George Orwell’s novel 1984 isn’t just a fictional world conjured up by an over-active imagination. It’s China. The ever-expanding, nearly full spectrum surveillance of the Chinese population serves as a warning to the U.S., the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) heard in testimony on Tuesday.
“The CCP is one of the most sophisticated, repressive regimes in world history and will continue in that direction,” warned Rory Truex, Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. “We should not be irrationally optimistic about China because it all comes down to Xi Jinping and the people around him. I’m not optimistic of change for the next 10 to 15 years,” Truex told CECC co-chairs Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Jim McGovern (D-MA-3).
The full hearing can be seen here.
Truex’s comments on the totalitarian nature of China come roughly 24 hours after President Biden met Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia. Nothing substantial came out of that discussion and it appears the status quo on China remains in play. The business community, led by groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the U.S.-China Business Council, among other import lobby groups, have longed for an end to the U.S.-China impasse. The G20 meeting did not signal a change of course.
The CECC hearing on Tuesday focused primarily on China’s public health policy related to the pandemic, popularly known as Zero Covid. The three panelists agreed that the Chinese people still largely accept these policies despite recent protests against them, including the famous “Beijing Bridge” man who hung fabric over an overpass that read “We don’t want more Covid tests. We want to eat.” And that in areas where China is already repressive, provincial leaders have taken it upon themselves to crack down harder on human rights – namely freedom of movement and the already limited speech freedoms in China, especially in areas like Tibet and Xinjiang.
Lisa Peterson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the State Department asked if there was any evidence of the CCP cracking down more heavily against minority groups under Zero Covid. Everyone said no.
Sarah Cook, Research Director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House said that in provinces like Xinjiang is leadership there will “act even harsher that they already do, and the incentives are bigger for provincial leaders not to allow for any wiggle room in those Zero Covid policies. Plus you get tighter censorship,” she said, noting how people have been arrested and some will serve prison sentences upwards of 8 years for “misinformation” about Covid. For Cook, once the Zero Covid policy is implemented in regions where the government is already restrictive against specific minority groups, then “the systemic human rights violations that already exist there just get worse. But it will affect a larger array of residents, including the Han Chinese.”
The biggest takeaway in the hearing was concern over the continued closed-door policy China has to foreigners. This not only impacts students, business leaders, and academics with research partners in China, as Truex said, but it also impacts U.S. government auditors from going into China to see if Chinese companies are abiding by certain regulations. Truex did not mention this. Travel restrictions for foreigners mean the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s inspectors have not been in China for two years. Only a handful of Chinese drug labs have been inspected by the FDA since 2020. It is also clear that U.S. companies do not have auditors on the ground that can make sure Chinese tech companies importing tech products on the Commerce Department’s export controls list are not selling those products to Chinese companies on the Entity List. This is a black list of China tech companies needing U.S. government approval before a U.S. tech company can sell them certain goods.
“It is getting harder to do any type of fieldwork in China, which you need to get a better understanding of what is happening on the ground,” Truex told Senator Merkley. “There is also concern about basic research security, and the willingness to detain foreigners for political reasons.”
Truex warned that policymakers cannot assume the majority of Chinese are angered by the repressive nature of the CCP. “People have been forecasting the end of the CCP for decades. I’d be cautious in making that prediction,” he said.
In the U.S.-China commercial rivalry, it will be increasingly incumbent upon policymakers to put up barriers where multinational companies are most interested in removing them in favor of a return to a “pre-trade war” relationship. The CECC hearing on Tuesday was another bad look for China, whose Covid restrictions were largely copied by the West and are now seen by U.S. government officials as human rights violations. All three panelists warned that those policies would continue for the foreseeable future.
Also on Tuesday, the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission sent a 700+ page report to Congress on their policy recommendations and top China concerns. In the report, the Commission called for an interagency review to be led by the U.S. Trade Representative to see if China is a true market economy. Should they find otherwise, the Commission recommends China lose Permanent Normal Trade Relations status with the U.S. In the long-shot instance of such a change in normal trade relations, tariffs with China would increase, putting further pressures on U.S. multinationals still enmeshed in the Chinese supply chain.
On Wednesday, CECC released its own annual report on China. The 32-page report focused squarely on human rights. The report recommended Congress provide more funding for Customs and Border Protection to police imports under the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention law and for Congress to get the Securities and Exchange Commission to require issuers of securities to disclose whether they have established or maintained activities with entities in Xinjiang identified as complicit in the use of prison labor.
CECC also said the Biden administration should continue to identify and list new Chinese companies and entities that have provided material support or technical capabilities that conduct mass surveillance for the Chinese police and security forces and facilitate human rights abuses in Xinjiang by adding them to the Treasury Department’s Non-SDN Chinese Military-Industrial Complex Companies List (NS-CMIC List) and the Commerce Department’s Entity List and Unverified List.