President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, Robert O’Brien, came to Phoenix to kick off a series of administration speeches criticizing China’s government and Communist Party, pledging tough new steps aimed at combating what he called the country’s growing threat to the United States and the world at large.
O’Brien gave what the Trump administration billed as a major speech to a small gathering of business leaders, along with Gov. Doug Ducey, on Wednesday at the Arizona Commerce Authority.
For decades, O’Brien said, conventional wisdom in the U.S. has been that, as America opened its markets to China, the authoritarian communist nation would eventually become more economically and politically liberal. That led the U.S. to often turn a blind eye to human rights abuses like the brutal crackdown against pro-democracy protesters Tiananmen Square and the more recent internment of Uighur Muslims in reeducation camps, to technology theft and other malfeasance.
But that assumption turned out to be naive and wrong, and O’Brien said “this miscalculation was the greatest failure of American foreign policy since the 1930s.”
“America, under President Trump’s leadership, has finally awoken to the threat the Chinese Communist Party’s actions pose to our way of life,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien said the U.S. made that mistake because it failed to take seriously the Chinese Community Party’s ideology and writings. He called China a Marxist-Leninist nation and likened its dictatorial leader, Xi Jinping, to former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, whose totalitarian regime killed tens of millions of its own people.
The Trump administration’s renewed campaign against China comes as the president faces allegations from O’Brien’s predecessor, John Bolton, that he sought electoral aid from China and voiced his approval of the communist government’s vicious suppression of Uighur Muslims.
In his new book, “The Room Where It Happened,” Bolton alleges that Trump asked Xi to help him win reelection, and told the Chinese leader to continue building concentration camps to house Uighur Muslims, “which he thought was exactly the right thing to do.”
China has been one of Trump’s favorite targets since he began his presidential campaign in 2015. Trump has waged a trade war against China, imposing steep tariffs on Chinese goods. He has also repeatedly criticized China’s handling of the COVID-19 virus, which emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan and which the president often refers to with racist terms such “kung flu,” including during a speech at a Phoenix church on Tuesday.
O’Brien said Trump has taken decisive action against China, including cracking down on companies tied to Chinese intelligence, limiting the ability of the Chinese military to place spies in American universities using student visas, withdrawing from international organizations like the United Nations Human Rights Council and the World Health Organization that the president believes are controlled by China, and blocking federal employees from investing their retirement funds in Chinese companies.
This week, the Trump administration will provide Congress with a list of companies linked to China’s People’s Liberation Army that do business in the U.S., “so that the American people are fully informed about exactly with whom they are doing business,” O’Brien said.
And the national security advisor promised additional steps, though he didn’t elaborate on what other actions might be taken by Trump, who faces a tough re-election campaign and could be out of office in January.
“These steps are just the start as America corrects 40 years of a one-sided, unfair relationship with China that has severely affected our nation’s economic and, recently, political well-being. There is more to come soon,” O’Brien said.
Trump’s toughness on China has been undercut by Bolton, however. In his book, he alleged that the president explicitly asked Xi to purchase American soybeans in order to boost Trump’s standing in Midwestern states ahead of the November election.
“(Trump) then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming US presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability to affect the ongoing campaigns, pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win. He stressed the importance of farmers, and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome. I would print Trump’s exact words, but the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise,” Bolton wrote.
The national security advisor described the Chinese government’s suppression of dissent and efforts to control the activities of its own citizens. He noted that the government and Chinese Communist Party vigorously censor all media in the country and frequently jail journalists, activists, lawyers and religious people who publicly oppose the party line. He added that China expelled American journalists during the height of the coronavirus outbreak in the country.
China seeks to control its citizens outside of its borders as well, O’Brien said. For example, he said, when the University of California-San Diego hosted the Dalai Lama as a commencement speaker in 2017, Chinese students were forbidden from visiting the university using government funds.
O’Brien emphasized that China’s control and ambitions extend far beyond its own borders and its own people, and he recited a litany of American grievances.
He pointed to China’s use of its economic leverage to compel Hollywood moviemakers to censor their films so they avoid topics that would offend government censors. China pushed Marriott Hotels and several major airlines to omit references to Taiwan, a de facto independent nation that the government legally considers to be a renegade province of the People’s Republic of China, from their company websites. And after the general manager for the Houston Rockets tweeted his support for protesters in Hong Kong who were demonstrating against Beijing, the government announced that it would no longer air the team’s basketball games on Chinese television.
O’Brien pointed to Chinese hacking of private companies and federal government entities to steal data on American citizens. And China collects plenty of data legally through the use of technology from Chinese companies like ZTE and Huawei, he said.
“How will the Chinese Communist Party use this data? In the same way it uses data within China’s borders: to target, flatter, cajole, influence, coerce, and even blackmail individuals to say and do things that serve the Party’s interests. This is ‘microtargeting’ beyond an advertiser’s wildest dreams,” O’Brien said.
In his book, Bolton also alleged that Trump lifted sanctions against ZTE, which pleaded guilty in 2017 to violating American sanctions by doing business with North Korea and Iran, because Xi personally asked him to.
O’Brien said the series of speeches that he inaugurated in Phoenix will be followed by similar addresses by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General Bill Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray.
The Trump administration’s campaign against the Chinese government comes as Republicans seek to use China as a campaign issue against Democrats this fall. Arizona Republican U.S. Sen. Martha McSally has embraced the strategy wholeheartedly, which was promoted by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. She has repeatedly attacked presumptive Democratic nominee Mark Kelly as beholden to China because of ties between a business he co-founded and the Chinese company Tencent, though she, like Kelly, had investments with ties to Chinese companies as well.
Ducey introduced O’Brien, praising him for overseeing the operation that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He said he was especially thankful that the operation was named for Kayla Mueller, an Arizona woman whom Baghdadi held captive and raped before ISIS murdered her in 2015.
“Mr. O’Brien, I speak for many in this state when I say thank you on behalf of their family and the citizens of Arizona for that honor of a very special young woman. I know it meant an incredible deal to the Mueller family,” Ducey said.
Ducey also touted the recent announcement by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing that it will build a $12 billion factory in Phoenix, which he called “one of the biggest economic announcements Arizona has seen of late, both from a jobs and national security standpoint,” and emphasizing that the COVID-19 pandemic has “underscored the deep ties between national security, our national manufacturing supply chain and public health and safety.”
O’Brien lauded Ducey for the semiconductor project, telling his audience, “There are 49 other governors that are a little jealous of Governor Ducey at this point.”
“What a tremendous accomplishment for your administration. It’s great for our national security to bring our supply chain home, especially when we’re dealing with critical technology.”