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What Will the Next Congress Prioritize on China?
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What Will the Next Congress Prioritize on China?

An interview with Rep. Chris Smith, plus a look at a bill condemning genocide in Ukraine.

Rep. Chris Smith greets activist Sunny Cheung during a Congressional-Executive Commission on China hearing in 2019.(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Leadership of the commission charged with keeping watch of human rights in China will turn over in the new Congress. Rep. Chris Smith will likely chair the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, his second time leading the panel.

Smith, a New Jersey Republican, discussed his priorities for the coming Congress in an impromptu 20-minute interview with The Dispatch last week during House votes. Below are some highlights.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act

Along with producing an annual report on human rights in China, keeping a list of political prisoners, and crafting legislation, one of the CECC’s main tasks is holding hearings. Smith plans early on to hold a hearing on implementation of one of the commission’s biggest achievements—the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act—and will seek testimony from Biden administration officials. 

“We’re going to invite them every time,” Smith said of asking administration officials to testify at CECC hearings in the upcoming Congress. “And in the past, this was with Obama, they would refuse. Maybe we need to subpoena them.”

The law banned imports of all products made in part or in whole in China’s northwest region of Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has been committing genocide and forcing ethnic minorities to work in factories and fields. The legislation passed a year ago and went into effect this summer. Thousands of shipments have been held up at ports since then for suspected ties to forced labor, but Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is still ramping up implementation. Xinjiang’s role in the global economy is massive, and purging products made with forced labor from American markets is no small task.

Major implementation gaps remain: In the months since the law went into effect, products likely to have been made with forced labor and goods produced by a sanctioned paramilitary organization involved in the genocide have made it past the U.S. government and into American markets.

The CECC is likely to look into those instances. Its staff have been following implementation behind the scenes in regular conversations with CBP, but no major hearing about it has happened thus far. Lawmakers may also turn to a portion of the law that’s gotten a slower roll-out: an entity list barring products touched by organizations and companies involved in forced labor transfer schemes, in which Chinese authorities have moved tens of thousands of laborers from Xinjiang to other areas to work. These transfers permeate all of China rather than just the Xinjiang region, presenting more challenges for importers. 

Staff say other congressional committees, particularly ones that deal with CBP and the Department of Homeland Security, may hold their own oversight hearings about enforcement of the law. But CECC lawmakers and staff wrote and advanced the legislation, and the panel has a bipartisan interest in making sure it is working as intended.

Oversight of the Biden Team’s China Policy

Smith has a lot of disagreements with the Biden administration’s approach to China. From the quiet lobbying campaign senior Biden officials waged against the forced labor bill when it was still being considered, to a decision this summer to halt tariffs on the solar industry—opening the door further to Chinese-made products deceptively routed through other Asian countries—Smith has condemned the White House for not prioritizing human rights concerns.

“They need to be held accountable for two years of gross enabling of this dictatorship,” Smith said.

Most recently, he and Sen. Marco Rubio, the other top Republican on the CECC, criticized the White House for not speaking firmly in support of protesters in China.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, is likely to be co-chair of the commission in the 118th Congress. Merkley, who currently chairs the CECC, hasn’t flinched from challenging the White House on China issues, though he has generally done so in private conversations. Where they may differ on style, he often aligns with Smith on the basics. Even though Merkley didn’t sign onto the Smith-Rubio statement about the protests last week, he co-led a letter—signed mostly by Republicans and only a couple other Democrats—warning Chinese officials of consequences if they crack down on protesters.

Smith and Merkley have not been chair and co-chair of the CECC at the same time yet, and their approaches to the Biden administration could be a point of tension. Still, one staffer close to the commission said the two lawmakers and their staff have worked closely together in recent years, and the panel has a strong record of bipartisanship.

Organ Harvesting

Smith said he will push hard for a bill in the new year to further penalize organ harvesting abroad and examine the organ harvesting supply chain.

Witnesses and experts have said the Chinese government has for decades harvested organs from prisoners, including persecuted religious groups, such as the Falun Gong. A bipartisan bill, the Stop Forced Organ Harvesting Act, would require regular government reports on organ harvesting around the world and slap sanctions on officials responsible or supportive of the practice. 

“The bill will help shed more light on these horrific activities, enable the naming of names of the vicious perpetrators and ultimately help put an end to this gruesome human rights abuse,” Smith said when it was introduced in the last Congress.

Revoking Permanent Trade Status

One of Smith’s most ambitious ideas—revoking China’s permanent trade status with the United States—will face stiff opposition from the business community.

But Smith still plans to push for the move, which would hike tariffs on products from China. He voted against permanently granting the status in the first place about two decades ago. With Chinese officials committing genocide in Xinjiang, cracking down on free speech in Hong Kong, and behaving aggressively on the world stage, he believes more than ever that it’s time for Congress to revisit the decision.

“There’s a possibility” his bill could win enough support in the 118th Congress to pass the House, even if it may not be able to become law, he said.

“We’ve got to do it,” he told The Dispatch. “The business community will be against it, but they have shown themselves to be just so willing to go along with cruelty that’s beyond words.”

Senators to Consider Ukraine Genocide Resolution

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will debate a bipartisan resolution this week condemning the Russian government for committing genocide in Ukraine.

If passed by the committee, it could move to the full Senate floor for a vote. 

The resolution cites horrific war crimes carried out during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including deliberate killings of civilians, Russia’s targeting of essential infrastructure and homes, its moves to block humanitarian aid and food supplies, bombings of health care targets, and the mass transportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. It was introduced in July by Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the panel, alongside Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin.

“There is no question that what Russia is doing in Ukraine is a genocide,” Risch said in a release at the time. “If you could walk the streets of Kyiv, Irpin and Hostomel like I did last month, and listen to the stories of what the Russian soldiers have done, this is a genocide. The international community is documenting the many Russian abuses that constitute war crimes across Ukraine. It’s time the United States and the world recognize it as such.”

The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as ‘‘any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Several American lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, have argued this description applies to Russia’s brutality in Ukraine. And in April, President Joe Biden said Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to “wipe out the idea of even being a Ukrainian.”

“Yes, I called it genocide,” Biden said at the time. “It’s become clearer and clearer.”

The Senate legislation also calls on the United States and its allies to support the Ukrainian government and states that America supports forming tribunals and international criminal investigations into Russian war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

On the Floor

The House is expected to consider the Senate-passed gay marriage bill this week. If passed, it would go to President Joe Biden’s desk. The chamber is also zeroing in on a compromise version of the annual defense authorization act, with a vote possible this week. Members will also make another attempt to eliminate per-country caps for employment-based visas. A full list of bills the House is set to debate this week is available here.

The Senate is considering judicial nominees this week.

Key Hearings

  • A House Foreign Affairs subcommittee met this morning to examine Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. Information and video here.
  • The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee met this morning for a hearing on farm programs and research. Information and livestream here.
  • The full House Foreign Affairs Committee will meet this afternoon to debate several bills, including a resolution sponsored by far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene to obtain documents from the Biden administration related to Ukraine aid since the start of 2021. Information and livestream here.
  • Government officials will appear before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee for a hearing Wednesday morning on implementing toxic exposure legislation providing benefits to veterans. Information and livestream here.

Of Note

Haley Byrd Wilt's Headshot

Haley Byrd Wilt

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.