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The Morning Dispatch: Senators Plan How to Counter China
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The Morning Dispatch: Senators Plan How to Counter China

Plus: A look at non-fungible tokens.

Happy Thursday! Today’s the day! See you at 8:30 p.m. ET tonight for Dispatch Live with Sarah, Steve, David, and Chris Stirewalt. Details here.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • House Republicans voted 102-84 on Wednesday to lift their self-imposed ban on making use of congressional earmarks, weeks after Democrats in the House and Senate did the same. Senate Republicans have not yet decided how to proceed on the issue.

  • The Senate voted unanimously on Wednesday to confirm Katherine Tai as the Biden administration’s U.S. trade representative.

  • The Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service announced yesterday that the federal income tax filing deadline will be pushed back a month, to May 17, 2021.

  • The House voted 244-172 on Wednesday to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, with 29 Republicans joining Democrats in support. The legislation—first passed in 1994—lapsed in 2019 when Senate Republicans objected to a Democratic amendment closing the “boyfriend loophole” by preventing unmarried partners convicted of domestic abuse from purchasing firearms, not just spouses.

  • The Federal Reserve unveiled rosier economic projections on Wednesday, but announced it will keep interest rates low and continue purchasing Treasury bonds for the foreseeable future. “We will continue to provide the economy the support that it needs for as long as it takes,” Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said.

  • The Russian government on Wednesday recalled its ambassador to the United States for consultations, one day after a declassified U.S. intelligence report outlined Russian interference in the 2020 election and hours after President Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “killer” in an interview.

  • The United States sanctioned 24 Chinese and Hong Kong officials this week for their role in the legal and political crackdown in the formerly semi-autonomous region. Top Biden administration officials—including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan—are meeting with their Chinese counterparts for the first time today in Alaska.  

  • The United States confirmed 58,181 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard. An additional 1,179 deaths were attributed to the virus on Wednesday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 538,050. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 33,683 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, and 2,299,771 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday. 73,669,956 Americans have now received at least one dose.

Consensus on China?

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (FRC) convened Wednesday—along with three foreign policy experts—for a comprehensive dialogue about the future of the United States’ standing in the Indo-Pacific. As Congress’ upper chamber nears FRC Chairman Bob Menendez’s goal to introduce a sweeping legislation package addressing Beijing’s growing regional and global influence by mid-April, a “tough on China” approach seems to be one of the only things unifying Senate Republicans and Democrats.

Among the many topics discussed yesterday were China’s vaccine diplomacy, intellectual property theft, military expansion, human rights abuses, and political and economic encroachment into the South China Sea, the Arctic, Central Asia, and developing countries across the globe. 

According to Elizabeth Economy—a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations—China’s massive reach signals that President Xi Jinping seeks nothing less than a “reordered world order,” in which China supersedes the U.S. as the preeminent global power. What can lawmakers do to counter this ambition? Experts laid out a series of recommendations for the committee. 

First and foremost, they argued, the U.S. should prioritize alliance-building in the Indo-Pacific region. Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought to do just that by visiting Seoul and Tokyo ahead of his meeting with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials this week. During the meeting, Blinken is expected to lay out the Biden administration’s expectations and demands of President Xi. The U.S. must establish a new framework for its approach to China “that’s embedded in values, and allies, and multilateral institutions,” Economy said.

Sen. Brian Schatz argued that bolstering the U.S. relationship with Oceania may be one way to do this, looking to the areas that lie between Asia and the U.S. rather than centering the American approach on the South China Sea. Sen. Bill Hagerty suggested relying on strategic cooperation among members of “the quad”: the United States, Japan, India, and Australia. Such steps will be necessary to counter China’s rapidly developing military apparatus and aggressive maritime claims, Tom Shugart, a former Navy submarine warfare officer, told the panel.

But diplomatic outreach can’t be limited to existing partnerships, particularly as Beijing extends its reach to developing countries in the Western hemisphere. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen pointed to the Chinese infrastructure programs operating in 25 Latin American countries, which allow the CCP to export pernicious means of influence—including Huawei telecommunications software, e-commerce, military technology, and surveillance practices—to burgeoning economies. 

To counter this infiltration, the experts argued, the U.S. must be proactive in forming relationships with historically neglected nations. “Those are the countries that come to China’s defense in the United Nations around things like Xinjiang and Hong Kong,” Economy explained. “Once China feels as though it has no support, I think that’s when China will begin to feel the heat.”

Central to isolating Beijing will be the reorientation of U.S. supply chains, senators argued, encouraging American companies to move manufacturing from China back home, and to other countries around the globe. From the impending infrastructure package to funding for research and development, lawmakers seemed primed for economic competition. “I believe we’re staring at another Sputnik moment,” said Sen. Todd Young, urging his colleagues not to underestimate the power of American innovation to outmatch its strategic threats. 

Saif Khan, a leading expert in semiconductor supply chains, told lawmakers to double-down on what the U.S. is good at: Maintaining an open society that attracts the world’s “best and brightest.” The U.S. must invest in artificial intelligence and ramp up its semiconductor chip production to counter China’s own program, Khan continued.

Menendez echoed Khan’s concerns. “If we fail to invest in our geoeconomic tools, if we fail to replenish the sources of our competitiveness here at home, we will find that while we still may dominate in the old domains in traditional measures of military power, the world has moved on and we will be left behind,” he warned.

The elephant in the room throughout the hearing seemed to be how to address President Xi’s ever-growing list of human rights violations. Sen. Ben Cardin argued that there’s much more to be done by the U.S. and allies to sanction responsible individuals. President Biden started down that path himself early Wednesday morning, targeting two dozen Chinese officials, but not everyone agreed on the measure’s efficacy. To Beijing, experts argued, its domestic affairs are a matter of sovereignty and unlikely to be swayed by punitive action.

As Haley wrote in her Friday edition of Uphill(🔒), lawmakers are also considering provisions such as an expedited visa process for Hong Kong residents and refugee prioritization to Uyghurs and other persecuted ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Another bill on the table would seek to rid supply chains of products made with forced labor.

“We’ve been arguing that’s a logical thing to include, and I hope there’s not much resistance,” Sen. Marco Rubio told The Dispatch of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. “There’s a lot of corporate lobbying under the radar against it. I hope that doesn’t become a factor that keeps it out. It shouldn’t.”

“I certainly believe that a comprehensive China bill without human rights provisions in it is not a comprehensive bill,” Menendez told The Dispatch yesterday. “So we’re working in a bipartisan way on the committee to see what we can agree on in common cause, and I hope some of that will be in it.”

What Are Non-Fungible Tokens?

On March 11, digital artist Mike Winkelmann—known in the industry as Beeple—made history when he sold a non-fungible token of his collage Everydays: The First 5000 Days* at a Christie’s online auction for $69.4 million. Non-fungible tokens, also known as NFTs, are digital copies of pieces of artwork or other collectible items that are made with blockchain technology—the same phenomenon that underlies cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. 

For NFT enthusiasts, the technology is altering the way we perceive ownership in a digital age. Unlike Bitcoin, whose tokens are interchangeable, NFTs are non-fungible, meaning every token that is created has a unique code that can never be replicated. Even if digital copies of the artwork exist elsewhere on the internet, only the owner of the token owns the real artwork.

But critics aren’t convinced that NFTs confer real property rights to the collectible item in question. Nicholas Weaver, a computer science professor at UC Berkeley, said that an NFT is simply a record of ownership, a concept that has been around for decades. “Say, for example, you want to sell me a bridge in Brooklyn,” he told The Dispatch. “We sign a standard contract, it gets recorded someplace, and that’s it. An NFT is, conceptually, no different.”

He explained that blockchain technology also provides little recourse for those who don’t have the rights to sell a particular NFT. “A huge number of NFT sales are literally the same value as receipts for the Brooklyn Bridge,” he said. “They don’t confer any actual rights and, even if they did, the seller didn’t have the rights to sell.”

NFTs can take many different forms beyond the digital art space. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is selling his first tweet on an NFT site called Valuables, with the latest offer clocking in at $2.5 million. A video clip of a Lebron James slam dunk recently sold for $200,000, and the rock band Kings of Leon have reportedly generated more than $2 million from releasing their latest album as an NFT.

For Weaver, NFTs are a classic example of an asset that carries zero intrinsic value and is a product of bubble mania. “The big one right now is just literally ‘ownership’—that isn’t ownership—of NBA clips,” he said. “Since these are digital equivalents of trading cards, you really don’t own anything except the receipt: You have no reproduction rights, and the only value is someone else wanting to buy the receipt off you.”

The FAQ page on Beeple’s website offers some insight into how the NFT community views the trend. “WHY THE HELL WOULD I BUY THIS STUFF, IF CAN JUST SEE IT FOR FREE ON INSTAGRAM?” the artist asks. The answer? “you always will be able to SEE my work for free. this for people who are interested in COLLECTING artwork, which is a very different experience. i want people to feel like they can truly own, collect, and display this artwork in a way that feels more exciting and engaging than just viewing a picture on instagram.”

Many are concerned that NFTs are ripe for abuse. “Dear artists, I guess we must do a daily google if we’ve been NFT:d from now on. Thanks Silicon Valley!” tweeted Swedish author and artist Simon Stålenhag last week in reference to a marble card—an NFT made on the blockchain technology platform Ethereum—of his artwork made without his permission on NFT market OpenSea.

“Despite the amount of money being poured into this and the amount of hype being generated, there’s not really a consensus on what these are and what their relationship to the underlying art is,” explained Parker Higgins, an artist and director of advocacy at the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “It seems like it would create a lot of problems to consider an NFT, for example, to be a derivative work from a copyright perspective.”

The booming NFT market has tracked this year’s bull stock market, where tech stocks, cryptocurrencies, and other speculative assets have surged in value. “What we’ve seen in the last couple of months is this really powerful Venn diagram of online gambling, online investing, digital currencies, and speculative mania,” said Peter Atwater, who teaches confidence-driven decision-making in the economics department at William and Mary. “And I think that NFTs fit in a really beautiful sweet spot in the middle.”

Atwater explained that NFTs are at the opposite end of the spectrum of non-speculative assets like gold. “To believe this, you either have to be an expert or you have to be extraordinarily trusting. There’s little middle ground,” he said, adding that the main challenge with NFTs is that they are such an abstraction that we still lack a very simplistic, user-friendly descriptor. “This, to me, is a very inside baseball product that is trying to play to the broader mania that’s out there in collectibles.”

Worth Your Time

  • In recent years, figures like Charlie Kirk and others within his Turning Point USA group have, in many ways, come to define young Republicans as brash, in-your-face lib owners. National Review fellow Isaac Schorr charts an alternative path for campus conservatives. “Being loud is not the same as being effective,” he writes. “You should be careful not to approach everyone you meet with suspicion and an assumption of mutual enmity. Such an assumption results only in more aggravation and less accomplishment. Conservatives, for their own as well as the campus’s benefit, should strive to make practical allies out of our ideological opponents. Oftentimes, the only thing preventing a constructive, mutually beneficial relationship is an unfounded belief that these groups are fated to go to war with each other.”

  • For more than three decades, Dick Hoyt was a highlight of the Boston Marathon, pushing his wheelchair-bound son Rick to 32 finishes of the 26.2 mile race. Rick was born with cerebral palsy and doctors told his parents to “put him away” in an institution because of his challenges. Dick wouldn’t hear of it, and he raised his son as part of the family. “The father and son team began racing together in 1977 after Rick Hoyt attended a college basketball game while in middle school. During the game, he heard an announcement about a student who had been paralyzed in an accident. A charity road race was organized to help the student pay medical bills. ‘Rick came home from that basketball game and he said, ‘Dad, I have to do something for him. I want to let him know that life goes on even though he’s paralyzed. I want to run in the race,’” Dick Hoyt recalled to NBC’s Today Show. “Though he’d never run in a race before, Hoyt completed the 5-mile course while pushing his son in a heavy, box-shaped chair with handles on top. ‘When we got home that night, Rick wrote on his computer, ‘Dad when I’m running, it feels like my disability disappears’ — which was a very powerful message to me.’” In addition to their regular Boston Marathon participation, Dick and Rick completed seven Ironman Triathalons together. Dick Hoyt died yesterday and appreciations poured in from his many admirers. This 2005 column from Sports Illustrated writer, Rick Reilly, is very much worth your time.

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • On the site today, Robert Tracinski looks at efforts to purge our culture of some of its most important art and literature, and Nicolaus Mills examines what Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment on obedience to authority can tell us about George Floyd’s killing.

  • Declan and Scott Lincicome filled in for David and Jonah on yesterday’s Dispatch Podcast, joining Sarah and Steve for a discussion on the migrant situation on the southern border, the popularity of the American Rescue Plan, whether President Biden’s foreign policy will be an Obama administration redux, and whether the legislative filibuster will survive. Stick around ‘till the end to get everyone’s March Madness picks!

  • Jonah’s on the road again, and yesterday’s G-File(🔒) is proof. He stopped at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland on his way out west, and it spurred some thoughts about modern radicalism. The Beatles often sang about revolution, before selling the rights to their music to some of the biggest corporations in the world. Ice-T went from rapping about killing cops to playing a cop on Law & Order. This is certainly hypocrisy, but not necessarily the bad kind. “I’d rather live in a country where young, idealistic people make some money off radicalism and rebellion for a while and then discover they’d rather keep making money than tear everything down,” Jonah writes. “It’d be better if they had the courage and integrity to actually preach what they practice, but their hypocrisy is preferable to them actually practicing what they preach.”

  • Scott’s Capitolism newsletter (🔒) this week goes deep on just how many progressive goodies were tucked into the American Rescue Plan that President Biden signed into law earlier this month—and how ineffective GOP opposition to the $1.9 trillion legislation has been. “Instead of mounting an effective messaging campaign to highlight these provisions—ones almost entirely unrelated to the pandemic—and others (such as that ridiculous union pension bailout or the $60 billion in tax hikes), and to define the ARP as a bloated, stealth, and wholly partisan vehicle to achieve progressive social change under the cover of Covid,” he writes, “Republicans were on TV yelling about children’s books and cancel culture.”

  • In his latest French Press (🔒), David argues that America needs a healthy conservative movement, and there are strong reasons for Republicans—even those unhappy with the direction of the GOP—to stay and fight for their ideals. “Leaving the party may well mean that you forfeit meaningful participation in a conversation that’s far from over,” he writes. “There may come a time when leaving is necessary. I don’t think that time is now.”

Let Us Know

What do you want to hear Sarah, Steve, David, and Chris discuss during Dispatch Live tonight?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Correction, March 18, 2021: The title of the Beeple work sold for $70 million is Everydays: The First 5000 Days, not 500.