The US government is launching investigations of US academics with ties to Chinese research institutes. It’s a dangerous escalation of anti-China surveillance, which threatens civil liberties while doing little to help those it is supposed to protect.
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaking at an event hosted by the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party on June 5, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)
Earlier this month, the US federal government questioned the University of California, Berkeley, about its collaboration with Chinese research institutes, suspecting Berkeley researchers of sharing technology with the government of the People’s Republic of China. This initiative was led by the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party — one of the most powerful bodies advancing the aims of the US establishment’s worst hawks. Since late last year, the committee has been gathering legislators on both sides of the aisle for a coordinated approach to countering Chinese influence in the world.
Belligerence against China has become a rare point of bipartisan consensus. The Select Committee — less than a year old — is symptomatic of how the renewed industrial nationalism of the Biden administration has been taking shape through growing rivalry with China.
Although we should be clear-eyed about the authoritarian nature of China’s government and its own dangerous geopolitical ambitions, we also have to understand that the Select Committee, along with the whole host of anti-China initiatives being promoted by the US government, is a direct threat to peace and to the civil liberties of ordinary people in the United States. Rather than safeguarding everyday people and the political refugees that the committee purports to defend, these bodies simply represent a further restriction of people’s freedoms domestically and encourage further saber-rattling by China.
The investigation of UC Berkeley reminds us that there is little democratic oversight of the Select Committee. It seeks to revive a brand of “Red Scare” politics by citing Chinese authoritarianism as a justification for the committee’s existence.
A New McCarthyism
The formation of the Select Committee, spearheaded by Republican House majority leader Kevin McCarthy, was officially announced in December of last year, but its conception began much earlier. The growing tensions between the United States and China have spurred a series of federal initiatives aimed at curbing Chinese influence in domestic industries. Under Donald Trump’s administration, the Department of Justice formed the notorious China Initiative, which identified and prosecuted Chinese espionage in American industries. The initiative’s minimal accountability structure meant that it placed a target on anyone of Chinese descent. It ended last year after facing widespread criticism for fueling racial bias that exacerbated a new wave of anti-Asian violence.
The Select Committee’s prototype was the Republican-led China Task Force of 2020, which advanced hundreds of proposals, also supported by Democrats, many of which included ramping up the US military budget, especially in speeding up weapons distribution abroad. In the past year or so, numerous anti-China bills have poured through Congress and state governments, many expressing openly racist measures. Earlier this year, for instance, a proposed bill in Texas sought to restrict home ownership by any Chinese citizens.
Many of the calls for stronger measures against China have come not just from elected officials and other policymakers, but from diaspora dissidents threatened by the Chinese government. Indeed, unprecedented repression by the Chinese government has shattered independent movements and civil society in Hong Kong, while Taiwan faces aggressive belligerence from China. But Chinese and other diaspora communities affected by China must understand that the US government’s anti-China measures do not help our cause.
Worse yet, they further jeopardize our democratic rights here, just as China weaponizes the rhetoric of foreign interference to smear and suppress social movements there. Efforts by the US government to introduce more surveillance in the name of protecting people claim to mainly target officials, researchers, and other members of civil society with ties to the Chinese security apparatus. But they end up having a much wider scope.
Senators Tom Cotton and Marsha Blackburn’s SECURE CAMPUS Act in 2020 proposed banning all Chinese nationals from receiving student visas for graduate or postgraduate studies in STEM. Like the Select Committee’s charges against scholarly institutions, such legislation compromises academic freedom, thickening an atmosphere of fear and paranoia that further divides American and Chinese people.
These problems are not simply limited to the domestic sphere, but also to questions of security abroad. Increased militarization in the Indo-Pacific to defend against China further endangers people in Guam, who have long suffered from the consequences of US imperialism. Historically, the United States’ “protection” of peace in Asia has seen contradictory results at best. At worst, the United States has been directly responsible for catastrophic destruction in the region, like its bombing campaigns in Laos that killed tens of thousands — and still counting due to countless unexploded bombs — in the name of fighting communism.
The Select Committee is only one node in a larger ecosystem of growing anti-China hysteria. It is reinforcing a new era of anti-communist McCarthyism, which has historically proved to be disastrous for Chinese Americans and activist communities. When Harry Truman imposed economic sanctions on the Chinese Communist government in the 1950s, overseas Chinese Americans, even those with no involvement in politics, were prohibited from sending remittances back to their families. Thousands of Chinese Americans were put at risk of deportation with their paths to citizenship barred and were unable to reunite with families back home.
In 1955, the US consul general in Hong Kong submitted a report to the State Department claiming that nearly everyone on the backlog for immigration to the United States and Chinese Americans living in the United States was under suspicion. Not even right-wing Kuomintang sympathizers, with connections to US authorities to inform on suspected communists in their communities, were given a pass. Today’s anti-China laws are a legacy of these efforts.
Many immigrant communities from China and its peripheries have legitimate fears of the Chinese government — but we cannot rely on the US military and surveillance apparatus for assistance. Indeed, China’s “United Front” work, which has recruited a vast and opaque network of diaspora organizations for decades to surveil dissidents, remains powerful. New York City–based Chinese diaspora dissident activist Wang Shujun was recently revealed to have long informed on his allies to China’s Ministry of State Security, and his information helped contribute to the arrest of a pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong in 2020.
But there are other ways to protect dissidents from Chinese surveillance. Many of these methods, including being vigilant about internal vetting, we already practice in diaspora organizations that provide more sensitivity to community needs than does the US surveillance apparatus.
In fact, the same legislators who have been most aggressive about China have often failed dissident refugees. Ted Cruz delayed a bill in 2020 that would extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Hong Kongers in the United States. And despite constantly weaponizing the Chinese government’s cultural genocide of Uyghurs to introduce anti-China legislation, the US admitted zero Uyghur refugees in 2021, as many remain stuck in the asylum-seeking process along with hundred thousands of others.
This reality should remind us that to protect those threatened by the Chinese government, we need an independent political horizon based on fortifying the basic rights and political power of everyday working people and the most marginalized, which can then form a movement for full political and economic democracy in the United States. Migrant justice campaigns can build solidarity between different diaspora communities — rather than pitting more privileged immigrants against others — to collectively strengthen a broad movement for immigrant rights.
A key issue for most living in the United States, including many dissidents, is economic precarity. Winning gains that improve the material conditions of Chinese and other Americans through mass organizing does more to protect people than ramping up anti-Chinese surveillance. The Chinese rank-and-file graduate workers who went on strike in the University of California last year for better wages, housing, and other demands provide an example of the kind of organizing that can actually provide dissident communities with greater security. These strategies are no guarantee against Chinese surveillance. But embracing fights to improve our material circumstances does more to protect us than supporting a false cure-all that restricts our civil liberties.
The Left has to reject the Sinophobic “clash of civilizations” framework championed by war hawks and put forth its own international perspective. The Select Committee deceptively misrepresents the political situation, treating the United States as a benign force under threat by foreign actors. In reality, the United States and China are rival imperial powers, both serving the interests of capital accumulation and exploitation of workers on a global scale — a process in which the two states continue to cooperate, despite the uneven decoupling of some strategic industries.
Both China and the United States seek to repress movements that challenge the prevailing political and economic order. If we want to support those who are fighting against exploitation and for democracy in each country, Sinophobia and increased US state surveillance are counterproductive. Instead, the Left must build transnational solidarity between American and Chinese movements against oppression — for instance, between workers’ struggles in China against Foxconn, whose factories function as the cornerstone of Apple’s supply chain, and the rank-and-file organizing of US-based Apple workers. That kind of solidarity can empower forces that provide a political alternative to saber-rattling, repressive governments of both countries.Original post