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Congress zeroes in on China — as economic and security threats loom

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., are the chair and ranking member on the House select committee on the strategic relationship between the U.S. and China.
Alex Brandon/AP; House Television via AP
Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., are the chair and ranking member on the House select committee on the strategic relationship between the U.S. and China.

Updated February 28, 2023 at 5:24 PM ET

In a rare show of bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are focusing on threats they believe are posed by the government of China.

That spotlight on U.S.–China relations will culminate on Tuesday with a prime time hearing held by the newly created House Select Committee on the strategic competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party.

Former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and former deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger are expected to testify. Both worked in former President Donald Trump's administration. Tong Yi, a human rights activist, and Scott Paul, the head of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, are also scheduled to appear.

Wisconsin GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher, who chairs the panel, told NPR's Steve Inskeep ahead of the hearing "a Chinese spy balloon drifting over the country and circling our nuclear ICBM facilities has a way of sort of bringing the threat close to home."

That panel isn't the only committee assembling to address national security concerns posed by China.

On Tuesday morning, the House foreign affairs panel held a hearing with top Biden administration officials.

"We are living through one of the most dangerous periods in American foreign policy in a generation," said Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas. "It is a struggle for the global balance of power, and the primary battleground is technology leadership. This is an issue Congress – and this administration – cannot ignore."

TikTok and beyond: creating a narrative about the challenges posed by China

Many lawmakers view the recent episode of the surveillance balloon traversing the continental U.S. as another egregious chapter in the Chinese government's efforts to spy on U.S. interests. The incident heightened the urgency within Congress to push for a comprehensive plan to tackle what lawmakers consider to be rising security threats.

Coming out of a recent classified briefing on China, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, emphasized that addressing these challenges will take time.

"The rest of the century will be defined by what happens between the United States and China," Rubio said.

Rubio said the way China has deployed high tech devices means the U.S. has to come up with a multipronged response.

"This is not a military challenge. China has used its commercial, military and technological applications in ways no other nation has so it's a multifaceted challenge," Rubio said.

Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, the ranking Democrat on the House select panel, says his constituents often reach out to him with concerns about China's massive influence.

"Everyone seems to have their own stories, whether they are a small business person or whether they're concerned about the crackdown on dissent or human rights," he told NPR.

He's teaming up with Gallagher on a bill to ban the social media platform TikTok. He is concerned the app is taking users' data — and its parent company reports to the CCP, the Chinese Communist Party.

"The algorithms are also controlled ultimately by the CCP. So now you have the user data and the algorithms which are ultimately under the control of the CCP, and that's deeply disturbing," Krishnamoorthi said.

Gallagher is also worried about TikTok's ability to influence the flow of information that Americans see and share, telling NPR "it can be used to influence the news, what people see and talk about, and, therefore, to interfere in our society and our politics and our very democracy. So I think we're nearing a very dangerous inflection point here."

On Tuesday afternoon, the House foreign affairs committee began debating the DATA (Deterring America's Technological Adversaries) Act, a bill that would essentially enable a ban of TikTok within the U.S.

Draft language directs the Treasury Secretary to issue a directive prohibiting Americans from engaging in transactions with any entity that could transfer personal data to an entity controlled or subject to the influence of China.

"TikTok is a modern day Trojan horse of the CCP used to surveil and exploit Americans' personal information," McCaul said Tuesday afternoon. "This legislation is the first step in protecting Americans against subversive data collection."

In response to McCaul's bill, TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said it would be "unfortunate if the House Foreign Affairs Committee were to censor millions of Americans."

Oberwetter says criticism of the platform comes from a misunderstanding of the company's corporate structure.

"TikTok Inc. is a U.S. company bound by U.S. law, and we are two years and $1.5 billion dollars deep into a project to go above and beyond existing law to secure the U.S. version of the TikTok platform," Oberwetter said in a statement.

TikTok has been working to convince U.S. users their data is secure and is attempting to reassure the Biden administration as well by launching a public relations offensive with meetings in Washington with the company's CEO Shou Zi Chew.

Lawmakers highlight U.S. relationship with Taiwan

Lawmakers have also stressed concerns over increased Chinese aggression over Taiwan, an island democracy that governs itself but that China claims as its territory.

Gallagher traveled to Taiwan last week on an unannounced trip and met with top Taiwanese officials. Those officials also visited with a separate bipartisan House delegation.

The U.S. has its own relationship with Taiwan— including deep trade ties and supplying weapons.

"We want to do everything we can to help Taiwan deter or prevent aggression by the CCP," Krishnamoorthi said. "We don't want open hostilities to break out in that part of the world, which could lead to very severe consequences for the region."

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., says it's time for Congress to change how China is treated in international agreements. "There's no reason that China should continue to be categorized as a developing nation," he told NPR.

Van Hollen is working with Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney. The pair argue that developing nation status for China is outdated, maintaining that a country with the second largest economy in the world shouldn't get any edge in trade agreements.

While Romney says Congress has a role to play in insisting on what type of strategy the U.S. should deploy when dealing with China, there's a limit to what Congress can do.

"I think we need to develop a more comprehensive and tactical strategy and that's something that'll not be done by Congress," Romney said. "That's something done by State Department, other agencies of government and, in my view, outside experts who offer perspective that you wouldn't get from within the buildings of government."

In terms of things Congress can do, Krishnamoorthi thinks it has to focus on skills training for U.S. workers to be competitive in fields like robotics and artificial intelligence. He adds the U.S. immigration system penalizes those who come to innovate but are forced to leave because they can't get visas.

"This is the U.S. shooting itself in the foot repeatedly on immigration and now it has real world consequences when adversarial regimes take advantage of our weaknesses and it comes back to haunt us," he said.

Committee leaders in both the House and Senate say they hope these hearings will lay the groundwork for a range of bipartisan bills that address workforce training, immigration and education.

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Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.