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How China became politicians’ favorite foreign threat

Politicians are calling out China for a host of issues, and the country could be a top topic in the 2022 midterms

Photo illustration by Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

From left to right, Congress is united around imposing sanctions on China.

A bipartisan bill banning imports from the country’s Xinjiang region over the repression of Uighur Muslims passed the Senate last week with broad support. It had 54 co-sponsors ranging from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and will now head to the House.

The legislation follows sanctions over human rights abuses in Hong Kong passed by the Senate last summer by unanimous consent. President Joe Biden has also signed executive orders enacting sanctions on Chinese officials over Hong Kong, as well as investment restrictions for nearly 60 Chinese companies believed to have defense or surveillance ties.

“The message to Beijing and any international company that profits from forced labor in Xinjiang is clear: no more,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement.

Even before the bill’s success in the Senate, it was clear that China was a top campaign issue for both parties. Now, that trend looks to continue into the 2022 midterms and beyond.

A recent study from Pew Research Center found that between January 2020 and April 2021, 2% of all social media posts by members of Congress mentioned China. Upon further analysis, researchers determined that just 56 members of Congress were responsible for nearly 60% of the posts across Facebook and Twitter, and 54 of the 56 were Republican.

Attacking China was the modus operandi for Senate Republicans last year, according to a 57-page memo authored by top Republican strategists. The document called for candidates to criticize China for covering up COVID-19, accuse Democrats of being “soft on China” and vow that Republicans would pass sanctions against China over its role in the pandemic, according to Politico.

The country’s human rights abuses and role in the pandemic were also hot topics in the presidential race, with former President Donald Trump and Biden both airing attack ads featuring footage of the other praising China.

Ahead of the midterms, candidates are making China part of their pitch to voters.

Potentially vulnerable Democrats like Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona are touting their votes for the China-focused U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is criticizing Republicans who voted against the bill, according to Axios. Rubio has run digital ads calling Biden soft on China and sent campaigns emails with subject lines criticizing the country.

The political focus on China comes as voters sour on the country. An October Pew poll found 73% of Americans have a negative view of China. Support for the nation is also on the decline in other countries.

Another reason for the increased focus on China stems from fears over its growing power.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, wrote in a Washington Post editorial in May that experts are warning “China is on track to surpass us economically, militarily and geopolitically,” but added that the U.S. still has time to shift course.

“We may still be able to divert China from its malevolent path,” Romney wrote, calling for the U.S. and its allies to pressure China to follow global rules of fair trade and to also consider other measures, including a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who was U.S. ambassador to China from 2009 to 2011, said in a panel in March that the U.S. will need help to force the country to change its ways. He noted that America “has very little leverage in dealing with China these days.”

“U.S. policymakers are increasingly having a tough time trying to deal with tools that can be used in checking China’s power,” he said.