CPAC puts a bullseye on China

CPAC puts a bullseye on ChinaFebruary 27, 2021

Donald Trump loomed large over day one of the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference.

Elected Republicans wanting to excite the audience littered their speeches with references to the former president. Breakout sessions and high-profile panels featured former officials plucked straight from his administration. Even a gilded Trump statue — adorned in American-flag shorts and the ex-president’s iconic red tie — was wheeled throughout the exhibition hall to the amusement of attendees.

But there was one bit of real policy that underscored just how much influence the 45th president wields over the Republican party even after leaving office.

This year’s CPAC agenda features six panels in which China is a key theme, with titles ranging from “China Subverts America” to “Corporate America Surrendering to China.” The geopolitical challenges posed by China are also likely to come up in the speeches of several 2024 hopefuls — some of whom spoke Friday — using the conference to road-test new messages.

“I will not allow any more bad trade deals that favor Communist China and hurt American workers,” said Florida Sen. Rick Scott during an appearance at the conference Friday afternoon, adding that China “is jailing and murdering its own citizens … because they have spoken the truth about the Wuhan virus.”

CPAC’s focus on China is indicative of broader, and bipartisan, alarm in Washington over Beijing’s ambitions on the global stage, as well as a sign that Republicans see some Democratic vulnerability on the topic.

“CPAC is largely a reflection of the success of the Trump America First agenda. And the Middle East, however serious radical Islam remains, that represents the neocon foreign policy that had been rejected by President Trump and the MAGA movement,” said Brian Kennedy, chairman of the Committee on the Present Danger: China.

At CPAC, China is the new Islam

Last year’s conference schedule, reviewed by POLITICO, showed only one event related to the Middle East, entitled “Dealing with the threat of Iran,” marking a significant departure from years past when radical Islamic terrorism was the conference’s marquee foreign policy topic. This year, the schedule omits any mention of Iran, foreign terrorism or the Middle East. Even Russia is only mentioned once.

“China is a key part of the new conservative movement moving forward,” said Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, who chairs the ultra-conservative Republican Study Committee.

“If Republicans are going to win the White House in 2024 and win back the majority in 2022, we need to preserve a tough-on-China message, make that a key part of our platform and expose [Democrats] for being a pro-China party,” he added.

CPAC organizers have gone to great lengths to ensure China remains front-and-center in the GOP agenda with Trump no longer in office. One person familiar with the matter said there were as many as a dozen panels on China proposed by organizers and sponsors during the planning process for this year’s conference in Orlando. What made the cut ranges from a panel entitled “Big Tech is for sale and China and Russia are buying” to a discussion on corporate America’s coziness with Beijing. On Sunday, Trump will deliver a much anticipated speech in which aides say he will make the case that President Joe Biden is already “capitulating to Iran and China.”

It’s a message the ex-president frequently deployed on the 2020 campaign trail after his campaign pollsters saw its deep resonance with white working-class voters. Even when Trump escalated his trade war with China midway through his term — putting significant financial distress on the U.S. agricultural industry and farmers — many of these same voters stuck by him.

“What worked for Trump––what we consistently saw in our polling — was that he was far more willing than Biden to talk tough on China and voters liked that,” said a former Trump pollster who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. “He went after their trade practices. He said they should be held accountable for causing this pandemic and he ended U.S. ties to the World Health Organization.”

Similar themes are likely to surface this weekend as a parade of rumored presidential hopefuls compete with Trump on the CPAC stage, including some who have recently met with the ex-president at his Mar-a-Lago abode or have plans to in the coming days. On Thursday, four of these potential 2024 contenders — Sens. Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz and Rick Scott — introduced a bill ahead of their CPAC appearances to end China’s access to 10-year multi-entry visas and instead return to the previous practice of granting one-year visas.

The Covid-19 pandemic, which is widely believed to have originated in China’s central Hubei province, is also likely to emerge as a consistent theme in CPAC-hosted panels on China.

“We’re living in a world largely shaped by China aren’t we, and if nothing else the virus,” Kennedy said. “One reason you see more emphasis on China and less on the Middle East is China is up close and personal with us. Our lives have been changed because of the virus.”

A contest over who’s tougher

While Republicans are looking to burnish their anti-China credentials, Biden and his fellow Democrats, too, are taking a hard line, though with softer rhetoric.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats have jointly sponsored legislation aimed at reining in alleged Chinese abuses on everything from tech to human rights. Biden, meanwhile, is structuring his administration, including the National Security Council, to keep the China challenge at the forefront. He’s also kept the tariffs and sanctions Trump imposed on China, and, like the Trump administration, accused China of committing genocide with its treatment of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region.

Nonetheless, some hawkish Republicans have already accused Biden of treating Beijing with kid gloves.

Recently, Biden faced widespread backlash in conservative circles when his critics seized on comments he made during a CNN town hall about Chinese officials and Uighur Muslims having “different norms.” Former Trump national security adviser H.R. McMaster likened Biden’s remarks to “bigotry masquerading as cultural sensitivity.” Others have taken their criticism of Biden’s China posture even further, with Cruz accusing the president of “embracing and getting into bed with China.”

At times, Republicans have also cited a perceived lack of toughness on China as a reason to vote against some of Biden’s nominees.

Biden’s pick to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, was grilled during the Senate confirmation process over a speech she’d given to mark the anniversary of a Chinese-funded institute.

Thomas-Greenfield said she regrets giving the speech, although she defended its contents. She was confirmed earlier this week on a vote of 78-20.

Despite the misgivings many Republicans still have about leaning into Trumpism as the party works to retake the House and Senate in next year’s midterm elections, CPAC organizers seemed to relish the opportunity to use this year’s conference to solidify Trump’s grip on the GOP. The attention paid to China throughout many of the opening speeches on Friday and within the conference agenda itself is but one example of the conservative machine nudging Republicans to embrace the Trump brand — both in rhetoric and issue selection — as they fend of primary challengers and Democratic opponents on the campaign trail in the coming months.

“The American voters will side with the party that seizes the tough-on-China message, versus a pro-China or soft-on-China message,” Banks said.

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