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Congress looks at options to punish China over the coronavirus outbreak

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) arrives moments before President Donald J. Trump and Prime Minister of the State of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu arrive to announce a long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace package in the East Room at the White House on Tuesday, Jan 28, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images/TNS)

Republican lawmakers and other U.S. officials, determined to punish China for concealing early data on the coronavirus outbreak, are proposing numerous measures to turn up the heat, from suing Beijing to ending U.S. military cooperation with Hollywood studios that censor their films for Chinese consumption.

Some of the proposals are less likely to prosper than others, but all come as the Trump administration is eager to deflect blame for its handling of the pandemic and amid a growing contempt for Chinese policies that many officials believe cost lives.

Senior administration officials have also toughened their rhetoric of China. After first praising Chinese President Xi Jinping for his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, Trump now blames China’s lack of transparency for deaths around the world. This week Trump said he was contemplating investigating China’s role in the spread of the disease.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, plans to introduce a bill next week that would bar the Pentagon from advising U.S. film studios about war reenactment and other military practices, or lend military equipment for the movie, unless the filmmaker pledges to not censor the movie for Chinese audiences at Beijing’s behest, a relatively common practice.

“China is America’s greatest geopolitical threat, and we need to start acting like it,” Cruz said in an interview. “Far too many members of Congress, far too many national media players have underestimated the threat posed by the Chinese communist government.”

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As an example, Cruz cited the willingness of filmmakers to remove references in last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” to singer Freddie Mercury being gay.

“It is difficult to imagine a biopic of Freddie Mercury without including that Mercury was gay,” Cruz said. “And yet Hollywood was more than happy to comply to get access to the Chinese market.”

Prospects are unclear for the Cruz bill, which he calls “The Stopping Censorship, Restoring Integrity, Protecting Talkies Act,” or SCRIPT Act. But regardless of what actions Congress might take, he said the U.S.-China relationship has been fundamentally changed as a result of the recent crisis.

The initiative is part of a widening debate as lawmakers mark territory on ways to confront China.

Sixty-two bills related to China have been introduced in Congress by Republicans and Democrats since Feb. 1, a dramatic increase in what had already been a steady uptick in China-related legislation since 2017.

The COVID-19 outbreak opened the door for a tougher stance that lawmakers in both parties had been itching to take toward China for years, particularly as polls show U.S. public opinion turning decidedly sour on Beijing.

But while there is growing bipartisan consensus that the U.S. policy positions on China need to be readdressed, there is less consensus on how to do it.

“What you’re seeing right now is the full-throated beginnings of that policy debate and discussion,” said one Senate Republican aide, requesting anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

In recent weeks, Republicans have introduced policy proposals that allow U.S. citizens to sue China or to impose sanctions against Chinese officials. Senate Republicans have called for economic sanctions; cancellation of visas for Chinese officials and families; and investigations into the pandemic, including China’s culpability and its relationship with the World Health Organization.

President Donald Trump has accused the WHO, the United Nation’s chief health body, of bias in favor of China and has threatened to cut off funding.

U.S. governments have traditionally resisted allowing their citizens to sue foreign governments for actions overseas out of a fear that other nations would likewise permit their citizens to sue the United States. And the Trump administration has been particularly skeptical of the leading international legal bodies that might handle such claims, like the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.

It’s unlikely that Congress would move quickly on China policy. Senate Republicans have discussed the issue on their weekly conference calls but have no agreement on how to move forward.

A key concern is getting the U.S. manufacturing supply chain — particularly prescription drugs and health products — out of China.

A proposal from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that directs the Defense Department and Food and Drug Administration to analyze the country’s dependence on foreign countries for manufacturing, including pharmaceuticals, has support from three Democrats, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

But lawmakers and policy experts acknowledge there are steep challenges in redirecting manufacturing back to the United States, and perhaps more importantly, convincing consumers to accept the higher prices they would face on prescription drugs and other goods.

Initially, it will be difficult to reduce U.S. reliance on China, which has steadily integrated itself into the global supply chain, and few economies can step up to fill the void.

The Trump administration is also divided over how to proceed against China. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin favors keeping lines open to foster trade deals. Matthew Pottinger, the official in charge of Asia on the National Security Council, and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo are among the hawks.

Pompeo initially insisted on referring to the disease as the Wuhan virus to emphasize its supposed origin in that Chinese region. Though he eventually dropped the term, he has continued to demand Chinese accountability and has hinted at accusations floated among some conservatives that the virus was man-made. Most scientists have dismissed such claims.

“There are multiple labs that are continuing to conduct work … on contagious pathogens inside of China today, and we don’t know if they are operating at a level of security to prevent this from happening again,” Pompeo said at a news conference this week. “Remember, this isn’t the first time that we’ve had a virus come out of China.”

Like the Trump administration, China has also attempted to shift the narrative, embarking on what some have called “mask diplomacy” by shipping masks and other medical supplies, as well as health care workers, to countries in need around the world.

Whether that campaign will be enough to alleviate the Xi government of blame remains to be seen. A new poll by the Pew Research Center shows six in 10 Americans now consider China’s growing power to be the greatest threat to the United States, after the spread of infectious disease and cyberattacks. It is a huge uptick from just three years ago, Pew said.

But some experts say the impulse to punish China may ultimately be short-sighted and mistaken. Its growing worldwide influence and habit of moving in where the U.S. has withdrawn make it a force to reckon with.

“In terms of U.S. policy, we will have to strike a balance between competition and cooperation,” said Patricia Kim, a China policy analyst at the nonpartisan U.S. Institute for Peace. “China is such a major player now. Its influence, capabilities and economic capacity all need to be leveraged to confront global challenges.”

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© 2020 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.