WASHINGTON – The United States has become overly reliant on Chinese goods and services, including face masks, medical gowns and other protective equipment designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, Attorney General William Barr said Thursday as he also cautioned American business leaders against promoting policies favorable to Beijing.
Barr asserted that China had not only dominated the market on protective gear, exposing American dependence on Beijing, but had also hoarded supplies and blocked producers from exporting to them to countries in need. He accused hackers linked to the Chinese government of targeting American universities and businesses to steal research related to vaccine development, leveling the allegation against Beijing hours after Western agencies made similar claims against Russia.
Barr's address at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is part of a full-court press by the Trump administration to denounce China, including for its alleged economic espionage. It comes as President Donald Trump tries to fend off criticism of his handling of the coronavirus and to shift the blame back onto Beijing, and as he looks to position himself as tougher on China than Democratic rival Joe Biden.
“The People’s Republic of China is now engaged in an economic blitzkrieg — an aggressive, orchestrated, whole-of-government (indeed, whole-of-society) campaign to seize the commanding heights of the global economy and to surpass the United States as the world’s preeminent technological superpower,” Barr said.
Administration officials in recent weeks have stepped up their rhetoric on China, with a New York Post opinion piece by national security adviser Robert O'Brien and a speech last week in which FBI Director Chris Wray detailed what he said were efforts by Beijing to steal American research and innovation. He said the FBI was opening a counterintelligence investigation related to China about every 10 hours.
Barr's speech amounted to a wide-ranging condemnation of what he said were Beijing's tactics to gain an economic upper hand in the 21st century, and to engage in influence campaigns touching diverse corners of American life, including business, politics and even entertainment.
He specifically warned American corporate leaders against pushing policies favorable to the Communist government, saying they could run afoul of federal foreign lobbying laws if they don't disclose their relationship with China.
“As China’s government loses credibility around the world, the Department of Justice has seen more and more PRC officials and their proxies reaching out to corporate leaders and inveighing them to favor policies and actions favored by the Chinese Communist Party,” Barr said. “Their objective varies, but their pitch is generally the same: the businessperson has economic interests in China, and there is a suggestion that things will go better (or worse) for them depending on their response to the PRC’s request.”
Similarly, he warned, universities that welcome Chinese-funded initiatives could unwittingly lose control of academic research. And he alleged that Hollywood had fallen under the influence of Beijing, too, accusing filmmakers of censoring themselves to stay in line with Chinese propaganda.
“Globalization does not always point in the direction of greater freedom. A world marching to the beat of Communist China’s drums will not be a hospitable one for institutions that depend on free markets, free trade, or the free exchange of ideas,” Barr said.
Though Trump's administration has condemned China, the president's own relationship with Beijing has been complicated. He has spoken at times of a productive rapport with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and former national security adviser John Bolton writes in a new book that Trump asked Xi for help with Trump's reelection bid.