Tuesday's first hearing by a US House select committee raises concerns about more than CCP actions in the US, China, and the world. We've seen such saber-rattling rhetoric before, but is it—or greater caution—justified?

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In the wake of 9/11, the world did not go gently into the US invasion of Iraq, but messaging around the “war on terror”, which had started with Afghanistan, certainly built momentum to that end. On the weekend of February 15, 2003, anti-war protests across 600 cities saw six to ten million protesters pushing back on the “weapons of mass destruction” narrative advanced by US government officials on the world stage. Nevertheless, the invasion began on March 19, in the air, followed by boots on the ground March 20. “Clash of civilizations” rhetoric abounded as moral justification. Close to 300,000 people, the vast majority Iraqi civilians, were killed over the next 19 years of US occupation.

On Tuesday, February 28, a new US House select committee on China met for the first time publicly to discuss another conflict in extreme terms. Republican Chairman Mike Gallagher called US issues with China no less than “an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century—[in which] the most fundamental freedoms are at stake.” As Republican Representative Darin LaHood added, “It’s become more clear to me than ever that China has a plan to replace the United States and they’re working at it every day: replace our economy, replace us in technology, replace us when it comes to national security in the military and diplomatically.”

The bipartisan committee, which includes top Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi, emphasized that its target for these and coming proceedings was the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) currently headed for an unprecedented third term by Xi Jinping, and not general Chinese citizens. However, this is a delicate claim to make in a sociopolitical context that saw anti-Asian violence rise 338 percent in the US in 2021, in strong part from a narrative that blamed COVID-19 on China.

That narrative was already bolstered once this week, when the US Energy Department released a classified report suggesting with “low confidence” that the COVID-19 virus had a lab-based origin. This tentative finding differs from four prior, also tentative assessments from US intelligence sources, which cautiously concluded that the pandemic started from a natural source: zoonotic transfer from another species. The FBI, which runs the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, then also suggested a lab-based origin, with “moderate confidence” in that conclusion. Many in mainstream media ran both stories in a more definitive manner than the evidence supports, often neglecting to include the confidence metric or competing findings.

Gallagher responded to this latest report by the US Energy Department by calling on the US to push China to accept an international investigation, even though such had already been pursued with the World Health Organization, and although recent Time coverage highlights that, after years of research by highly invested scientists, the exact origin of COVID-19 remains an uncertainty complicated by politics in both the US and China. The actual source may never definitively be found.

Nevertheless, this rhetoric of infection, and attendant fixation on its origins, continues to make for a potent site of narrative-building, in a country that lost over 1.13 million lives to COVID-19, out of a global death toll of over 6.8 million, and which was plagued by denialism and conspiracy theories at every stage of the pandemic. For this last reason especially, the narrative currently forming in US government and media must be carefully considered, if we’re to avoid tripping into historical error.

A tightrope of sensible warnings vs. saber-rattling

As FBI Director Christopher Ray told FOX, “The FBI has folks—agents, professionals, analysts, virologists, microbiologists, et cetera—who focus specifically on the dangers of biological threats including things like novel viruses, like COVID, and the concerns that, in the wrong hands, some bad guys—a hostile nation-state, a terrorist, a criminal: the threats that those could pose. So here you’re talking about a potential leak, from a Chinese government controlled lab that killed millions of Americans, and that’s precisely what that capability was designed for.”

The Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party was formed in January, after a Republican majority took the House. To develop a clear public narrative that might support actions taken by other parts of government, it can investigate and issue subpoenas for the next two years. In its first meeting, held in the evening to improve public viewing, committee members highlighted past abuses by the CCP, including the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, and current human rights abuses (as so identified by the UN last summer) against Uighur people.

Also discussed were US trade deficits and manufacturing job losses to Chinese industry, Taiwanese independence, and concerns about increasing land acquisitions by Chinese citizens in North America. Republican Representative Dan Newhouse expressed alarm specifically about the proximity of many Chinese-owned buildings to sensitive US military infrastructure, intimating the existence of a “massive campaign of espionage” behind such purchases.

Former deputy national security advisor Matthew Pottinger similarly argued that “if TikTok [a Chinese-owned social media app] is permitted to continue to operate in the United States, [this] 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.” He noted that the app’s parent company, China-based ByteDance, had already publicly disclosed a few examples of employee misconduct, discovered through internal review, with respect to the data of US journalists made available through TikTok.

All this “good” and “bad guy” rhetoric does not serve us—but better domestic and foreign policy can, and should, if there is a real fire behind all this smoke proclaiming war.

On Wednesday, the Foreign Affairs committee approved a bill that would grant President Joe Biden the power to ban TikTok, which would mark the most far-reaching restriction on a social media app to date, if implemented. This came after a series of deterrent bills passed by the House Financial Services Committee on Tuesday, seven of which focused on China and Taiwan.

Tensions between the US and China had already grown with the shooting down of a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon in early February (or more specifically, from media escalation of this event). In the wake of this incident, the US Commerce Department issued a new round of sanctions on six Chinese aerospace companies, which adds to a growing list of other Chinese companies currently sanctioned by the US government. There are also mounting rumors that China’s current support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might soon shift from the delivery of nonlethal hi-tech components to the delivery of lethal weapons, too.

In the wake of this first US House committee meeting, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning issued sharp criticism of the tone of these proceedings, calling for members to “view China and China-US relations in an objective and rational light” and demanding “that the relevant US agencies and personnel abandon ideological bias and cold war zero-sum thinking, look at China and US-China relations objectively and rationally, stop spreading the ‘China threat theory’ based on disinformation, stop denigrating the Communist Party of China, and stop abducting U.S.-China relations for political self-interest.”

In his closing remarks on Tuesday, Gallagher framed the situation in filmic terms:

“And like a cinematic experience, in examining this strategic competition with the CCP tonight, we’ve gotten a sense of heroes and villains. … There’s no question in my mind that we, America, are the good guys. We are the good guys. That even on our worst day, the rest of the world is still looking to us for leadership.”

Rewriting secular history, by doing better now

It is dangerous to prognosticate about the strange times in which we live. We are daily feeling the effects of a war that keeps teetering on the brink of expanding its theaters of active combat, and it is human nature to want a state of uncertainty to end, to resolve itself one way or another, even if that end-state might be worse.

Granted, global economic and ideological warfare are already involved in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But it can simultaneously be true that there are sound reasons for US concern about Chinese government actions in the world, and that history calls for care in the way we shape and disseminate surrounding narratives.

The last time we felt the saber-rattling rhetoric of war this intensely in US discourse, mainstream media quickly took up its torch, accepting wholesale the international WMD line and similar cinematic visions of a “clash of civilizations”: a war on the righteous West that could only be resolved through escalating shows of force. Prominent secular and religious figures alike bought into the idea that we were hopelessly locked into this epic ideological battle for survival.

And yet, a more active state of combat is not inevitable. No matter how much mainstream media and government narratives may attempt to bend the arc of history, the real world is not a movie, and we are not “destined” to take up one part or another in it. This is a time for those of us who do not believe in grand teleology to look for more grounded ways through political tensions as they arise, and to model less dehumanizing responses to any potential risks to civic security. All this “good” and “bad guy” rhetoric does not serve us—but better domestic and foreign policy can, and should, if there is any real fire behind all this smoke proclaiming war.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.