The House select committee on China came out with guns blazing in its first hearing on Tuesday, arguing that the Chinese Communist Party should not be trusted or treated with kid gloves as it seeks to undermine the U.S.
"We may call this a 'strategic competition,' but it's not a polite tennis match," Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher, the committee's Republican chairman, said in a hearing that stuck to a bipartisan tone the leaders had promised. "This is an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century — and the most fundamental freedoms are at stake."
Former President Donald Trump's national security adviser H.R. McMaster testified that China poses a greater threat to freedom than the Soviet Union ever did because it is more intertwined in the global economy.
"Just the scale of what they're doing from an economic perspective and from an espionage perspective, I think is unprecedented," McMaster said. "We never gave the Soviet Union the kind of access that we gave to Chinese Communist Party operatives, members of the party, again, based on … this fundamentally flawed assumption that China, having been welcomed into the international order, would play by the rules and as China prospered it would liberalize its economy, and liberalize its form of governance."
The hearing took place against the backdrop of an already tense relationship between the two countries, after the U.S. shot down a Chinese spy ballon, has warned China against sending weapons to Russia and amid rising tensions over Taiwan's self-governance.
Those who thought that trade and investment in China would encourage democracy in the region miscalculated, said Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, the panel's top Democrat.
"Instead, the opposite happened as China's economy has grown more than tenfold since gaining access to U.S. and world markets," Krishnamoorthi said. "The CCP has, among other things, strengthened its authoritarian control at home, including engaging in a genocide of the Uyghur people. The CCP has funded a massive military buildup threatening its neighbors, including Taiwan, and it has pursued economic and trade policies that flat out undermine our economy."
McMaster said many leaders "were slow to overcome wishful thinking and self-delusion concerning the intentions of the CCP."
"And that's because China's Communist leaders are masters at disguising their true intentions," Trump's former deputy national security adviser and China expert Matthew Pottinger told the committee. "You could say that the Chinese Communist Party is the Harry Houdini of Marxist Leninist regimes, the David Copperfield of communism, the Criss Angel of autocracy, but the magic is fading. There's really no excuse anymore for being fooled about Beijing's intentions."
McMaster used two protesters who interrupted his remarks to make the point that there's a flawed idea that "only if America disengages or becomes more passive" in its rivalry with China that "things will get better." China's aspirations go "far beyond those that are in reaction" to the U.S., he said.
Lawmakers also asked about TikTok, which has been under heavy scrutiny for potential national security risks. Pottinger said concerns that the user data could be provided to the CCP, given that it's owned by a Chinese parent company, ByteDance, are valid.
"I simply don't think that it's possible to mitigate in a credible way against that threat," Pottinger said. "But the bigger coup for the Chinese Communist Party — if TikTok is permitted to continue operating in the United States, and if WeChat and other Chinese platforms are allowed to continue to operate — is that it gives the Chinese Communist Party the ability to manipulate our social discourse, the news to censor and suppress or to amplify what tens of millions of Americans see and read and experience and hear through their social media app."
China's spy balloon took a back seat to other issues, with the first question about the incursion coming nearly two hours into the hearing. McMaster said he thinks China was sending the message that it intends "to continue a broad range of surveillance activities."
In an interview on Tuesday, Tim Bergreen, former staff director of the House Intelligence Committee and chief of staff to California Rep. Adam Schiff, said some of the comments made during the hearing were "red hot."
"This committee can wake people up," Bergreen said. "[China is] playing a smarter game than we are right now in a lot of ways."