A group of Republican lawmakers is pushing to hold China accountable for a propaganda campaign they say was conceived to obfuscate the country's responsibility for the spread of the coronavirus.
Leading the charge in the House are longtime China hawk Rep. Jim Banks (R., Ind.) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R., N.Y.), who have introduced resolutions aimed at holding Beijing to account.
The lawmakers say their goal is not to assign blame for the pandemic, but to push policies that carry practical benefits for American workers. They argue that America's crisis response has been hampered by the country's dependence on Chinese supply chains, as Beijing seized masks made by U.S. manufacturers operating in China to shore up its own supply of protective equipment. Stefanik is teaming up with Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.), one of four Republican senators to introduce legislation aimed at strengthening America's medical supply chain.
Banks, Stefanik, and Hawley have emerged as leading China hawks in Congress, joining the likes of Sens. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), Ted Cruz (R., Tex.), and Rick Scott (R., Fla.).
The trio reflects the rise of young, energetic lawmakers among GOP ranks. All three were teenagers when U.S. policymakers normalized trade relations with China in 2000 and are bringing fresh scrutiny to U.S. relationship with Beijing. The lawmakers themselves say it's part of a "generational challenge" they are trying to raise an alarm about.
And while Capitol Hill is legendary for the number of geriatrics roaming its halls, the GOP China hawks are largely a part of the party's younger generation. At 40, Hawley is the Senate's youngest member, a title he took from Cotton. Stefanik in 2014 was the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. The New York Republican called the GOP effort to hold China accountable a "generational challenge"—and they are facing headwinds from Democrats, led by 80-year-old House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
"This is a part of a broader generational challenge that we need to meet in terms of countering China’s influence," Stefanik told the Washington Free Beacon. "Why do we have so many issues getting access to manufacturing of [protective equipment]? We're overly reliant on China. Why do we have so many issues getting critical drugs? We're overly reliant on China. We need to ensure that Western countries and our democratic values, our rule of law, our individual freedom, that's where people look for global leadership."
As the coronavirus outbreak went global in March, Banks drafted a then-bipartisan resolution condemning the Chinese Communist Party's handling of the pandemic and demanding that Beijing disavow its conspiracy theory that the U.S. military introduced the virus. The resolution also calls on the World Health Organization to withdraw misleading statements about the pathogen that provided political cover to China. Sen. Rick Scott (R., Fla.) called on Congress to investigate the WHO after Banks's legislation was introduced, and several Republican senators have demanded the resignation of WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
"China's negligence has led to the rest of the world experiencing this crisis, and China should be held accountable for that," Banks told the Free Beacon. "There's no doubt that the WHO is complicit in China's negligence and mismanagement of the virus that has caused the rest of the world such strife."
Stefanik's resolution calls for an international investigation into China's handling of the virus. The legislation also asks the international community to "quantify the harm caused" by China and "design a mechanism for delivering compensation" to all nations affected by the pandemic.
The congresswoman said securing vital medical equipment for her district is her "main focus" as New York City becomes the center of the pandemic. But as Democrats bolster China's global propaganda campaign aimed at distancing the authoritarian regime from the virus—just 47 percent of voters believe China is primarily at fault for the pandemic, according to a Rasmussen poll—Stefanik stressed the importance of highlighting Chinese malfeasance as America awaits a return to normalcy and prepares for future crises.
"It is important to hold China accountable for their failure, frankly, to be a legitimate partner in the international community, in terms of their lack of honesty and their propaganda," Stefanik said. "The more facts that come out, the more clear it's going to be to the American people and our allies, particularly those in Europe that have borne the brunt of this, that China lied and would have been able to mitigate the threat of the virus were it not for their failure to share accurate information."
While Banks's and Stefanik's current legislation focuses on China's role in causing the pandemic, it could serve as a launching pad for a more dramatic restructuring of America's relationship with the authoritarian regime. The lawmakers emphasized the need to bring pharmaceutical manufacturing back home to the United States to prevent medical supply shortages in future public health emergencies, a cause they believe could find bipartisan support.
"At times, even Nancy Pelosi has agreed that we need to disentangle our supply chain, especially our medical supply chain from China," Banks said. "The easiest thing that we could do … to disentangle our medical supply chain is preventing the [Veterans Affairs]—the largest health care network in the world—from buying medical supplies from China."
The young China hawks were among the first to question China's response in the outbreak's early stages, sparking Democratic opposition. Cotton, Hawley, and Scott called for a travel ban on China in late January, citing a discrepancy between the regime's draconian actions and insistence that the virus did not spread between humans. When Trump implemented the ban on January 31, Joe Biden attributed the move to "hysterical xenophobia."
Democrats made similar attacks against Banks and Stefanik. Banks partnered with Rep. Seth Moulton (D., Mass.) on his resolution, only to see Moulton withdraw his support in March following criticism from his primary opponents and Rep. Judy Chu (D., Calif.). Stefanik's Democratic opponent, Tedra Cobb, attacked the New York Republican for her resolution. Cobb accused Stefanik of "playing games in Washington to stay in Donald Trump's good graces."
Republican lawmakers brushed aside such criticism.
"When a regime harms its own people, that's bad enough," Cotton told the Free Beacon. "But when its negligent actions kill citizens the world over—that cannot be ignored. No matter what Democrats and their allies in the media say, it is not fear mongering or racist to seek justice against the perpetrators of these crimes."