-page Senate industrial policy and China competition package, and the latter is the House companion to the competition component.)

“Ultimately, the Senate’s spending bill missed the mark. So as the largest group of House conservatives on Capitol Hill, we’re introducing the bill that Congress should be passing to confront the China threat,” Representative Jim Banks (R., Ind.), chairman of the RSC, told National Review in an emailed statement.

No one is under the illusion that this bill will win a vote this Congress, though RSC members hope that some of the ideas included within it will find adoption in the final text of the Senate package, or the annual defense-appropriations bill.

And when Republicans win the majority in Congress once again, this is the China bill that they’ll push, according to a staffer for RSC. Among the more than 30 House cosponsors is Representative Elise Stefanik (R., N.Y.), the third-ranking House Republican, indicating that the bill has the endorsement of GOP leadership.

According to the legislation, a copy of which National Review obtained ahead of its Thursday afternoon launch, Republicans are heightening the contrast between their proposal, which focuses on sharpening the national-security tools at the U.S. government’s proposal, and those of Democratic lawmakers, which puts billions of dollars toward a domestic research-and-development program that critics say isn’t germane to the China competition.

The legislation itself is more limited than USICA and the EAGLE Act, clocking in at only approximately 300 pages. It spends about $1 billion (compared with USICA’s $252 billion). And unlike the other packages, this one includes few nonbinding “sense of Congress” resolutions and other merely symbolic measures.

Where those bills essentially took a two-pronged approach, juicing American high-tech research and development and putting forth statements declaring how Congress thinks the U.S. should approach competition with China, the RSC proposal takes a different tack.

One of the handful of nonbinding resolutions included within it officially declares the aim of U.S. policy “to support a free and democratic China which respects the human rights and civil liberties of the people of China.” This isn’t a statement of support for regime change; it merely codifies what many already consider to be the aim of U.S. conduct in recent years.

That sets the stage for a strategy focused explicitly on winning the ideological competition with Beijing. One thing that Republicans say is missing from the other China packages under consideration is a concerted approach to countering the party-state’s political-influence operations.

“That’s why we made sure the RSC’s Countering Communist China Act includes the important pieces the Senate’s China spending bill failed to include: provisions to confront the Chinese Communist Party’s malign influence right here in the United States,” said Banks.

A number of provisions in the bill tackle these party campaigns, including one section that bars government funding for congressional junket trips to China, under the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act (MECEA), a law that boosted cultural exchanges with foreign countries.

The State Department ended U.S. participation in five such exchange programs with China last December, with then–secretary of state Mike Pompeo saying they were “soft-power propaganda tools.” This provision would prohibit all federal employees from participating in MECEA trips to China, which don’t require the same ethics disclosures as other similar trips, broadening and firming up State’s prohibition.

“I saw the payoff that the party gets for cultivating those long-term relationships. I had colleagues — staffers — who were trying to oppose work that I and my former boss were trying to do, and it was mind-blowing,” said Michael Sobolik, a fellow in Indo-Pacific studies at the American Foreign Policy Council and a former staffer to Senator Ted Cruz. “There was some opposition from some surprising sources.”

In addition to targeting the junkets, the bill also goes after CCP disinformation campaigns by requiring that the government make a determination about whether WeChat and TikTok send U.S. user data to China and requiring sanctions if they are found to do so. Other sections of the bill deal with the United Front CCP influence network and the regime’s co-optation of U.S. research institutions and former members of Congress.

In addition to addressing problems inadequately discussed by the other China packages, the RSC version sketches out a specifically Republican approach to the problems USICA purports to address.

It does this first by addressing a major conservative fear: that the $252 billion Senate package will provide funding for projects whose products are subsequently stolen by the Chinese party-state.

Derek Scissors, an American Enterprise Institute resident scholar who has discussed his research with RSC, said the committee seems to be offering a quiet, implicit corrective to an overzealous push for semiconductor subsidies endorsed by many lawmakers, including some congressional Republicans. USICA currently includes the $52 billion CHIPS Act, which grants money to semiconductor firms but doesn’t currently penalize companies with operations in China.

“If I’m right, RSC is saying semiconductor subsidies cannot be used to indirectly help the Chinese — which is exactly correct,” said Scissors, whose work inspired a provision to block such funding to companies that expand their operations in China. “If the CHIPS Act breaks ground on . . . and next thing you know the Senate is subsidizing who knows what, you need this restriction.”

Another industrial-policy provision would impose outsized sanctions on Chinese industry. If a Chinese firm is found to have stolen U.S. intellectual property, the RSC proposes sanctioning not just that particular company, but the entire Chinese industrial sector in which it is embedded. “These are the absolute minimum guardrails: Don’t put money into research and then have no penalties for the Chinese stealing it — which is where we are now,” said Scissors.

This is what makes the RSC proposal stand apart from those proposed by Democratic legislators: a leaner budget that gives short shrift to pork, and aggressive safeguards against IP theft. The very existence of the Countering Communist China Act can thus allow Republicans to speak out against proposals by congressional Democrats couched in language about China but actually designed to boost domestic spending for other purposes.

That lean budget in the RSC proposal doesn’t even allocate spending toward industrial policy, unlike USICA. The money goes for what its authors bill as the fundaments of this new era of U.S. policy toward the People’s Republic: the Treasury Department’s sanctions-enforcement arm, the Department of Justice’s China Initiative, and a Customs and Border Protection division that enforces orders related to forced labor.

In short, it generally forgoes sense-of-Congress resolutions on human rights and the Communist Party’s malfeasance, opting instead for buttressing U.S. efforts to concretely combat these things.

Whether any of this makes a difference will remain to be seen, and it will be decided in committee markups and in the sorts of political transactions that go on behind closed doors surrounding major legislative pushes. But the message is clear: Congress can and should do more about this once-in-a generation geopolitical menace.

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