Congressional anger towards China over its handling of the coronavirus is growing, with no fewer than four bills calling for action against the Communist regime introduced in Congress over the last week.
In recent weeks, Republicans and a few Democrats have banded together to condemn China’s early attempts to hide and destroy evidence of the virus and to call on the nation for transparency.
When Chinese doctors and scientists first discovered the coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, China censored them, tried to destroy evidence of their discovery, and denied the Centers for Disease Control access to investigate. Chinese officials also made false assertions that the U.S. was to blame for the coronavirus’s spread in China.
While it is not clear whether the bills will move forward, they could portend stronger anti-China sentiment in the United States for the long term.
“The Chinese have been abominable. Their behavior has been unconscionable in every aspect — public diplomacy, the public health response, how they’ve dealt with international organizations, how they’ve treated other countries, how they intimidated others,” said James Carafano, the Heritage Foundation’s director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies and Vice President of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies.
“There’s almost no aspect of Chinese foreign or economic or public diplomacy that’s not been completely unconscionable. So I think it’s a natural reaction,” he said of Congress’s response.
One bill proposed by Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) and co-sponsored by 40 House members condemns the Chinese government’s early actions, including trying hide discovery of the coronavirus.
The bill also calls on World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanoom Ghebreyesus to retract its “highly misleading” statements of support for China’s coronavirus response. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) has introduced a companion bill in the Senate. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) initially co-sponsored the legislation, then later withdrew his support after receiving criticism from other Democrats.
Another bill proposed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and co-sponsored by Democrat Sens. Bob Menendez (NJ), Edward Markey (MA), and Elizabeth Warren (MA), honors a Chinese doctor who tried to warn the scientific community about the coronavirus and died after contracting it. It also calls on China to be open and transparent about its response.
There are several other Republican bills that have been introduced, including one by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) calling for an investigation into China’s handling, and one by Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) that calls for the U.S. to seek reimbursement from China for the cost of responding to the coronavirus.
Republicans have also taken other actions. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) has urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the CEOs of major social media companies to try to limit the spread of Chinese disinformation about coronavirus in the U.S., and has asked the State Department to investigate the Chinese Communist Party’s “coronavirus coverup.”
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) have also sent a letter to Twitter asking the company to block Chinese disinformation. China does not allow its citizens to use Twitter, but its officials use it to spread rumors, such as that U.S. soldiers brought the coronavirus to China.
Rep. Peter King (R-NY) has also called for China to face consequences. “If China had right up front done what it should have done as responsible world citizen[s], we would not be in this position today,” he said recently on AM 970’s The Answer. “It’s indefensible, and there have to be consequences for their terrible behavior.”
Lawmakers have also been calling on the U.S. to protect their strategic supply lines, since the crisis has exposed dependence on China for key supplies. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN) told The Hill: “This exposes the Achilles heel that we’ve had in America for too long. We drove a lot of industries out of this country, largely because of labor and other production costs. It is going to take awhile to retool this country.”
Aside from stimulus bills, Democrats have introduced a bill condemning anti-Asian sentiment related to coronavirus. Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) introduced the bill, and 131 Democrat have co-sponsored it.
But the joining of some Democrats to Republican-led bills on China — particularly during a time of heightened political partisanship — shows growing bipartisan U.S. anger towards China.
The Trump administration has already taken a hardline towards China in the past three years, but experts say that will intensify if Trump is re-elected in November.
Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said:
If we end up with another four years of Trump, my guess is that we look back and see that COVID-19 was an episode that further accelerated the trajectory that they are already on, of trying to work with other countries to put pressure on China in some ways but even more so find unilateral ways to really push back against a whole range of Chinese efforts that are seen as damaging to American interests.
Carafano said Congress’s actual legislative agenda on China will depend on what other priorities they face as they get closer to election day in November.
But experts agree that whatever happens in 2020, a tough U.S. policy towards China will likely be backed by the American public.
The most recent Gallup poll, conducted in February as the coronavirus began to spread from China to the rest of the world, shows a sharp increase of Americans with unfavorable views of China compared to the year before.
In February 2019, 41 percent of Americans had either a very favorable or favorable view of China, and 57 percent had an unfavorable view. In February 2020, only 33 percent of Americans had a very favorable or favorable view of China, and 67 percent had an unfavorable view.
The polling data shows that more Democrats have favorable views of China than Republicans, at 35 percent to 23 percent.
Carafano also thinks other countries who were considering closer ties with China will now think twice, such as the United Kingdom, which recently decided to allow Chinese companies to build their 5G infrastructure despite potential security risks.
“I think it’s that likely the U.K. will reverse its decision on 5G, not because it was a bad decision, but because of the atrocious response of China to the virus, and how the U.K. has suffered because of that,” Carafano said.
This story has been updated to reflect that Moulton had originally co-sponsored Banks’ bill, but then withdrew his support.