Washington's new Red Scare: Mistrust of China taking hold

WASHINGTON • In a ballroom across from the Capitol, an unlikely group comprising military hawks, populist crusaders, Chinese Muslim freedom fighters and Falungong followers has been meeting to warn anyone who will listen that China poses an existential threat to the US that will not end until the Communist Party is overthrown.

The Committee on the Present Danger, a long-defunct group that campaigned against the dangers of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, has been revived with the help of Mr Stephen Bannon, President Donald Trump's former chief strategist, to warn against the dangers of China.

Once dismissed as xenophobes and fringe elements, the group's members are finding their views increasingly embraced in Mr Trump's Washington, where scepticism and mistrust of China have taken hold.

Fear of China has spread across the government, from the White House to Congress and federal agencies, where Beijing's rise is viewed as an economic and national security threat and the defining challenge of the 21st century.

"These are two systems that are incompatible," Mr Bannon said of the United States and China. "One side is going to win, and one side is going to lose."

Both countries have been locked in difficult trade negotiations for the past two years, with talks plagued by a series of missteps and misunderstandings. Mr Trump has responded to the lack of progress by steadily ratcheting up US tariffs on Chinese goods and finding other ways to retaliate.

Beijing has responded in kind. The two sides now appear far from any agreement that would resolve the administration's concerns about China, including forcing US companies operating there to hand over valuable technology.

Even if a deal is reached, both sides are busy constructing broader economic barriers.


The administration paints the crackdown as necessary to protect the US. But there are growing concerns that it is stoking a new Red Scare, fuelling discrimination against students, scientists and companies with ties to China and risking the collapse of a fraught but deeply enmeshed trade relationship between the world's two largest economies.

The new Cold War has not been one-sided. Many of the changes in Washington have been triggered by a darker turn in Beijing. China has increased its scrutiny of US firms, and many US companies and their employees in China now fear reprisal.

The Trump administration and the Committee on the Present Danger have been careful to say their targets are the Chinese government and the Communist Party, not the Chinese people.

But the distinction can be a difficult one to make.

At a Senate hearing last year, Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray said the Trump administration was trying to "view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat".

He added: "I think it's going to take a whole-of-society response by us."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2019, with the headline 'Washington's new Red Scare: Mistrust of China taking hold'. Print Edition | Subscribe