Colorado Senate hopeful John Hickenlooper praised China as a "great nation" deserving of American respect and told voters that the Chinese do not seek global dominance.
The former Democratic governor ignored China's recent military saber-rattling, crackdowns in Hong Kong, and role in the coronavirus outbreak to laud the regime's lack of ambition.
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"They do not want to rule the world," Hickenlooper told supporters on a Zoom call on Monday. "They don't want to dominate. They want to be safe and be respected as one of the great nations of the world, which they are. And we should–I think that's what we should recognize."
Hickenlooper's remarks are at odds with a bipartisan consensus emerging on Capitol Hill, as well as Chinese ruler Xi Jinping's own rhetoric. Since the coronavirus pandemic's onset, Democrats and Republicans have targeted China's malignant behavior and global ambitions, with both parties issuing reports on dangerous Chinese statecraft tools just this week. Xi has explicitly said that he hopes China will be "a global leader in terms of comprehensive national power and international influence" by 2049. Experts assert this amounts to a call for a China-led world order.
Hickenlooper has maintained close ties with China over the course of his career. He previously met with the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calls "the public face of the Chinese Communist Party's official foreign influence agency." The former Colorado governor has also interviewed with multiple Chinese state media outlets in the past few years, lauding the virtues of cooperation with the Chinese Communist Party, especially as it comes to reciprocal trade. Millions of dollars in American intellectual property theft comes from China, and yet Hickenlooper told Chinese state media that Washington should use a "thumbtack" to manage the Sino-American relationship, rather than a "sledgehammer."
Hickenlooper's opponent, incumbent senator Cory Gardner (R., Colo.), has emerged as a top critic of the Chinese regime since his 2014 election. As an influential member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Gardner has made relationships with China rivals Japan and South Korea a major feature of his tenure, even meeting with former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in 2017.
Gardner has also made national security readiness against China a significant part of his legislative efforts. In recent months, Gardner made amendments on a NASA authorization act that bolster space technology protections against Chinese theft and authored language on a bill condemning human rights abuses in China. In 2018, Gardner's subcommittee heard testimony from prominent voices in the Uighur community, and Gardner himself took Chinese ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai to task on Beijing's human-rights record.
Colorado's state Republican Party said that foreign policy is a key area for voters, particularly as the federal government addresses the coronavirus pandemic. Party spokesman Joe Jackson called on Hickenlooper to disavow his praise for the regime.
"While Senator Gardner works to hold China accountable for stealing [intellectual property] and torturing Uighur Muslims, Hickenlooper has instead chosen to continue in his role as a useful tool in the belt of the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda machine," he said. "Hickenlooper's refusal to disavow China's human rights abuses or recognize their threat to American security proves that he isn't fit to hold a Senate seat."
The Hickenlooper campaign did not respond to a request for comment.