As the novel coronavirus wreaks havoc across the world, the Obama administration's ambassador to China has found a second lease on life as a pro-China talking head on regime propaganda outlets.
Former ambassador Max Baucus has given at least four different interviews to Chinese propaganda outlets in the last two weeks, repeatedly comparing the U.S. rhetoric about China to both the McCarthy era and Nazi Germany.
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"Joe McCarthy [and] Adolf Hitler … rallied people up, making people believe things that were really not true," Baucus said during a May 12 interview with China Global Television Network (CGTN), a regime mouthpiece. "The White House and some in Congress are making statements against China that are so over the top and so hypercritical, they are based not on the fact, or if they are based on fact, sheer demagoguery, and that's what McCarthy did in the 1950s."
Since his retirement in 2017, Baucus has been a reliable critic of the Trump administration's increasingly confrontational China policy—chiefly the decision to wage a trade war with Beijing. He once warned that the White House's decision to impose additional tariffs was a "slap on the face" to China. But Baucus's recent comments in the pandemic era have been more sympathetic to China—and critical of the United States—than ever before.
His post-retirement public statements praising China have coincided with his burgeoning overseas investments. In 2017, he founded the Baucus Group, a consulting firm that advises both American and Chinese businesses, according to his U.S. Chamber of Commerce biography. He also sits on the board of directors for Ingram Micro, a U.S. subsidiary of a Chinese state-owned conglomerate, as well as the board of advisers for Alibaba Group, one of China's largest tech companies.
Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, said that it was "inappropriate" for a former ambassador to speak ill about his own government on a foreign propaganda outlet.
"It's like going to China and … talking about your own government that way in meetings. I think that would be pretty inappropriate," Lohman said. "So it would be inappropriate speaking on state media."
Baucus's public statements have received considerable attention from Beijing's propaganda outlets. When the former ambassador compared President Donald Trump's criticism of China to rhetoric used by Adolf Hitler and Joe McCarthy during a May 6 interview with CNN, Chinese propaganda outlets quickly amplified Baucus's comments about how Trump was "a little bit like Hitler in the '30s" and that Americans were worried about "getting their heads chopped off" if they voice their disagreement with the U.S. government's China policy. Xinhua News Agency, a state-owned outlet, extensively cited Baucus's attacks in a May 8 article, using it as evidence that the Trump administration is attempting to "deflect criticisms about their blunders by blaming China." The article was syndicated in party-controlled mouthpieces such as Global Times and People's Daily, according to the Investigative Research Center.
Baucus then appeared on CGTN on May 12 to double down on his Hitler and McCarthy comparison, blaming the Trump administration for flaming "sheer demagoguery."
"[The current U.S. rhetoric] is somewhat reminiscent, nowhere close to that yet, somewhat reminiscent of the McCarthy era and somewhat reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s," he told CGTN.
The former ambassador also gave an exclusive interview to Global Times on May 14, where he said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's claim that the virus may have originated in a Wuhan laboratory "makes no sense" and accused both Democrats and Republicans of being tough on China to score political points in an election year.
Baucus again appeared on CGTN on May 15, where he claimed that America is "sliding toward a form of McCarthyism" because the Trump administration is pressuring policymakers to be tough on China. The former ambassador did another CGTN media hit on May 16, this time appearing alongside his wife Melodee Hanes, who blamed the presidential election for making dialogue "difficult."
"There are a lot of pretty smart people in the United States who are not speaking up. People in office, moderates, especially moderates on the Republican side," Baucus said on May 15. "They are afraid to speak up, they are intimidated, intimidated by President Trump. And it's kind of sliding toward a form of McCarthyism—how it is politically incorrect to speak the truth, speak the truth to power."
When the Washington Free Beacon called the phone number listed for Baucus's home address, no one answered. A lawyer representing Baucus Group, the ambassador's consulting firm, also did not respond to a request for comment.
While Baucus rarely enjoyed this much attention from Chinese state media outlets after his retirement, this is not the first time he has spoken to Chinese media outlets in recent years. Baucus also gave an exclusive interview to People's Daily in March 2018, criticizing U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods as the "wrong policy" and "too confrontational." He has also spoken at events backed by the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation, a registered foreign agent of the Chinese government according to a 2018 congressional report.
Lohman, the Heritage Foundation expert, said that while Baucus has the right to appear on any domestic and foreign outlets, he should not have addressed a propaganda outlet with the same degree of candidness that he did with CNN.
"I think he must have gotten wrapped up in the media performances because when you shift from CNN to Global Times or CGTN, you've gone to an entirely new level," he said. "And there I think you just have to express yourself differently. It's not an appropriate place to air political differences."