Nearly seven decades after it was discredited, McCarthyism is back in the United States with a bigger and more ambitious agenda.
The original version to oust “commies” and “traitors,” named after Republican politician Joseph McCarthy, took America by storm during the first Cold War. From February 1950 to December 1954, the redneck first-term senator was the torchbearer for America’s new political and culture wars against alleged pervasive communist infiltration in the US emanating from Russia. His legacy continues to fascinate and alarm the US to this day.
Now, amid signs of another Cold War, the US has a new McCarthy to “cleanse” itself of real and alleged pro-communist officials and influencers. With Russia in decline, further diminished by its disastrous war on Ukraine, the target has shifted to China. Even before his January 7 election as Speaker of the House of Representatives, Republican Kevin McCarthy was already a member of America’s fast-growing anti-China bandwagon.
Kevin’s McCarthyism will likely have a greater, more lasting impact on US society and political culture than Joseph’s, for the following reasons:
- Kevin is launching his anti-China campaign as the third-most-powerful politician in the US, after the president and vice-president. By contrast, Joseph started from a much lower, weaker base. He was an obscure first-term senator trying to win re-election who stumbled upon fear-mongering as a vote-winning strategy.
- Kevin is a protégé of former president Donald Trump, who decisively turned American opinion against China. Kevin inherits a powerful anti-China movement that has popular support across America’s political divide. Joseph had to do much of the heavy lifting himself, starting with his unsubstantiated claim in February 1950 that he had a list of communist agents shaping policy inside the State Department.
- At 58 years of age, Kevin is a more experienced, smoother, and better-connected leader than 42-year-old Joseph, who struggled for national recognition from his small political base in the state of Wisconsin.
- Most Americans feel threatened by China today. Many believe that Chinese agents have already infiltrated US political, academic, scientific, financial, and civic institutions. In the 1950s, Americans were far less fearful, as their country was the world’s most powerful. They were also alarmed by Joseph’s wild accusations that led to witch-hunts against supposed enemies of America.
- A new generation of China experts and Chinese-fluent scholars, analysts, and journalists in the Western world today does not trust Beijing and the Communist Party of China (CPC). This contrasts with the 1950s, when the intellectual class in the US viewed China favorably, and led the pushback against McCarthy’s fear-mongering. Today, the intellectual class that helps shape policies and public opinion often leads the charge to counter China’s influence.
- With the US facing some of its worst domestic political crises in recent years, China and Russia offer a “safety valve” to divert attention. The Republican Party is deeply divided, as evidenced by the 15 rounds of voting that Kevin McCarthy had to endure to secure the job as the House Speaker. President Joseph Biden is facing a series of scandals in relation to his stashing of classified documents and his son’s business dealings. Trump could yet face criminal charges for his alleged role in the mob attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
- The Xi Jinping factor. US-China relations could not have plunged this quickly without Beijing’s help. In the decade that he has been in power, Xi has overseen a sharp drop in Western trust and goodwill toward China. His government’s role in China’s Covid outbreak and containment policies, expansionist foreign policy, military buildup, and wolf-warrior diplomacy have also alarmed neighboring India, Japan and South Korea, and caused concern in Southeast Asia and Central Asia.
China awakens to McCarthyism 2.0
The Chinese government may have (finally) sensed the threat coming from the dire state of its rock-bottom relations with the US.
Shortly after the announcement of his appointment as China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang tweeted on January 2 that he would “support the growth of China-US relations” and “encourage dialogue, mutual understanding and affinity between the two peoples.” Qin, who last served as China’s ambassador to the US, was effusive in his praise of the “many hard-working, friendly and talented American people” he had met.
He followed that up by removing Zhao Lijian, the face of China’s wolf-warrior diplomacy, from his high-profile position as a top Foreign Ministry spokesman. Zhao has been demoted to deputy head of a lesser-known department that manages China’s land and sea borders.
Perhaps of greatest significance were the first signs of Beijing’s criticism of Moscow for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In interviews with the Financial Times, “several Chinese officials in private conversations” leveled attacks against Russia that included a description of President Vladimir Putin as “crazy.” If this trend holds, it might herald a shift in China’s stance on the war in Ukraine. So far, Beijing has yet to criticize Putin officially even as it continues nominally to support Moscow.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s toned-down messaging is a far cry from the confrontational tone Qin struck a year earlier.
In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), he warned the US against “military conflicts” over Taiwan, defended the Chinese government’s use of surveillance technology and Internet censorship to control information flow inside the country, and supported Beijing’s abusive treatment of the Uighur people in China’s Xinjiang region.
Qin has long been touted for higher office, as he is a trusted ear and voice of Xi Jinping. The 56-year-old career diplomat was in the ambassador’s seat in Washington, DC, for only 17 months, sufficient for him to appreciate the growing anti-China mood in mainstream America.
But will China’s change of tune be enough to stop the rot in its ties with the US and the West?
The signs are not good, as both sides have dug deep and invested heavily in confrontation over the last few years.
For the disparate Chinese communities in the US and elsewhere, McCarthyism 2.0 is cause for concern, as it will herald a new climate of suspicion toward them. Even people of East Asian descent may not be spared. But this time around, any criticism of McCarthyism will find less sympathy among Americans.
‘The Chinese people and the regime that oppresses them’
Kevin has attempted to soften his brand of McCarthyism by promising only to target the CPC.
In December, he announced the establishment of the Republicans’ House Select Committee on China. On January 10, he received bipartisan support when both Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to establish the committee.
Chaired by Michael Gallagher, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin who is a former counterintelligence officer, the committee will coordinate and channel US efforts in a whole-of-government approach to take on “the greatest geopolitical threat of our lifetime.” Building on the efforts of the Republican-led China Task Force, it will seek to “ensure America is prepared to tackle the economic and security challenges” posed by the CPC.
In a joint op-ed for Fox News, McCarthy and Gallagher named CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping as America’s chief adversary. They accused the Chinese leader of pursuing an “aggressive agenda aimed at the pilfering of the American economy, the destruction of our international leadership, and the subversion of our institutions.”
“Through the Select Committee on China, the House will stand with all those in China oppressed by the regime,” they wrote. It will “distinguish between the Chinese people and the regime that oppresses them.”
With this comment, the two men appear to recognize the danger of indiscriminately trawling an entire ethnic population for suspected communists.
So far, the US government’s attempts at catching China’s technology thieves have yielded hit and miss results. In all the reported cases, racial profiling appears to have featured prominently in law-enforcement operations.
In a 2021 study on economic espionage prosecutions, the Committee of 100, a non-profit organization of prominent Chinese-Americans, found that people with Chinese and Asian names were punished more severely and arrested at a higher rate than Western defendants.
CPC’s contribution to Sinophobia
The charge of racial profiling should not just fall on the US government and its security agencies. It is impossible to overlook the CPC’s avowed goal to recruit “overseas Chinese” to its cause, especially in helping to build up China’s economic, technological, and military might.
The CPC has a formidable membership base of more than 90 million people, including many who live and work in the West.
Xi Jinping himself has emerged as one of the biggest contributors to anti-Chinese suspicion and racism abroad.
In a keynote speech at a major conference last July, China’s supreme leader spoke of the importance of “promoting the unity and hard work of Chinese people at home and abroad to pool strength for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
He also called it a national mission to “truly unite all Chinese sons and daughters (19) of different parties, different nationalities, different classes, different groups, different beliefs and living in different social systems.”
Xi’s comments may sound normal to many ethnic Chinese people, especially those from mainland China living abroad, but they are an absolute red flag to foreign governments and security agencies.
Inevitably, the CPC’s policy of treating “overseas Chinese” as the irrevocable property of mainland China will cast a dark cloud of suspicion over the diaspora.
The Sinophobic backlash takes on a harsher tone in the US and parts of the world that have a long and deep history of anti-Chinese racism. While the CPC is deliberately conflating Sinophobia with criticism of Beijing’s policies, it is also crucial to remember that anti-Chinese racism existed in the West long before communism came to China.
In Canada, the media and the opposition Conservative Party are relying on unsubstantiated information and anonymous sources to fan fears that “the Chinese community” is actively hosting the CPC’s pervasive influence operations.
Sam Cooper, the Global News self-acclaimed investigative journalist, has reprised Joseph McCarthy’s role with his own reported list of people allegedly working for the CPC. Cooper’s latest story describes “a vast campaign of foreign interference, which includes funding a clandestine network of at least 11 federal candidates running in the 2019 [Canadian] election.”
As was the case with McCarthy, Cooper’s alleged list remains a mystery, known only to himself and his “sources.” Nearly seven decades apart, the two lists have had the same effect of alarming the public and triggering mass speculation over the names of the supposed infiltrators.
The diaspora needs to step up
How will McCarthyism 2.0 flush out CPC agents and their supporters without reviving the witch-hunting climate of the 1950s? If experienced US law-enforcement professionals are struggling with this issue, can the House’s new committee pull off its anti-Beijing campaign without stoking anti-Asian suspicion?
The diaspora themselves will have to take responsibility for their own fate. They must be actively involved, starting with these four steps:
First, take on a bigger role in public debates and policy issues involving China. Too often, the most crucial debates on China policies and measures are being conducted by security and military professionals whose agenda may not consider the civil liberties and rights of affected minorities. The establishment must find a way to identify and recruit ethnic Chinese leaders to be involved in shaping policy on China.
Second, the various Chinese diasporic communities must engage one another. It is time that the pro- and anti-Beijing factions convened on a regular organized basis to debate and clarify their respective positions on China. Amazingly, the two sides deliberately avoid talking to each other even though there is freedom of speech and assembly in the West.
In Canada, the anti-Beijing campaigners leak stories to the mainstream English media while the pro-Beijing faction huddle around their own media and Chinese social-media sites. Both sides prefer to engage in mud-slinging.
Their aversion to openly engaging each other and their inability to find common ground are a powerful reminder to the conspiracy peddlers that “the Chinese” in Canada do not exist as a political bloc. The various Chinese factions will have to learn to start talking to each other.
Third, ethnic Chinese immigrants must clarify to themselves why they have chosen to leave their respective homelands to settle in a foreign country, and what they see are their rights and responsibilities of citizenship.
Some Chinese immigrants in Canada have told me this is a racist question, as their loyalty to the nation should never be questioned on account of their ethnicity. Although they are not completely wrong, they are also deluded to think their loyalty will not – and should not – be questioned as US-China tensions continue to escalate. Those committed to fighting racism must confront the question themselves and not wait for others to raise it.
Fourth, the diaspora must take a greater and more critical interest in the media’s reporting of issues that affects them. Some major US media outlets such as The New York Times and CNN have shown a commendable attempt to broaden and diversify their newsrooms and improve coverage of stories.
In Canada, the diaspora needs to be aware that the mainstream media have successfully portrayed “the Chinese” as perpetual outsiders, housing speculators, criminals, and security threats. Anti-CPC campaigners feeding stories to a handful of high-profile journalists fail to realize the danger that the media do not always have their interest at heart.
Some of these journalists have built their careers on fear-mongering that “the Chinese” are responsible for Canada’s crises involving housing, opioids, money laundering, casinos, organized crime, and national security.
As McCarthyism 2.0 takes shape, the Chinese diaspora must realize that crying “racism” and “human rights” alone is not going to work. They will have to help themselves. They can only do it by seeking greater clarity about their place in the world outside China, and more importantly, beyond the CPC’s definition of being Chinese.
Ng Weng Hoong is a Vancouver-based commentator. This article appeared previously at Substack and is republished with the author’s permission. Follow him on Twitter @WengCouver.