Joe Biden Rankles China on Human Rights As Senators Unite on New Legislation

Senators from both parties have joined forces to propose legislation countering Chinese propaganda and censorship, as President Joe Biden seeks to deliver on his campaign promise to take a tougher line on Beijing.

Lawmakers announced two bills on Wednesday, one to combat Chinese Communist Party pressure on American businesses and the other to propose sanctions on the United Front Work Department, which is responsible for Chinese influence operations abroad.

Two Republican senators, Marco Rubio and John Cornyn, joined two Democrats, Jeff Merkley and Elizabeth Warren, for the first bill, which the lawmakers said was needed "to monitor and address the impacts of China's censorship and intimidation strategies."

China's economic might has given it significant commercial clout all over the world, with private companies hesitant to take any action that might anger the CCP. Beijing's commercial influence was especially clear during the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, when the NBA and other brands fell foul of Chinese dogmatism.

The readiness of American companies to bow to Chinese pressure prompted fury in the U.S., even among pro-business lawmakers who generally advocate for the power of the free market.

Beijing has applied pressure to private companies and applied sanctions to individuals. Representatives, senators and former officials in President Donald Trump's administration have all been targeted.

"By highlighting Beijing's coercive efforts against American citizens and companies, this inter-agency task force will shine a light on the long arm of China's authoritarian reach," Rubio said in a statement.

Merkley said the U.S. "must monitor and address the impacts of China's censorship and intimidation of Americans and our companies, so we can create a strategy to safeguard this bedrock freedom and hold those accountable who suppress and destroy it."

Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) proposed a separate bill on Wednesday that would authorize sanctions on the United Front Work Department, which seeks to influence politicians, the media, academics and prominent business people.

The U.S. has previously sanctioned UFWD officials. A 2018 report from the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission said the department worked to suppress overseas protests against the CCP. This constituted a conspiracy against rights, it went on, which is a federal offense in the U.S.

President Xi Jinping has lauded the UFWD as a "magic weapon" that will help Beijing assert its influence and ideology abroad.

"The United Front Work Department is just another venue for the CCP to spread its propaganda and to co-opt foreign groups to toe the CCP line," Cotton said in a statement, pointing to its work to cover up human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Tibet and elsewhere. "We must put an end to their tactics."

Biden's early exchanges with China, which have focused on human rights and democracy, have rankled Beijing. The administration has pulled few punches, at least in its rhetoric, over Chinese abuses.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi said this week that Beijing desired a reset in relations after four years of frosty ties with Trump, but he warned Biden not to interfere in Chinese domestic affairs. He also urged the White House to stop "conniving" with Taiwan.

"Over the past few years, the United States basically cut off bilateral dialog at all levels," Wang said. "We stand ready to have candid communication with the U.S. side and engage in dialogs aimed at solving problems."

The Biden administration gave Wang's comments short shrift. State Department spokesperson Ned Price dismissed the remarks as a "continued pattern of Beijing's tendency to avert blame for its predatory economic practices, its lack of transparency, its failure to honor its international agreements and its repression of universal human rights."

Chinese people pictured with flag in Beijing
People wearing face masks walk past flags hung for the recent Lunar New Year holiday, in a residential area of Beijing on February 19. U.S. lawmakers have introduced two new bills targeting China. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images/Getty