What steps can the US government take to hold China’s leadership accountable?
Why is it critical to disentangle US supply chains from China’s economy?
How is it that the Chinese Communist Party hopes to pin the blame for the coronavirus pandemic on America?
Today we sit down with Congressman Jim Banks (R-Ind.), who serves on the House’s Veterans’ Affairs, Armed Services, and Education and Labor Committees.
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Congressman Jim Banks, so great to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Rep. Jim Banks: Great to be with you.
Mr. Jekielek: So we’re doing this remotely, of course. You’re back in your district in Indiana. I really appreciate you taking the time.
Rep. Banks: I wish we could do it in person, but we are practicing what we preach and social distancing. And it’s important for me as a congressman to be back in my district, working with our local leaders to combat this pandemic, and the response, but I look forward to being with you in person sometime soon.
Mr. Jekielek: Look forward to that too. Now, I want to talk to you a bit about your local situation, especially this issue of blood donation, which seems to be very important, and I know you’ve been championing that, but before we do that, let’s dive into the macro issues. China is reporting today zero new cases of coronavirus. What do you think of these numbers?
Rep. Banks: Well, first of all, we should readily dismiss anything that we read coming out of China. As you know, just a couple of days ago, China banished a number of US journalists representing a number of our premier journalistic outlets like the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. That was an act of informing the rest of the world that they have no intent upon being transparent. So any statistic or anything that you read coming out of China should be readily dismissed simply because of that.
Mr. Jekielek: We typically see the number of infected and the number of deaths in China prominently displayed. Are you disputing that?
Rep. Banks: I’m suggesting that the Chinese propaganda machine is going to tell us what they want the rest of the world to hear, not necessarily what is fact. By banishing US journalists who were there to tell the real story, that tells us everything we know about their lack of transparency. So I readily dismiss news about statistics coming out of China. We have to discount it because we don’t know if it’s the truth. There’s a long record here of China’s propaganda machine telling the world what they think is in their best interest that isn’t necessarily always rooted in fact.
Mr. Jekielek: There are many different reports of China covering up the virus initially, silencing doctors and so forth. Can you speak to that a bit?
Rep. Banks: Way back in January, in the early days of reporting about the outbreak in Wuhan, the CDC tried to go into the area and study the virus, study the effects, and study how the United States could prepare for it. The World Health Organization as well tried to go into China and in both cases with the CDC and the WHO were prevented from going in and looking into the situation in a more serious manner. This week the President’s National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said that the Chinese blocking the CDC from coming into study the virus back in January cost the United States two months in our response time, and that’s a significant point to make because that means that two months we’ve lost in trying to prepare for this, and all the while my local economy, constituents in my district, are seeing the havoc that is the result of China’s negligence.
You also saw a report in the last couple of days by Axios, who is well said that 95% of cases of coronavirus could have been prevented if the Chinese would have allowed us to come in and study this in the early days before it spread all over the world. China should pay a severe price for that negligence, for their role in the matter of allowing this to happen. And what do I mean by that? I mean, at the moment, the United States Senate is taking up a $1 trillion-plus stimulus package. We’ve also already passed two bills that the President signed into law with a price tag of well over 100 billion dollars on top of the package is being debated currently. That the United States taxpayers and my daughter’s generation will pay the price of China’s negligence is just wrong.
I’m calling on the President to make China pay for it, whether it’s relieving the over trillion dollars that China holds in our national debt, or instituting tariffs on China that we can take funding from, and retool that into some kind of Coronavirus Victim Relief Fund for those who have been affected, whether infected or affected by the economic consequences. And on top of that, you and I’ve talked about this many times before, we should stop our federal agencies like the VA, the largest healthcare network in the world, from purchasing medical equipment coming from China. That’s just to start with, but we should also disentangle our supply chain at large in our economy from China’s economy, because now we’re seeing the drastic effect of what happens as a result of that in a time like this.
Mr. Jekielek: How would you imagine getting China to relieve the debt to actually work, given what we know about the Chinese Communist Party?
Rep. Banks: I don’t know yet. I do know that we have a president who takes this very seriously. He said in his press conference earlier today that China should be held accountable. He believes deeply in exactly what I’m talking about. There is a historic precedent in reparations for World War II that Germany paid to allied nations for the result of their behavior. I would liken the aftermath of what we’re experiencing in the United States to what those reparations might have looked like, and China being a founding member of the UN would give some credibility to the subject that I’m raising about forcing them to pay reparations to the United States and other countries that are right now experiencing the havoc created by China’s negligence. They should pay for it, not my daughter’s generation [which] is going to be saddled with a whole lot more debt and the economic consequences of what China has placed on the United States today.
Mr. Jekielek: So what do you think the purpose was of this censorship and disinformation?
Rep. Banks: China doesn’t want the real story to be told. I mean, in recent days, you’ve seen them try to pin blame on the United States and on our United States military for spreading what we know started in Wuhan. They don’t want the real story to be told because they know that they are culpable. And they know that this coronavirus will always be associated with the current regime and the CCP leadership in China today. They don’t want that real story to be told. And that’s why they’re always going to try to change the story through their large propaganda machine.
I tell my constituents about how the China Daily (a state-sponsored newspaper from China) is dropped on my doorstep as a member of Congress in my House office building. That’s just skimming the surface of how powerful and how advanced the Chinese propaganda machine really is. That propaganda machine is built up so that in a time like this they can misinform the public and tell a story that’s rooted in fiction, rather than the story that American journalists would have told for independent media outlets like the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, who they banished from their country preventing them from telling the real story.
Mr. Jekielek: To that point, many of our (Epoch Times’) journalists were actually arrested back in 2000. And all our operations over there have had to be underground. So, we’re very familiar with this reality, I guess some other media are tasting that reality to some extent now.
Rep. Banks: Some of those media outlets have dismissed this reality in the past. And now they’re seeing that what many of us have been warning others about for a long time has actually become true. So I hope we learn from that. And I hope that it raises the American public’s skepticism about China’s intent and behavior moving forward, and what many of us have been warning about China’s intent upon dominating the United States, not just economically, but militarily for the generation or generations to come. It’s becoming more and more evident in the outcry over the outcomes of what we’re experiencing due to the coronavirus.
Mr. Jekielek: Propaganda from Chinese media has been saying how the US has achieved this record time in developing a phase one trial of a vaccine for the coronavirus (CCP virus). They’re saying that shows that the US knew about the virus. So clearly it had to come from the US.
Rep. Banks: The type of disinformation that we’re probably going to see a whole lot more of, in the days, weeks and months to come. On the other side of this, it’s very heartwarming to me, to see our allies like Taiwan and Israel step up to the plate to provide support through vaccinations, through their efforts to help the United States deal with the aftermath of this pandemic. So we know who our friends are in a time like this because our friends are those who step up to the plate to support us, and reading the news in the last couple of days about Taiwan’s efforts have been very heartwarming to me.
Mr. Jekielek: Why do you think the US is the specific target here?
Rep. Banks: Well, I don’t know that the US is the specific target. We’ve seen other European countries like Italy hit so hard by this pandemic, but it’s not at all lost on me that China’s efforts at diminishing America’s role in combating and preparing for the pandemic cost us. What the National Security Advisor said was [that we lost] two months time and preparation, or that 95% of cases could have been avoided if China would have allowed us to take an early look at what this virus really was, and how to stop it. So, it’s that negligence that shouldn’t be lost on any American at this point. This isn’t a partisan issue. This isn’t Donald Trump and Joe Biden, this isn’t Republican and Democrat. This is about China’s efforts to stop America from preparing for this, and ultimately how they should be held responsible for that type of behavior.
Mr. Jekielek: They’re not saying that the virus came from Italy or wherever. They’re saying it’s the US that’s responsible. And I’m very curious why it’s the US.
Rep. Banks: China has never made it a secret that they see the United States as their chief rival and their efforts to become the global dominant superpower. And in a time like this, many of their threats in recent days to shut down the medical supply chain that we rely on in the United States tell us everything that we need to know, and hopefully should be a warning to Americans. Now more than ever, we have to disentangle ourselves from the Chinese economy and bring our supply chain home to the United States or to North America, or to our allies instead of doing business with China. I can tell you, the heat has been turned up in the Congress. My colleagues on both sides of the aisle are having conversations that many of us have been pushing for, about how we disentangle ourselves. And that conversation is only going to grow more heated in the days to come as my colleagues are introducing more pieces of legislation. They’re signing more letters than I’ve ever seen before. I’ve been requested to sign on to a number of letters this week, from colleagues who have never taken an interest In the China threat, who all of a sudden are seeing how real and true this is. And they want to do something about it because their constituents are demanding that they do something about it. So hopefully we capitalize upon that and find ways to solve this problem so that we never go through something like this again.
Mr. Jekielek: I noticed that Senator Josh Hawley is calling on multinational corporations that are expecting support from the US government, from taxpayers, to explain how they would be moving their supply chains into the US if they want to benefit from those dollars. What do you think of that?
Rep. Banks: Senator Hawley is a strong ally. And he’s absolutely right. And we should not bail out any industry or company that has entangled themselves in the Chinese economy… I will certainly do everything that I can to oppose any effort that would bail out a company that would maintain a supply chain or a presence in China moving forward. We’ve learned our lesson. And it’s maybe for some, it’s too late. But for most of us, and for the resilient American economy, if we don’t learn from this and prevent it from happening again, then shame on us.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve been vocal about the biggest retirement fund in the country, CalPERS in California, investing in China heavily. You also called for the firing of Ben Meng, who runs the investment of CalPERS. He’s been a member of the Thousand Talent Program. I want to give you a chance to talk about this a little bit because I find it incredibly important.
Rep. Banks: Well, on the eve of the coronavirus, before we could have imagined what we’re dealing with today, this was something that caught my eye. CalPERS is the largest state pension fund in America. It is not an anomaly. Most state pension funds are guilty of doing the same thing, and investing in Chinese companies. But CalPERS is the largest and the biggest example of a state pension fund that has contributed heavily in the Chinese military, China’s naval shipbuilding, military aircraft industry, all the while, also investing in Hikvision, a company that is largely responsible for developing the technologies used for surveillance and persecution of the Uighur Muslim population in China.
So this is a ripe moment for our nation’s governors to pull state pension funds out of dangerous Chinese investments. I hope that our governors will heed that call. California is the biggest offender of this. But almost all the states in some way are guilty as well. The Thrift Savings Plan, which is the federal pension program, is guilty of this as well. I wrote a bill to reverse the recent decision by the TSP to allow for these investments to occur. But we should take a serious look at this, [and see] how we can pull these pension investments out of Chinese funds, and reinvest them in profitable companies right here at home.
Mr. Jekielek: Why call for the firing of Ben Meng?
Rep. Banks: In my letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom, I said that if it were up to me, I would fire Ben Meng because of his background of being a part of something called Thousand Talent Program. [Meng] was recruited to the SAFE Fund, which is a trillion-dollar Chinese government-controlled investment fund. After he signed a contract with Thousand Talent Program and declared in a Chinese language newspaper that he would do everything that he could to help “the homeland” and help his native land of China, then he came back to CalPERS. And because of his efforts to replace a number of investments in CalPERS that were invested in US investments with Chinese investments, this raises a startling question of how and why that would occur. So I’ve called on Governor Newsom to take a look at it. I didn’t necessarily call for him to fire Ben Meng. But if I were governor that’s certainly what I would do. I would dig deeply into how the Chief Investment Officer of the largest state pension fund in America would allow someone who has replaced a number of investments in US companies with Chinese investments that help the Chinese military.
And this is what is deeply troubling to me as a veteran who served in Afghanistan… We have the largest defense budget in American history. And the reason why is because we’re building up the American military to compete with the biggest existential threat and adversary that we have on the global stage today, which is China. And as China builds up their navy and their military, in some ways exceeding capabilities that we have in the United States. We’re asking taxpayers to help us build the largest military that we’ve ever had [in order] to compete with China, and at the same time, CalPERS is investing in China’s military and China’s Air Force, and in other funds that are related to building up the Chinese military. The taxpayers are getting screwed on both ends when it comes to seeing those types of investments.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve described China’s response to the coronavirus as their Chernobyl. Can you expand on that?
Rep. Banks: Chernobyl has become popularized in a recent Netflix series. So as people learn more about that disaster, [they will find that] there are a lot of similarities between [the coronavirus pandemic] and the Soviet Union’s response to Chernobyl. … I would love to hear your listeners’ and readers’ thoughts on the similarities. … The global reaction to the coronavirus brings a lot of comparisons to Chernobyl, but also the cover-up, the lies, and the disinformation coming from China remind us a great deal of the Chernobyl incident.
Mr. Jekielek: You talked about China being an existential threat just now. How does this whole disinformation campaign fit into China’s broader ambitions?
Rep. Banks: It’s a great question. We know that China wants to dominate the United States economically, we know that China wants to dominate the United States militarily and raise themselves to become the dominant, super global power on the horizon. We know about their 100-Year Plan to accomplish that. So none of this is a secret. More Americans just need to become more aware of it and better informed about this existential threat, and in this moment, as we deal with the coronavirus, I’m finding that more of my constituents are learning about these threats and the past threats more than they ever have before. So the disinformation campaign by China about the coronavirus has awakened so many Americans, so many of my constituents in northeast Indiana, to what we’re up against. And we’ve talked about a lot of examples already from state pension fund investments in the United States, and China’s military, to China’s large scale propaganda machine dropping China Daily newspapers off on the doorsteps of every member of Congress and thought leaders all over Washington DC. These are examples that I’ve raised in the past before I’d ever even heard or imagined what the coronavirus could be. But these were warnings to us along the way of what we’re up against. Thousand Talent Program, the Confucius Institutes on college campuses—these are examples along the way that pointed that in a time like this, we should be fully aware of China’s disinformation campaign, and skeptical of anything that we hear, or anything that comes out of their country during a crisis like this.
Mr. Jekielek: On social media, there are a lot of spokespeople echoing these talking points, that the US is responsible, that it’s actually a bioweapon from the US. Yet social media is actually blocked in China itself. How should the US be responding to this sort of thing?
Rep. Banks: In the US we need to keep an open social media platform. It should remain open and transparent to the public. We need to be careful and skeptical of organizations that have received large donations from the CCP, from the Chinese government, or CCP-controlled businesses. I’ve learned a great deal in the last year about the sheer amount of money that companies like Huawei have donated to think tanks and to college campuses around the United States. And I believe that Americans are smart enough at this point, and are skeptical of the nature of those who are a part of China’s large scale propaganda and disinformation campaign. We have to remain skeptical, and preserve the trustworthy institutions in our own nation that aren’t biased or purchased by China’s propaganda machine.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s been proposed by some people that there should be some restrictions or regulations on people or agencies that are acting as Chinese agents, officially or unofficially. Any thoughts on that?
Rep. Banks: I would love to find a way that we could create some kind of a system to tell that story. The National Security Strategy designates China and Russia as our adversaries, then we should treat them that way. … We should be transparent about China’s interest in the United States and find ways to highlight that.
Mr. Jekielek: People say that this economic decoupling that you’ve been advocating for insulates America from being an active member of the global community. What do you think of that?
Rep. Banks: I think of the constituents in my district who have lost their job or make less money because whatever they were making or producing before is being purchased for less from China. My dad, by the way, is retired from a factory that made auto parts here in Fort Wayne, Indiana. That’s what our economy here is built on. We have more manufacturing that comes from the rust belt or from this part of my state in Indiana than anywhere in the country. But many workers have been negatively affected by the outcome of outsourcing jobs or supplies to China. And now we’re paying the price for that by entangling ourselves in that supply chain and maybe saving a few pennies here and there from products coming from China.
Now, we’re seeing the wrecking ball of the economy in a time like this when that supply chain is wiped out because of something like the coronavirus. So now is the time to do something about it. And I believe that President Trump, more than anyone before, is serious about cracking down on that important subject and doing something about this geopolitically. And I look forward to being a lawmaker in the process, who’s partnering with President Trump to get that done.
Mr. Jekielek: What do you make of these stimulus packages? I mean, unprecedented efforts to prop up the economy here. What do you think of them?
Rep. Banks: The desperation that I’m hearing from my constituents and local businesses, and hourly wage employees who have been sent home in the midst of all this—we have to do something to build our local economies from the ground up after this is over with. So, I’m eagerly waiting to see what the Senate comes up with this week in the third phase of the legislative response. And it will probably be sometime next week when members of the House go back to vote on this, but the senators are in the driver’s seat at this moment putting this large trillion-dollar-plus stimulus package together. My hope is that we target that stimulus at the people who need it most, those who have lost their job, or who have been most negatively affected, rather than large bailouts to companies that would go in a different direction than it would if we targeted those directly who need it the most.
Mr. Jekielek: What do you think is the best-case scenario with respect to dealing with China right now? China has been talking about getting out of this phase one trade deal agreement because of coronavirus. I might add also that they signed it while knowing coronavirus was there.
Rep. Banks: The best-case scenario is that the President puts pressure on China that they’ve never felt before. I know he’s capable of doing this. I’ve called on him to continue to be tough, like he has been in the past toward China, to hold them accountable. That America will learn an important valuable lesson in this moment that we will never repeat, and disentangle ourselves from the Chinese economy and rebuild our economy right here at home. As a younger member of Congress, who plans to be a member of the House for years to come, I’m looking forward to being one of the leaders as a part of that rebuilding process. Whether it’s militarily or economically, putting ourselves in the best position to compete with the China threat for a long time. This is a moment in time in American history where we’re learning a really important lesson that I hope we never repeat.
Mr. Jekielek: And what would be the worst-case scenario for you?
Rep. Banks: The worst-case scenario is that we don’t learn those lessons, that we go back to business as usual, that we repeat the same mistakes of buying medical equipment from China, or that we continue to allow America to invest through their pension funds in China’s military, that we continue to appease China rather than take a very tough posture toward them. As a society at large, we’re fully aware of China’s intentions moving forward.
Mr. Jekielek: Chinese propaganda media says that calling it the China virus is a racist thing. Your thoughts?
Rep. Banks: It doesn’t matter what you do, they’re going to call you a racist for doing it. They’re calling the president a racist, even though he sat down in good faith with Chinese leaders and negotiated the trade package that he did, and frankly, praise them after the package was signed. And we moved on toward phase two, but it seems to me that it doesn’t matter what you do. That’s the charge that we hear from those who are on the side of China, and those from the left that see this more in political terms. It’s easy to largely dismiss it because we hear it so frequently and often. All the while my constituents are begging us to do something to hold China accountable. So, I don’t care what they call me. My constituents want me as a lawmaker to go to Washington and fight back against this threat, and restore the American economy and make our military strong again in a way that it will never allow China to compete with us on the horizon for generations to come.
Mr. Jekielek: So let’s talk a little bit about your local area in Fort Wayne. What’s the situation on the ground?
Rep. Banks: I’ve seen extraordinary things in the last few days, I’ve seen a community come together, and try to help those that need it. A local barbecue restaurant that’s giving free food and delivering food to those who need it the most. T&T Floral Shop in Columbia City is giving flowers to the elderly in nursing homes and partnering with people in the community to bring a smile to the face of the elderly who are shut off from the rest of the community and from their loved ones. The local Red Cross, who put out a notice and said, we’re losing thousands of blood donations because blood drives in schools have been canceled, and you have people beating down their door to come and get blood. I mean that’s what community looks like. We have a great example of that here in northeast Indiana, people going out of their way to help other people in need.
I imagine we’re going to see a lot more of that for a long time to come. But that’s why America is what America is. Our economy is resilient, we’re going to come back from this, we’re going to be stronger than ever when we do, because we’re going to learn some big lessons in the process that are going to make us better for the future and for future generations. And that’s why I remain optimistic about what America will be after this pandemic passes, and we’re going to be better off when it does.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve been championing blood donation. A lot of people might be scared to go to do this. How is that working?
Rep. Banks: On Twitter yesterday morning, I saw my local Red Cross chapter put out a notice that they are hurting. They’re in desperate need of blood donations because something like 2700 blood drives nationwide had been canceled, and thousands of donations were lost because of those cancellations. So that was a significant moment for me as I thought about what I could do as an individual in my community to give back. Giving blood was a simple way that I could do it. Now, let me say from the outset that giving blood is not something that I enjoy doing. Most people don’t get up excited about giving blood. But every time I do it, and I’ve done it a handful of times in my life, it’s never as bad as I think. It’s not painful. The professionals at the Red Cross do a great job to make it a painless process. So you can simply go to 1-800 Red-Cross, and they will patch you through to your local donation center. And you can schedule your donation.
Mr. Jekielek: What are your recommendations to the Administration and to Congress?
Rep. Banks: Constituents are beating down my door to make the case that we have got to hold China accountable and make them pay. And there are some ways that President Trump can do that. He can find a way to hold China accountable for the vast amount of our national debt that China holds—over a trillion dollars. And find a way to seek reparations to relieve some or all of that national debt to offset the enormous costs on the American economy and taxpayers, because of the coronavirus due to China’s negligence. I also believe that we should institute tariffs of some sort as a punishment to China, and we could use dollars that come from those tariffs and put them into a coronavirus victim relief fund to help those who have either lost their job, been affected, or infected by the coronavirus. And then thirdly, we need to stop the VA and the DOD, two of the largest healthcare networks in the world, from purchasing medical equipment from China. And by doing so, that will put a dent in China’s economy. That’s the type of accountability that my constituents are demanding we put in place to hold China accountable for inflicting the coronavirus on the United States and on Americans.
Mr. Jekielek: Rep. Banks, such a pleasure to speak with you.
Rep. Banks: Great to be with you.