Updated February 28, 2023 at 1:13 PM ET

The U.S-China relationship will come under further scrutiny on Tuesday night, when a newly created House committee focused on the strategic challenge China poses holds its first hearing in prime time.

It's likely to cover a lot of ground, including security concerns around TikTok and Chinese aggression over Taiwan, as NPR's Deirdre Walsh reports.

The full name of the bipartisan panel is the House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party. And that wording is intentional, its leaders told NPR.

"We want to make sure that we are constantly making a distinction between the party and the people," said Wisconsin GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher, who chairs the committee. "The threat comes from the party. We don't have a quarrel with the Chinese people, and the Chinese people are often the primary victim of CCP oppression and repression."

Gallagher and Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, the ranking Democrat on the panel, spoke to Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep ahead of the hearing.

In a wide-ranging conversation, both lawmakers shared their concerns about China — including its treatment of Uyghurs, the largely Muslim ethnic group living in the western province of Xinjiang.

Authorities there are accused of rounding up hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and sending them to detention centers where they are taught Mandarin Chinese and Chinese political ideology. Detainees have reported that they were forced to work in factories and that their children were sent away to state boarding schools.

In recent years as U.S.-China relations deteriorated, the U.S. has called those actions a genocide, a label that China rejects (even though its ambassador to the U.S. told NPR last year that it was re-educating Uyghurs).

The U.S. has taken some actions, including sanctioning Chinese officials over human rights abuses in Xinjiang and passing the Forced Labor Prevention Act, which requires companies to certify they are not using forced Uyghur labor. But the lawmakers want to do more — starting by raising awareness and building support for what Gallagher calls "practical next steps."

"I think in Xinjiang, we're seeing a preview of the future that the Chinese Communist Party has in store, not only for the rest of their citizens, a future of total techno-totalitarian control, but increasingly a model they want to export around the world," he says. "So I do think we have an important function in terms of shining a light on these horrible human rights abuses from there."

What else can the U.S. do?

Uyghur-American journalist Gulchehra Hoja spoke to Morning Edition last week about her experiences growing up in Xinjiang, leaving for the U.S. and reporting on her homeland from abroad, and the repercussions her family faced as a result.

And she offered a message to the Chinese government:

"Even you lock down so many millions of people, even you kill them, you cannot kill their hope, and you cannot kill their dream," she said. "Even they monitor them 24/7, but you never know what is inside their heart. Our country is alive in our heart. No power can change that."

Inskeep played those words to the lawmakers on Tuesday and asked: What can the U.S. do for the people of Western China?

Gallagher says the next step would be ensuring full implementation of the Forced Labor Prevention Act, which President Biden signed into law in Dec. 2021.

He would also like to impose more control on U.S. investments in China so that "we are not unwittingly funding communist genocide or [People's Liberation Army] modernization," which he sees as a job for lawmakers in Congress.

Krishnamoorthi notes that fundamental human rights are at stake, and that the U.S. could be doing more to protect them than it has in the past.

Decades ago, Congress would hold regular hearings on China's treatment of Tibetans — but stopped after China gained entry to the World Trade Organization in 2001.

"I think that when we started delinking, for instance, preferred trade status to progress on human rights starting in the 1990s ... I think we gave [China] carte blanche to do whatever the heck they want with the Uyghurs — and for that matter, Tibetans or Hong Kongers and so forth," he says. "And I think we need to take another look at this going forward."

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Congress may be divided. One of its committees is less so. A new select House committee on China has attracted bipartisan support. The Republican chairman, Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, spoke with our program in December.



If you had to put a number on it, what percentage of opinion about China and the threat to China is bipartisan right now?

MIKE GALLAGHER: Well, maybe if I had to guess, it'd be 75%.

MARTÍNEZ: Tonight, the committee on China holds its first hearing, so we also called on its top Democrat, Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois.

RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI: Mike and I have agreed to consult each other on the agenda, so I'm hopeful that we can chart a common path.

MARTÍNEZ: Krishnamoorthi and Gallagher spoke together with our co-host Steve Inskeep.

INSKEEP: And we noticed that both of them tended to speak not about China, but the Chinese Communist Party. Gallagher, the Republican, says the word choice is deliberate.

GALLAGHER: I think it's - it conveys something essential about the party state. The Chinese Communist Party controls everything. It's a very small group of people in the Politburo that control everything and, increasingly, one person, in the form of Xi Jinping, who I think can be more accurately referred to as general secretary and not president, because as general secretary of the party, that's how he derives all of his power. We don't have a quarrel with the Chinese people, and the Chinese people are often the primary victim of CCP oppression and repression.

INSKEEP: Both lawmakers spoke of China's imprisonment of thousands of Uyghurs. They're a largely Muslim ethnic group in the mountains and deserts of western China. As U.S. relations with China declined in recent years, the United States labeled China's actions genocide. China rejects that label, although the Chinese diplomat Qin Gang told us last year they were re-educating Uyghurs.


QIN GANG: We gave them chance. We use a measure to correct them. It's a preventive measure.

INSKEEP: A preventive measure.

QIN: Preventive because...

INSKEEP: Preventing them from having terrorist thoughts before they have them.

QIN: Before they have them.

INSKEEP: On this program last week, we heard a Uyghur journalist, Gulchehra Hoja, who speaks of her region as a separate country, although it's not clear how it could ever win independence. We played some of Hoja's words to the lawmakers.


GULCHEHRA HOJA: You know, I want to give the message to the Chinese government - even your lockdown so many millions of people, even you kill them, you cannot kill their hope.

INSKEEP: Gentlemen, that was a powerful statement she made that a lot of people responded to. But I am left with the question - what, in a practical sense, can the United States do for people in western China?

GALLAGHER: Well, I would say three things, Steve. One, by shining a light on the ongoing genocide, I think we can raise awareness and generate support for practical next steps.

INSKEEP: Republican Mike Gallagher's next point was a law that Congress has already passed. It compels companies to certify they are not using Uyghur forced labor. Now Gallagher wants to impose controls on U.S. investments in China.

GALLAGHER: So that we are not unwittingly funding communist genocide or PLA modernization. And that's the area where I think we're going to need to develop legislation in this Congress.

INSKEEP: Although I do have that question for you both, and it's a very hard question. Do we, as a country, in some way rile up people in western China and encourage them to get in trouble with their government and ultimately we can't protect them?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: I don't think so. They don't need to be riled up by anybody, Steve. I think that they are agitating for fundamental human rights.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about two items that have been in the news regarding China in recent months. Do you feel you understand any better what that Chinese balloon was about?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Well, ever since that story popped, we've been talking about the balloon a lot in different ways.

INSKEEP: He said the story popped. That's the Democrat, Raja Krishnamoorthi.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: The Chinese spy balloon is just one part of a massive surveillance apparatus, Steve, that the CCP has put in place. They have cyber espionage tools. They also enlist what are called cyber gangs. According to the U.S. Secret Service, there's a gang called the APT41 out of Chengdu, China, that not only conducts cyber surveillance for them, but they also collect personally identifiable information of Americans. And they used it to get COVID aid under the PPP program. And then they turned over the identifiable information to the CCP.

GALLAGHER: You know, a Chinese spy balloon drifting over the country and circling our nuclear ICBM facilities has a way of sort of bringing the threat close to home. That's more powerful than any sort of individual statement Raj (ph) and could make. And he's absolutely right to suggest that it's just one part of a broader espionage apparatus, much of which is poorly understood. It's my contention that the most insidious and least understood form of CCP influence is something called United Front Work. It's what Xi Jinping refers to as a magic weapon. It's how they influence foreign societies and capture foreign elites. And so I think a lot of our work on the committee is going to be to apprise our colleagues of the nature of United Front Work because they are targets. They're - we are a soft target for Chinese influence here in Congress.

INSKEEP: You just use the phrase capture foreign elites. Are they capturing American elites as you see it?

GALLAGHER: I see many members of the business community, the Wall Street community, who, in pursuit of profits in China, have been willing to silence their criticism of the regime. And I understand the natural impulse to make money. But we, I think, are going to have to ask some hard questions of business elites about how exactly they navigate the delicate balance of doing business in China.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about one other thing that's been in the news. The United States, in various ways, is moving against TikTok because it's such a popular social media platform that is owned by a Chinese company. But I was talking with a colleague earlier who made an interesting point. She said, OK, TikTok is a Chinese company. But is it really any worse than every other app on my phone that is constantly mining my data for profit? Is it really that much worse?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: It's more addictive, and that - part of that is just because the tech is better. I think the difference is the basic ownership structure, right? TikTok is owned by ByteDance. ByteDance is a Chinese company that operates at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party, which is heavily influenced by the party state and its members. You can't say the same for the other apps, all of which are admittedly addictive and a bad use of anybody's time, particularly if you are an adult. The issue with TikTok, sort of flowing from that basic ownership structure, isn't just that the app can be used to spy or collect sensitive data. More than that, it can be used to influence the news, what people see and talk about, and therefore to interfere in our society and our politics and our very democracy. So I think we're nearing a very dangerous inflection point here. We don't want the CCP to control one of, if not the most influential information platform in the West.

INSKEEP: Representatives Mike Gallagher and Raja Krishnamoorthi, thanks to you both.

GALLAGHER: Thank you.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Thank you so much.

MARTÍNEZ: The House Select Committee on China holds its first hearing today, while a different panel, the House Foreign Affairs Committee considers a bill that would allow the president to ban TikTok. The White House, meanwhile, has directed government agencies to remove the TikTok app from federal devices. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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