Photo: Protest against anti-Asian violence in Atlanta, 2021
On February 9, 1950 the period of Red Scare witch hunts officially launched as Senator Joseph McCarthy addressed the Women’s Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia. Just months before, Mao Zedong had led the communists to victory over the U.S.-backed Kuomintang, establishing the People’s Republic of China. Looking for scapegoats to bear responsibility for their so-called “loss of China,” McCarthy warned of “enemies within” the U.S. government. Claiming government infiltration by communists, McCarthy asserted he had in his possession a list of 205 names in the State Department who were “card-carrying members” of — or at least loyal to — the Communist Party.
In the beginning, McCarthy directed the witch hunts against China experts within the State Department, but in the highly politicized Cold War environment, the persecution soon spilled over to other government employees, and then throughout society as Hollywood actors, teachers, academics, union organizers, civil rights activists, artists, and many others were targeted as communist sympathizers or suspected Soviet agents. By the time the Red Scare concluded in the late 1950s, hundreds of people had been imprisoned, while thousands of others had been blacklisted, lost their jobs, or otherwise had their reputations ruined.
The loss of China was never forgotten by the U.S. ruling class. Over 70 years later, with China rising as an economic superpower, we have entered a new era of McCarthyism and anti-communist fervor with the same enemy.
Same Red Scare propaganda and lies
“One thing to remember in discussing the communists in our government is that we are not dealing with spies who get 30 pieces of silver to steal the blueprints of new weapons,” McCarthy warned in his 1950 speech. “We are dealing with a far more sinister type of activity because it permits the enemy to guide and shape our policy.”
This new era of McCarthyism reproduces the same paranoia as the first iteration in the 1950s: that communist infiltrators both in government and throughout wider society are influencing policy and public opinion in the enemy’s interests.
“For decades, a broad range of entities in China have forged ties with government and business leaders at the state and local levels of the United States, often yielding benefits for both sides,” a 2022 U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center report stated. “However, as tensions between Beijing and Washington have grown, the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under President Xi Jinping has increasingly sought to exploit these China-U.S. subnational relationships to influence U.S. policies and advance PRC geopolitical interests.”
This time around though, the Red Scare propaganda has the benefit of being laundered through D.C. policy think tanks, giving it an additional veneer of legitimacy.
A 2018 Hoover Institute report ominously warned of the Communist Party of China’s reach in its supposed project to assert political influence:
China’s influence activities have moved beyond their traditional United Front focus on diaspora communities to target a far broader range of sectors in Western societies, ranging from think tanks, universities, and media to state, local, and national government institutions. China seeks to promote views sympathetic to the Chinese Government [sic], policies, society, and culture; suppress alternative views; and co-opt key American players to support China’s foreign policy goals and economic interests … Except for Russia, no other country’s efforts to influence American politics and society is as extensive and well-funded as China’s.
Going one step further, a Council on Foreign Relations report in 2022 accused China of running a “global influence campaign,” in which it was not only trying to shape U.S. policy and certain to meddle in the then-upcoming 2022 midterm elections, but it was also “continuing a pattern of influence operations it began earlier this century in the Pacific Rim, seeking to shift narratives in its favor and promote pro-Beijing politicians — or sometimes just sow chaos and falsehoods.”
The Foreign Agents Registration Act
But we cannot discuss McCarthyism in the 21st century without explaining its weapon of choice in the new Cold War: the Foreign Agents Registration Act. FARA is a U.S. law ostensibly aimed at curbing foreign influence in politics and requires “foreign agents” (those who engage in advocacy or lobbying on behalf of a foreign entity) to register with the Department of Justice, periodically disclose activities, and “comply with extensive reporting requirements”. However, the law is written in such a sweeping, broad manner that it lends itself easily to interpretation and political weaponization.
Nick Robinson, a senior legal advisor at the International Center for Non-Profit Law wrote:
On its face, FARA is startlingly broad: it applies equally to “agents” of a foreign government — like Saudi Arabia — or of a foreign person or entity — such as a Japanese company like Toyota, a nonprofit based abroad like Amnesty International, or a foreign-based media organization such as The Guardian. Covered activity under the Act includes attempts to influence U.S. public opinion on any foreign or domestic policy issue; soliciting or disbursing anything of value; or disseminating oral, visual, or written information of any kind for or in the interest of a foreign principal. Unlike a traditional principal–agent relationship, an agency relationship under the Act does not require “direction” or “control” by the principal over the agent, or even the consent of either party. Instead, it can be created if someone in the United States acts at the mere “request” of a foreign principal. For example, if a nonprofit in Chicago sets up a public meeting at the “request” of a Canadian nonprofit partner to discuss the best way to fight the opioid epidemic, the Chicago nonprofit would arguably need to register as a “foreign agent”: in setting the public meeting, the Chicago nonprofit would be attempting to influence U.S. public opinion on a domestic policy issue at the “request” of a foreign principal — the Canadian nonprofit.
Based on this extremely broad definition, any organization or individual can also be indicted under FARA for what the DOJ deems as “engag[ing] in ‘political activities’ on behalf of a foreign principal.”
“In other words, ‘political activities’ includes not just lobbying U.S. government officials, but, arguably, it covers almost any advocacy efforts that engage with the public,” continued Robinson. “It also seemingly includes most reporting by journalists, if the journalist ‘influence[s]’ U.S. public opinion on a policy issue, even if it is just through factual reporting to create a more informed debate.”
And FARA has been used in exactly that manner. As tensions with China increased in 2018, the DOJ invoked FARA to force Chinese state media outlets like Xinhua News Agency and China Global Television Network (CGTN) to register as “foreign agents.” This move on the part of the ruling class effectively designated Chinese news outlets as unreliable “propaganda” that promotes the interests of a foreign entity, while at the same time, legitimizing warmongering media sources like The New York Times and The Washington Post — which are controlled by their corporate owners — as the true purveyors of trusted, objective journalism. Furthermore, other foreign news agencies from countries that are allies of the United States and toe the Washington consensus, such as The Guardian and BBC News, are not required to register under FARA.
FARA was created in 1938 as a recommendation by the Special Committee on Un-American Activities, a precursor to the House Committee on Un-American Activities — the investigative body that led the witch hunts against suspected communist sympathizers during the McCarthyism era. The law was first used to prosecute those spreading Nazi propaganda, but enforcement began to decline after the end of World War Two. The few indictments seen during the Cold War targeted communists — most notably, W.E.B. Dubois was prosecuted under FARA in 1951 as an agent of the Soviet Union for petitioning against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Since the end of World War Two, FARA remained a relatively obscure law that was rarely enforced. While the DOJ encouraged compliance, most lobbyists considered it a bureaucratic inconvenience to be skirted. It is worth noting, however, that in the last 40 years on the rare occasions the act was enforced, it was often weaponized against anti-war and progressive activist organizations such as the Palestine Information Office, Irish Northern Aid Committee, and the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador.
But all that changed with the Robert Mueller investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, which led to the prosecution of Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates under FARA. The number of indictments have skyrocketed since.
Amid an escalating trade war and increasing political tensions with China, the Trump administration then began using FARA to its own political advantage. For instance, in 2018 the House Committee on Natural Resources brought FARA inquiries against four environmental advocacy organizations. One of these organizations was the Natural Resources Defense Council, which the Committee accused of “aiding China’s perception management efforts” with regard to environmental protections “in ways that may be detrimental to the United States.”
In 2018, the DOJ announced it would begin invoking and enforcing FARA as part of its China Initiative — a program launched to go after and prosecute Chinese nationals living in the United States for alleged “espionage” activities and theft of intellectual property.
In 2021, MIT Technology Review conducted a thorough analysis of all the cases brought under the China Initiative and published its findings. From the MIT report, it’s clear the China Initiative was nothing more than a McCarthyist witch hunt, based on racial profiling. The report concluded that the DOJ had “neither officially defined the China Initiative nor explained what leads it to label a case as part of the initiative”; that most cases had little or no obvious connection to national security issues; that 90% of those charged under the initiative were of Chinese descent; and that, over the course of the program, there was a decreasing focus away from espionage and hacking toward “research integrity” issues — in many cases, academics or researchers were targeted for simply failing to disclose foreign affiliations on grant-related forms. Of the nearly two dozen cases of FARA brought against academics, most ended in dismissals, with many of the defendants accusing investigators of misconduct.
The controversial China Initiative program officially ended in 2022, but FARA continues to be invoked under the Biden administration. What was once a rarely enforced, obscure law is now being used with increasing regularity as the DOJ weaponizes FARA to target activists who speak out on U.S. foreign policy. Under Biden, FARA has been invoked to target Black liberation activists like the African People’s Socialist Party for criticizing U.S. involvement in the Ukraine war and Chinese American hotel worker and organizer Li Tang “Henry” Liang for advocating peaceful relations between the United States and China.
“Secret Chinese police stations”
As the Biden administration continues the policy of containment and military encirclement of China abroad, the DOJ is using FARA to go after so-called “secret Chinese police stations” domestically. In New York City earlier this year, FBI authorities arrested “Harry” Lu Jianwang and Chen Jinping, two leaders of the American Changle Association, for failing to register as foreign agents. The ACA is an organization that operates out of Manhattan Chinatown and assists immigrants from the Changle, Fujian region in China. Authorities accused the two men of setting up a “secret Chinese police station” in their ACA Chinatown office, which, they alleged, operates as a satellite of the Chinese government to surveil and harass dissidents living abroad.
The case in New York City is only part of a wider crackdown on what the media refers to as “secret Chinese police stations” across the globe. Two Chinese centers in Québec — the Service à la Famille Chinoise du Grand Montréal and the Centre Sino-Québec de la Rive-Sud — were accused by Canadian authorities of being such overseas stations. Despite the Public Safety Minister announcing that they had been shut down, representatives for the two centers both stated they had never been approached by authorities or police and were, in fact, still open to the public. The media circus had already done its damage, however, as both centers lost a number of donors due to the press frenzy.
These centers are actually what are known as overseas police service stations, extremely common in areas with high concentrations of Chinese immigrants, and serve a function similar to that of a consulate. The stations usually consist of a video conferencing room and are set up in conjunction with local municipal governments in China to assist immigrants in filling out paperwork and renewing Chinese driver’s licenses remotely. The stations are not secret, as they promote their services among community members, nor do they have police on staff or on premises.
All of the accusations of these so-called “secret Chinese police stations” are based on a Safeguard Defenders 2022 report, which claims the existence of over 100 of these centers across the globe. According to the NGO, these police stations are used to monitor overseas Chinese citizens charged with various crimes in China and pressure them to return to face trial.
But according to Yale Law School Paul Tsai China Center senior fellow Jeremy Daum, who analyzed the report and checked its Chinese-language sources, the paper is riddled with factual, contextual, and translation errors — as well as a lack of general understanding of how Chinese government works. For example, the overseas service stations are not set up by the central authorities of the Chinese government as implied in the report. They are set up by local provincial governments, such as Fuzhou, Anxi, and Qingtian counties. They are not a program set forth and required by central authorities, nor are they national policy — this would be like equating a county-level initiative here with one of the entire U.S. federal government. And while the Chinese government does have a national policy of persuading fugitives abroad to return to face trial (which is not unusual in and of itself — the United States does the same and has extradition treaties with over 100 countries), all of that police work occurs in China. There is no link or coordination between that investigative work and the local service stations abroad.
According to Daum, one source quoted in the report even directly contradicted the authors’ own claims, stating, “These measures aren’t at all required by the central authorities, and aren’t even the province’s ideas, but are just ‘measures thought up’ at the basic level to move work forward.”
When Daum’s criticisms were brought to Safeguard Defenders’ attention, the NGO issued a new version of the report correcting some of the mistakes raised, and then yet another version a couple of weeks later addressing more issues. However, Daum notes that similar errors remain, and he still wasn’t persuaded by the report’s claims that China had launched a secret international policing campaign. Despite the release of these updated versions, we should be extremely cautious of trusting at face value the overall findings given the significant number of errors to begin with, and the contextual manipulation and carelessness of translation to fit the authors’ agenda.
Denial of student visas
In 2020, Trump issued an executive order canceling the visas of thousands of Chinese graduate students and researchers who had ties to universities affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army. Biden has continued this policy, denying visas to graduate students based on the Chinese universities they attend. According the proclamation, Chinese graduate students can be denied visas to study or conduct research in the United States if they receive “funding from or who currently is employed by, studies at, or conducts research at or on behalf of, or has been employed by, studied at, or conducted research at or on behalf of, an entity in the PRC that implements or supports the PRC’s “military-civil fusion strategy.”
“To put the proclamation in perspective,” stated Stuart Anderson in Forbes, “If another country had a similar policy, it might deny visas to Americans who studied at U.S. universities that ‘support’ a strategy or actions the foreign government finds objectionable or that received funding from the U.S. Department of Defense.”
Of course, while there are hundreds of universities in the United States that receive DOD funding, the students who attend those schools are not automatically affiliated with the U.S. military. Nor do all students automatically endorse the views or actions of their universities.
And how does the U.S. government determine which Chinese universities to blacklist? The primary source it depends on for these denial of visas is the China Defence Universities Tracker, an online database which assesses the level of risk of each Chinese school on a scale from “low” to “very high.” The database is a creation of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a Canberra-based think tank that was one of the primary purveyors of the “Uyghur genocide” myth a few years ago. In a 2018 report, ASPI accused students from PLA-affiliated schools of infiltrating Five Eyes universities to build up China’s military capabilities, despite representatives of some host universities stating there was little evidence to suggest this beyond “shadowy inferences.”
According to ASPI’s 2021-2022 annual report, the think tank received over a million dollars from the U.S. State Department alone, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars from military contractors like Boeing Australia and Lockheed Martin. Because of its funding streams, ASPI has been one of the most vocal and hawkish peddlers of Cold War anti-China propaganda in the last few years.
China is not the enemy
It is clear that this new era of McCarthyism relies on broad interpretations and selective enforcement of existing legal measures like FARA, and overall through racial profiling, guilt-by-association tactics, and imposing a nefarious frame onto fairly innocuous circumstances.
But the anti-communist witch hunts are nothing more than a red herring. Capitalists are waging an all-out offensive against the working class, as rent skyrockets across the country, homelessness surges, inflation continues to rise, and people struggle to afford basic necessities. They would rather spend enormous sums of money on the military preparing for conflict with China than addressing any of these deepening economic and social crises. But to get away with this, they need to demonize Chinese people domestically and China abroad, convincing the U.S. population to feel fearful and paranoid. We should remain unwavering and clear-sighted in knowing who our real enemy is: the U.S. war machine and the capitalist class.