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On Protests in China, Is Less More?
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On Protests in China, Is Less More?

Plus: Kevin McCarthy mulls the math for his speakership bid, and what comes next for the January 6 committee.

A protester in Beijing shouts slogans against China's strict zero COVID measures. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Good afternoon. Congress is back—with a Senate vote soon on the Respect for Marriage Act—and we have a jam-packed Uphill for you today. We’ll start with the government’s response to historic protests in China, get into House leadership elections, and then take a look at next steps for the January 6 committee.

How Should America React to Protests in China?

Members of Congress from both parties have offered firm statements of support for Chinese protesters seeking an end to their government’s oppressive “zero-COVID” policies. The Biden administration has been more restrained, though, declining to comment on the substance of the protests but reiterating America’s belief in the right to peaceful protest.

The different approaches tee up a new debate about the U.S. government’s posture toward the Chinese government’s authoritarianism. Some human rights advocates want to see a stronger stance in support of the protests from U.S. officials, also warning that America should be clearer about potential consequences if the Chinese government cracks down on protesters. Others, including Democratic congressional staff and China policy experts, argue the United States should let the protesters speak for themselves rather than providing fodder to the Chinese government’s reflexive blame-foreign-instigators game.

Todd Stein, deputy staff director on the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said over the weekend that the American government “must be extremely deliberate in deciding when to speak up and when to stay silent. We can harm even when we think we’re helping.”

On Tuesday morning, he made the case that protesters don’t need to hear what the American government thinks, in part because its views are already baked into policy stances under the former and current presidents, and also because the “desire for freedom is innate in each human; it is not something created or catalyzed by America.”

Stein’s views are a window into the debate playing out within the CECC itself. The panel focuses on human rights in China by publishing an annual report, holding hearings, and spearheading legislation like the recent Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Stein works for Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern, who is co-chair of the panel. 

The top Republicans on the commission—Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Chris Smith—issued their own statement, without their Democratic counterparts. The Chinese government, they said Monday, “has robbed the Chinese people of their human dignity.”

They also slammed the White House’s approach as “nothing short of cowardly.”

“The United States must be unwavering in our support for the Chinese people as they bravely call for freedom,” Rubio and Smith said.

The protests broke out in cities and at universities across China after a fire killed at least 10 people in an apartment last week in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang—the region where the Chinese government has for years committed genocide against Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslim minorities. Witnesses and victims’ families have said firefighters were delayed from reaching the building—and that residents were unable to escape—because of draconian pandemic lockdown policies.

Some protesters have gone beyond criticizing the lockdowns, calling on Chinese President Xi Jinping to step down. Others have called for democracy. Protesting in communist China—let alone calling for regime change—requires incredible bravery: The government brutally quashes dissent. Already the government’s security apparatus has been searching phones, showing up at protesters’ homes, and hauling some off for questioning. One BBC reporter covering a protest was beaten by police, arrested, and detained for hours. Authorities later claimed the arrest was merely a benevolent attempt to stop him from catching coronavirus from the crowd.

Human rights activists fear the Chinese government will take even harsher measures to squelch protests.

“We should recognize that a crackdown is the inevitable outcome,” said Julie Millsap of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, who has called for a more vocal stance from the White House.

“Protests do happen in China, normally over domestic issues that are not really part of our policy agenda, and the punishments borne by those dissenters are quite serious,” she added. “Regardless of whether or not governments speak out, the regime will crack down. We must let them know that the world is watching. These brave young people are less likely to disappear without a trace.”

McCarthy’s Challenge

Two days before Thanksgiving, with Congress out, House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy stood near the U.S.-Mexico border and delivered a message to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas: Resign.

If not, “House Republicans will investigate every order, every action, and every failure, to determine whether we can begin an impeachment inquiry,” McCarthy said.

The comments appeared as much directed toward the Biden administration as they were to the group McCarthy’s trying to win over to secure the House speakership: his right flank in the House. But the latter group wasn’t impressed. Some Republicans have already introduced articles of impeachment against Mayorkas for his agency’s handling of the border, and they wanted a more concrete impeachment pledge from McCarthy. And some saw it as a transparent ploy to win their support.

“He had plenty of time to support impeachment articles against Mayorkas and was radio silent,” wrote Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs, a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus who has said he will oppose McCarthy’s bid to become House speaker. “Not even a month ago he opposed using them. The change in heart was for obvious reasons.”

McCarthy has already faced resistance from far-right members with various grievances—some taking issue with his leaked comments criticizing former President Donald Trump in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, others frustrated McCarthy has not embraced impeachment for President Joe Biden and several Cabinet officials, and still more seeking procedural changes to empower individual lawmakers.

Republicans will have a thin majority in the House come January, and McCarthy will need 218 votes to wield the speaker’s gavel (unless some members vote “present” or don’t show up, which would lower that threshold). That means McCarthy can lose support from only four or five members. Five Republicans have already threatened to vote against him on the floor, some unequivocally. Whether he can win back some of those members could make or break his chances.

McCarthy is increasingly taking his attempts to unify the Republican conference public. On Monday night, he warned in a Newsmax interview that if Republicans don’t rally behind him in the speakership race, the Democrats “can end up picking who the speaker is.” It’s the same argument Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has made to her colleagues in support of McCarthy. With such a flimsy margin, moderate Republicans could ally with Democrats to select their own option.

Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska has told reporters he is open to that kind of maneuvering, but he doesn’t think it likely. Others have thrown cold water on the prospect. But even McCarthy’s allies don’t know how he’s going to thread the needle.

“In general, most members think McCarthy’s going to get this done. They don’t really know how,” Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota told CNN this week. “We can’t necessarily articulate how he will pull this off.”

What if he can’t? Then we’re likely to see chaotic floor proceedings and numerous votes to determine a speaker. Some wild theories have come up, including online wishcasting about a Liz Cheney speakership. And former Rep. Justin Amash has been openly pitching himself for the job, pledging to open up the legislative process. (House speakers are not technically required to be current members of the chamber.)

A drawn-out battle for the speakership hasn’t happened in nearly a century. NBC’s Kyle Stewart and Scott Wong published a helpful story Monday examining the historic precedents of pitched speakership debates: The longest took 133 ballots over the course of two months.

We’re hoping the decision won’t be quite that arduous this time around. (But it would be kind of fun to witness, right?)

What’s Next for the January 6 Committee?

My colleague Price St. Clair has a helpful update about the January 6 committee’s last-minute work and what comes next for the panel:

Since issuing a subpoena to former President Donald Trump in its last public hearing in October, the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol has generally stayed out of the headlines. 

But behind the scenes, the committee appears to be tying up investigative loose ends, having recently heard testimony from former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway and Secret Service officer Bobby Engel. After nearly a year and a half of reviewing documents, interviewing witnesses, and presenting preliminary evidence in public hearings, most of the work on the panel’s final report is complete. Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff told CNN on Sunday that “we’re close to putting down the pen” and insisted the report will be “comprehensive” and reflect the consensus of the committee.

There has been some disagreement about the focus of the report: Last week, the Washington Post reported that 15 anonymous “former and current staffers” are unhappy with what they see as vice chair Rep. Liz Cheney’s efforts to focus the committee’s final report on Trump rather than other factors like racism and federal law enforcement.

But none of the nine members of the committee have joined the pile-on, and spokesmen for Cheney and the committee characterized the critics as disgruntled and uninformed.

In addition to the final editorial decisions on the report, the committee will also decide whether to issue any criminal referrals to the Department of Justice—a largely symbolic measure signaling the committee believes Trump or some of his allies violated federal law. 

Legislative recommendations from the committee would be symbolic as well. But an Electoral Count Act reform bill introduced by Cheney and fellow select committee member Rep. Zoe Lofgren has already passed the House, and a similar bill has bipartisan support in the Senate. Congressional leaders hope to hash out the versions’ differences and pass the bill during the lame duck session.

The select committee is expected to dissolve when the next Congress begins—the House Resolution establishing the committee dictates that it will terminate within 30 days of publishing its final report—but that doesn’t mean investigations into January 6 will cease. Prospective House Judiciary Committee chair Rep. Jim Jordan has floated the idea of turning around and investigating the select committee’s investigation, portraying it as a partisan witch hunt. Meanwhile, the Justice Department’s investigation is ongoing, as are related probes in Georgia. In theory, Senate Democrats could decide to gather and analyze new evidence surrounding January 6 as it emerges.

Of the nine members of the House committee, five will remain in Congress, with one—Rep. Pete Aguilar—pursuing a leadership position. 

As for Cheney, she converted her campaign funds into a political action committee hours after losing her House primary in August, allowing her to expand her political activities as she seeks to do “whatever it takes” to prevent Trump from becoming president again.

On the Floor

The House will consider a bill reaffirming America’s support for Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities facing China’s genocide in Xinjiang. It would also establish a coordinator for Uyghur issues within the State Department.

Members will also consider legislation to boost police training on de-escalation and alternatives to the use of force. Later this week, the chamber will vote on a bipartisan bill providing new protections and guidelines for pregnant women who are incarcerated.

A full list of the measures the House may consider this week is available here.

Key Hearings

  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday morning to get testimony from private sector stakeholders about implementation of the bipartisan infrastructure law passed last year. Information and livestream here.
  • Senators on the Finance Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday afternoon on trade policy in the digital economy. Information and livestream here.
  • The Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee will meet Thursday morning for a hearing on racism and discrimination in banking. Information and livestream here.

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

Price St. Clair is a former reporter for The Dispatch.