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Hi, China Watchers. Today we look at crippling partisan divisions on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, track U.S.-China cyber-intrusion intrigue and plot the Dragon Year fortunes of U.S.-China power brokers. And we profile a book that defines Beijing’s military strategy in areas of disputed sovereignty as “persistent low-level pressure to erode or outlast resistance.”

Let’s get to it. — Phelim

The ‘sensational theater’ of the coronavirus pandemic subcommittee 


Tuesday marked the fourth anniversary of the death in Wuhan, China, of Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist-turned-whistleblower punished by authorities for trying to raise the alarm about the mysterious flu-like illness — later christened Covid-19 — that erupted in his hometown in late 2019.

The circumstances of Li’s death helped form the template of international perceptions that Beijing’s early response to Covid prioritized secrecy and cover-up over public health. The Chinese government has compounded those suspicions by rejecting a World Health Organization plan for a second investigation into Covid origins inside China in 2021. Beijing has dismissed evidence that Covid emerged inside China and insists the coronavirus “has multiple origins and broke out in multiple places.”

That offers a fertile field for investigation by the GOP-led House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic. And its criticism in an April 2023 X post of what it called Chinese government “intimidation tactics” aimed to derail a probe into Covid origins signaled that would be a priority. But its Democratic ranking member, the Department of Health and Human Services and medical experts all say the body — the successor to  the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis — has instead become a partisan cage fight led by a political point-scoring-focused GOP majority.

Over the past year the subcommittee has largely focused on perceived missteps in the Biden administration’s pandemic response. That’s included vaccine safety, the efficacy of mask and vaccine mandates and the impact of remote learning on kids. The subcommittee has also alleged that then-National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci covered up evidence that Covid was the result of a leak from the Institute of Virology in Wuhan. There is “broad consensus” within the U.S. intelligence community that Covid was neither a bioweapon or the result of genetic engineering, but less certainty about whether it emerged via a lab leak, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said in March. Fauci didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The subcommittee spends much of its time on “sensational theater without any evidence that continues to fuel partisan division,” said ranking member Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), a medical doctor with a master’s degree in public health. “To be on a committee where we could do so much good with serious scientific investigation that could lead to great policy recommendations that’s instead focusing on conspiratorial accusations of collusion, withholding evidence, secret backdoor deals … is so frustrating,” Ruiz said.

Subcommittee Chair Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), who is also a physician, rejects suggestions that its proceedings have become politicized and partisan. “We look at lessons learned — what we did right, what we didn’t do right, what the rest of the world did and what China did,” Wenstrup said. The subcommittee aims “to come up with some things that will allow the United States to be more prepared” for another pandemic, Wenstrup said.

But medical experts at the forefront of such preparation say the subcommittee is doing them no favors. “It’s so partisan and so infused with conspiracy theory that it’s not going to be taken seriously by anybody in the science field,” said Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist and director of Duke University’s Global Health Institute.

That’s an opinion shared over at the Department of Health and Human Services, which the subcommittee vilified for an alleged “year-long campaign to delay, confuse, & mislead the Select Subcommittee’s investigations,” in an X post last week. HHS says it has been “exceptionally responsive” and suggests the subcommittee is pursuing partisan vendettas. “The politicization of the oversight process doesn’t get us anywhere closer to determining the origins of the pandemic,” said an HHS spokesperson granted anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak on the record.

Wenstrup’s rebuttal: “How has it been politicized when we ask what HHS did? How is that political? That’s ridiculous. They’re the ones being political.” 

The subcommittee will face an uphill battle if it shifts course in its second and final year by seeking to enlist the trust and support of a scientific community stung by its focus on fault-finding. Medical professionals familiar with the subcommittee’s work will avoid appearing in “an Inquisition-like hearing or Stalin-like show trial” on Capitol Hill, said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and one of the world’s most foremost vaccine scientists. 

Beijing says any effort by the subcommittee to probe how Covid emerged in Wuhan in 2019 will hit a brick wall. “Since Covid began, China has shared information and data with the international community in an open and transparent manner — the relevant party should respect the facts and stop scapegoating others,” said Chinese embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu.


American businesses and trading partners are beginning to struggle with a familiar problem: former President Donald Trump’s tariff threats.

The former president and his advisers have been floating the idea of hiking tariffs on imports —including those from China —to levels not seen in decades, leaving American businesses, foreign officials and their lobbyists in Washington with a recognizable dilemma. They can either acknowledge and publicly push back on the rhetoric — and potentially make the situation worse by sparking Trump’s ire — or keep quiet and risk being caught flat footed if Trump wins. Phelim and POLITICO’s Gavin Bade have the full story here.


— U.S., CHINA SWAP CYBER ATTACK CLAIMS: A coalition of U.S. agencies and international partners are warning that Chinese government-linked hackers were in U.S. critical infrastructure for “at least” the last five years, and that infrastructure in allied nations is also vulnerable. The disclosure — in a report put out Wednesday — is the latest effort by the U.S. government to draw attention to the threats from China to critical U.S. networks, and underlines the stakes of a potential future conflict with Beijing. POLITICO’s Maggie Miller has the full story here (for U.S. pros!).

Meanwhile Beijing touted the findings of two separate reports by the 360 Digital Security Group that alleged the malign effects of U.S. cyber warfare activities. The U.S. “uses its supremacy and predominance to act wantonly in cyberspace that puts the international rules and order on cyberspace in jeopardy, endangers cyber peace and security, and harms the security and development interests of China and other countries,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Wednesday.

— TREASURY DELEGATION FLOATS YELLEN BEIJING VISIT: A Treasury Department delegation told Chinese officials in Beijing this week that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen wants to visit China later this year.  

“The secretary looks forward to a return visit to China this year at the appropriate time,” the Treasury Department said in a statement Tuesday. That suggests that the Biden administration will continue its intensive high-level outreach to Beijing that national security adviser Jake Sullivan last week credited with reducing tensions and prodding Beijing to engage on issues critical to U.S. interests.

Treasury’s Under Secretary of International Affairs Jay Shambaugh led the delegation, which met with Chinese Finance ministry officials on Monday and Tuesday. The Chinese delegation included Vice Premier He Lifeng, who urged the two sides to “deepen exchanges and cooperation, build consensus, and stabilize and develop economic relations,” China’s Ambassador to the U.S. Xie Feng said in an X post on Tuesday.

— SUBCOMMITTEE SKEWERS FDA’S CHINA OVERSIGHT: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration isn’t adequately monitoring the quality of Chinese-made pharmaceuticals, House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chair Morgan Griffith said Tuesday. Griffith critiqued the FDA’s failure to implement in China the Foreign Unannounced Pilot Program, which requires surprise or short-notice inspections of production facilities.

“The FDA has not completed any unannounced or short notice inspection [in China] since the pilot program was initiated,” Griffith said in a hearing. He added that Chinese manufacturers sometimes block normal FDA inspection efforts. That monitoring deficit suggests that the U.S. should rethink its reliance on imported medicines “from such a closed regime,“ said Griffith. China supplies roughly 12 percent of imported active pharmaceutical ingredients to the U.S. The FDA didn’t respond to a request for comment.

— KURT CAMPBELL’S NEW GIG: The Senate confirmed former National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell as deputy secretary of State on Tuesday. The White House has decided not to fill Campbell’s vacancy on the NSC, per the Financial Times.


CHINA TO DEEPEN TRADE TALKS WITH SWITZERLAND: China and Switzerland agreed to “upgrade” their negotiations toward a free-trade agreement, after a meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Swiss counterpart Ignazio Cassis in Beijing on Wednesday. The decision followed a feasibility study, in which both sides expressed “satisfaction.” Meanwhile, Cassis also appealed to Beijing to play a bigger role in Ukraine, saying that he hoped China would “give us a hand” in Ukraine peace talks. Switzerland has agreed to host a global peace summit on Ukraine, though a date and venue have yet to be set.

NATO SUMMIT TO TALK CHINA: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said at a press conference in Brussels on Wednesday that China would be one of the topics at the NATO leaders’ summit in Washington this July. “Our competitors are increasingly joining forces and Russia’s increasing cooperation with China, Iran and North Korea raises serious concerns,” Stoltenberg said. For the third time in a row, the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand would be invited to the NATO summit. “This is not about bringing NATO to Asia,” Sullivan stressed, referencing Beijing’s repeated concerns about the military alliance expanding to its backyard.

NETHERLANDS ACCUSES BEIJING OF HACKING: Dutch intelligence agencies said Tuesday that Chinese state-backed cyber spies accessed a Dutch military network last year. In an unusual public attribution to China, the Dutch called the incident part of a trend of Chinese political espionage against the Netherlands and its allies. “It is important to ensure that espionage activities of this nature committed by China become public knowledge since this will help to increase international resilience to this type of cyber espionage,” Dutch Defence Minister Kajsa Ollongren said. Beijing denied the allegations. “We hope the [Dutch] side act in a constructive and responsible manner to ensure cybersecurity,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang said.

WESTMINSTER HEARS EVIDENCE ON XINJIANG: Very little progress has been made to stamp out slave labor in goods imported into the U.K. since mid-2021, British lawmakers heard Tuesday. Advocates and NGOs are calling for new laws as goods made with the slave labor of Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region undercut firms with higher standards. Chloe Cranston, a program head at Anti-slavery International, told MPs that China has since 2021 introduced an anti-forced labor sanctions law which has made it “increasingly difficult for companies to understand what is going on with their supply chains” in the country, POLITICO’s Graham Lanktree writes in to report.

**The Munich Security Conference is three days of the world’s top officials, CEOs and politicians talking on defense, cyber and security. Our Pro Defense team unpacks everything you need to know, right the day after. Register to join online.**



Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images

— PHILIPPINES TO FORTIFY TAIWAN-ADJACENT PROVINCE: Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto C. Teodoro wants to expand the military presence in the country’s northernmost province of Batanes, which lies just 228 miles from Taiwan. Teodoro said he wants “more structures” for Philippine defense as he inspected the construction of  the new Naval Forward Operating Base Mahatao on Batan Island, the official Philippine News Agency reported on Wednesday. Those plans coincide with rising tensions between Manila and Beijing linked to Chinese Coast Guard harassment of Philippine vessels in Manila’s territorial waters in the South China Sea.

— TAIPEI TELLS BEIJING: HANDS OFF GUATEMALA: The Chinese government is urging Guatemala to switch diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing. And Taiwan doesn’t like that one bit. Beijing seized on comments by Guatemala’s Foreign Minister Carlos Ramiro Martinez that his government was mulling formal trade ties with China alongside diplomatic relations with Taiwan. “We hope that the new government of Guatemala will follow the general trend and make the right decision as early as possible” in dropping its recognition of Taiwan, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Wang said Tuesday. That rhetoric reflects Beijing’s “never-ending attempts to suppress our country’s international viability and to undermine our sovereignty, as well as … sabotage the relations between our friends and us,” Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement in response on Tuesday.

— BEIJING SLAMS STATE’S HK ACTIVISTS’ MEETING: Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink has drawn fire from Beijing for meeting on Monday with four Hong Kong pro-democracy activists. “We deplore and firmly oppose the blatant action of U.S. senior officials involving themselves with anti-China rioters who have fled Hong Kong,” Wang at China’s Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday. Kritenbrink praised the self-exiled activists Joey SiuFrances HuiElmer Yuen and Anna Kwok as “courageous advocates for Hong Kong’s democracy and human rights who’ve been unjustly targeted for exercising their fundamental freedoms” in an X post on Monday. The four are among the pro-democracy activists that the Hong Kong government has targeted with $128,000 arrest bounties.



China Photos/Getty Images

Scales, flame and fury: Dragon year power broker fortunes foretold

Saturday marks the start of the lunar Year of the Dragon, the fifth of the Chinese zodiac’s 12 animal symbols. And with U.S.-China ties in a fragile holding pattern of muted hostility, that mythical serpent offers what astrologists predict is a year of  “strength, profound transformations and abundant opportunities.” Chinese Ambassador Xie is all-in. “We need to act with the vitality of dragon and earnestly foster China-U.S. friendship,” Xie said in a speech last month. China Watcher tapped Master Tsai’s online Complete 2024 Dragon Horoscope Predictions to plot the fortunes of key power brokers in U.S.-China relations according to their birth year.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi are snakes (1953). Trying to sustain the fragile thaw in U.S.-China relations means snakes may “face challenges in finding leisure time” this year. And despite China’s designs on Taiwan, Philippine territorial waters in the South China Sea and that contentious stretch of land border with India, snakes that have “disputes, arguments, or lawsuits … will not find convincing reasons to win.” Snakes should just “reconcile with the other party quickly to avoid wasting energy and resources.” Peace in our time!  

President Joe Biden (1942) was born under the sign of the horse. That may mean fresh challenges to his support of the “rules-based international order” given that the respective powers of the horse and the dragon are in direct opposition. Biden beware — the dragon is “powerful, strategizing and tricky.” All that tension — and the toll of campaign trail catering! — will require Biden to be on the alert for “stomach and digestion issues.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken (1962) was born under the sign of the tiger. This coming dragon year will be business as usual because “the Tiger handles diplomacy” (!). Despite wars raging in both Europe and the Middle East, rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific and the endless drama of North Korea, tigers “won’t experience work pressure.” Instead Blinken can count on a “rapid accumulation of wealth” while paying heed to his “kidneys, bladder and urinary system.” Nice guys finish rich!

National security adviser Sullivan (1976) and Ambassador Xie (1964), are both dragons. Bad news: The dragon year isn’t auspicious for those born under it. Sullivan and Xie are in for a year of “difficulties or limitations.” With an eye toward rising tensions in the South China Sea and around the Taiwan Strait, dragons should spend the year cultivating “a humble and courteous attitude” and “seek cooperative relationships.” Brace for win-win outcomes!

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mark Lambert, head of the State Department’s China House, was born under the sign of the Ox. And unlike his predecessor, Oxen’s “work and career luck do not undergo significant changes” this year. Possible friction looms during State’s budgeting season as the Ox tends to “hoard money and is not proactive in financial management.” Auditor alert!

U.S. ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns (1956), was born under the year of the monkey. He should stay in that role because monkeys who keep their current jobs will “continue learning, accumulate experience, and grow in wisdom.” But given Beijing’s air pollution levels, Burns should pay extra attention to his “respiratory system, including the nose, bronchi, throat, and lungs.”


The Straits Times: The case of Philip Chan: Beijing steps up efforts to co-opt diaspora to ‘tell the China story well’

Domino Theory: U.S.-Taiwan academic partnerships are exploding. Here’s why

New York Magazine: The ‘Thucydides’s Trap’ author on the danger of demonizing China




The Book: China’s Use of Armed Coercion: To Win Without Fighting

The EditorJames A. Siebens is a fellow at the Stimson Center’s Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program where he leads the Defense Strategy and Planning project.

What is the most important takeaway from your book?

While China has not waged war in recent decades, it has frequently used “gangster tactics” — threats, intimidation and armed confrontation — to advance its strategic aims. There has been a dramatic increase in the scale, intensity and frequency of such efforts in recent decades. That’s arguably been self-defeating, alienating many of its neighbors and enhancing the appeal of U.S. security cooperation in the region.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing this book?

How few political objectives China has actually achieved using physical violence and how rarely China has used armed force. While it has occasionally fired warning shots, instances of physical violence have been exceedingly rare in recent decades. When it has used violence, it’s usually been comparable to ancient warfare — ramming boats and fighting with sticks and stones. When confronted, especially by other strong powers, China usually backs down to regroup and try again later. Its primary strategy is persistent low-level pressure to erode or outlast resistance, to deter challenges to its excessive claims, and to punish violations at the lowest possible level of escalation to minimize political backlash and reputational harm.

What does this book say about the potential for future military conflict between the U.S. and China across the Taiwan Strait or elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific?

In the case of Taiwan, and along the disputed Sino-Indian border, the preconditions for conflict already exist. But China’s behavior may be driven largely by domestic politics and the need to uphold past commitments to territorial claims to demonstrate resolve. Escalation or de-escalation will most likely depend on political or diplomatic factors, not purely military calculations. 

China’s future actions in areas of potential conflict will hinge on political and military leaders in Washington, Taipei, Tokyo, Manila, Hanoi and New Delhi. For example, if Washington decides to formally recognize Taiwan and/or otherwise abandons the One-China Policy, or if Taiwan formally declares independence or indefinitely rejects dialogue with Beijing over unification. 

Got a book to recommend? Tell me about it at pkine@politico.com.

Thanks to: Heidi Vogt, Maggie Miller,  Graham Lanktree and digital producers Tara Gnewikow and Fiona Lally. Do you have tips? Chinese-language stories we might have missed? Would you like to contribute to China Watcher or comment on this week’s items? Email us at pkine@politico.com and slau@politico.eu.

Credit Politico SRL