Sen. Marsha Blackburn: On the Tentacles of China’s Communist Party, from Confucius Institutes to Hong Kong

June 23, 2020 Updated: July 30, 2020

Just how are the Chinese regime’s encroachments on Hong Kong, esp. with the pending National Security Law, part of its pursuit of global dominance?

How does the Chinese Communist Party use its control of active pharmaceutical ingredients as leverage against the United States and other countries?

And, how can the United States and its people hold the Chinese authorities accountable for their role in the coronavirus pandemic?

In this episode, we sit down with U.S. Senator from Tennessee, Marsha Blackburn.

This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.

Jan Jekielek: Senator Marsha Blackburn, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn: It is good to be with you and talk about issues that are important to each of us, and I think also important to the American people.

Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely. There’s so many things happening right now that I know are mutually important to us. One of the ones that’s being left a little bit on the side which I still think is incredibly important is many things related to China, to coronavirus, and of course to Hong Kong with this pending National Security Law. We still don’t know the content, but it doesn’t look very good. What are your thoughts?

Sen. Blackburn: Well, let’s start with China, if you will, and working on the issues that come with the relationship with China is where I’ve spent about 25 years of my time and energy. In Tennessee, we have the entertainment industry, and going back into the mid-90s when we were moving from analog to digital transmission and production in the entertainment space, we began having problems here with China infringing on entertainment content.

We saw the same thing happening in the fashion industry. People began to see these little kiosks pop up on city streets, and they were selling knockoffs of designer bags, and scarves, and hats, and belts, and people would patronize those. Well, all of that is trademark infringement and that was kind of how China got going on much of this intellectual property theft.

Then, as I went to Congress in 2003, I started the Songwriters’ Caucus and it was there to teach about the importance of intellectual property protections for American innovators and entertainers in the global marketplace.

And we started to see these copycat items, whether it was in auto parts, or aftermarket auto parts, or guitars from Gibson Guitar, or any host of other things. Then it became computers and chips. And then, what did you get into next? Pharmaceuticals. So, this is a long-term China problem.

What we have learned through the past several decades is China will lie to you; they will steal from you; and if you catch them, they’re going to try to cheat you. So, this is basically how they have built this manufacturing economy which started looking at consumables, but now has gone into critical infrastructure items, whether it’s telecommunications equipment or electronics, or our military complex, our pharmaceuticals.

China is trying to corner the market, capture all the manufacturing, and basically then they have the ability to hold the world hostage when the world needs a certain something, such as pharmaceuticals which we have needed now. Now, that brings us to the [COVID-19] issue. Should we have been surprised that China had a coronavirus and they have this Wuhan Institute of Virology which has done all of this research on coronaviruses?

In Tennessee, we have a lab, the Denison Lab, which is over at Vanderbilt University. They have done decades of research on coronaviruses. Well, what our diplomatic scientists were telling us was that we had problems at this Wuhan Institute of Virology and indeed as they were doing this coronavirus research, researching these different bats, we come up with this COVID-19, so-named, because they discovered this novel coronavirus in 2019.

Now, there’s a debate: Did it come from the lab? Did it come from the market? I’m one of those that believe most likely it came from the lab. In some way, shape, or form, it leaked out. Someone got infected with it during the research. We don’t know the answer to that because even to this day, the World Health Organization and the CDC have not been allowed into that lab.

So, there are a lot of unanswered questions. But as we saw [COVID-19] leak out, what did they do? They had 3000 infections before they said anything; they locked people in their houses and left them to die; they restricted travel from Wuhan to other parts of China. Basically, they put Wuhan in a lockdown.

They had this pandemic on their hands for 51 days before they told the rest of the world. During that 51 days, what were they busy doing? They were busy stockpiling PPE so that they could up the price and sell it to other nations.

Then how did they leverage having that PPE? It’s like what they did to France—they said, “Okay, by the way, you need PPE. We’ve got it and if you will take Huawei as your telecommunication system, we will sell you PPE.” Of course, we don’t want our allies to use Huawei because Huawei is the underpinning for what China is using to build a spy network.

Sometimes I look at this relationship with China and I say, “How did we get here and who could ever make this kind of story up because of all of the tangled web that they have woven?” And interestingly enough, they’ve done it now not only with us, but … with 180 nations around the globe.

Mr. Jekielek: Senator Blackburn, you’re describing this leverage that the Chinese Communist Party is trying to use around the world to get Huawei in and so forth. For us, you actually have legislation out basically that highlights how China controls a lot of the pharmaceutical precursors, and that seems to be a pretty big leverage for them.

Sen. Blackburn: It is big leverage for them. They have worked themselves into a position where nearly all of your vaccines and your antibiotics are made in China. Because of that, they control most of the active pharmaceutical ingredients. Now, we in the U.S. should be stockpiling these ingredients. We’re not doing that in the way that we ought to be doing it. Therefore, you do have ingredients we need that we cannot get.

An example of this, as we were looking at antivirals and vaccines, there was an ingredient that was needed back in February and China was the sole source of this. What did China say to us? “Oh, we might not give that to you.” So, you look at this and then you say, “How do we leave ourselves vulnerable?” And the answer to that is we leave ourselves vulnerable because we are not stockpiling, and we are not manufacturing.

So, the SAMC Act, Securing America’s Medicine Cabinet—Senator Menendez has joined me on this, it is bipartisan—this would return our active pharmaceutical ingredient production to the United States. It would use advanced manufacturing capabilities, which is more cost-effective and time-efficient. It would incentivize our colleges in universities to partner with pharmaceutical companies so that the workforce can be trained, and we do that through a $100 million grant pool to do workforce education.

So, this bill also has a House companion—Congressman Vern Buchanan out of Florida is carrying it in the House. So, we are serious about returning this manufacturing. And I will tell you the good thing about this is that, as we have worked on this issue, what have we learned? Pharmaceuticals was the first place we turned our attention and we filed this legislation back in February before we had such an uptick in the [COVID-19] issues.

But my colleagues in the Senate are now saying, “This is a great template that we can work from as we look at chip manufacturing; as we look at batteries, things we’re going to use in autonomous vehicles; as we look at telecommunications equipment; as we look at our military complex; as we look at the need for PPE because we need to be better prepared for the next pandemic.”

This pandemic has cost us about $6 trillion. Our grandchildren are going to be paying for this, and we need to do a better job of making plans for those rainy days and for those adverse events that are always going to happen. We might as well plan to expect the unexpected, and look at worst-case and best-case scenarios, and just be smart about it.

Mr. Jekielek: Senator Blackburn, before we talk about Hong Kong—I really do want to talk about that before we finish today—you have this legislation out, the Stop COVID Act. I think you’ve had it out there since early May or something in that vein, and you’re talking about accountability for the Chinese Communist Party here. Can you tell me a little bit about that and where things are going with that?

Sen. Blackburn: Oh, absolutely. The Stop COVID Act is legislation that would give U.S. citizens that have been adversely impacted by COVID-19 the ability to have their day in court to sue the Chinese Communist Party and to seek a form of restitution from them. What we’re doing, the way we’re doing this is through the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and identifying COVID-19 as a biological agent.

And this is the same type and structure of legislation, and the same U.S. code, that was used for the 9/11 families and the Beirut bombing families, and they were able to seek that restitution. So, what we’re doing is modeling our work on that work so that there was precedent for this. But this does allow U.S. citizens to take the Chinese Communist Party to court.

Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. I didn’t realize that was the template or route of the legislation. Is this something that’s coming to vote? Where are we at with this now?

Sen. Blackburn: Yeah, we will bring it up in our Senate Judiciary Committee. That is where we would push forward with this legislation. I’ve been joined by Martha McSally and Steve Daines as the lead co-sponsors on the legislation. We also have a House companion that is filed. Rep. Gooden has it over in the House. And we know it is important to elevate this discussion.

Just as we look holistically at China, … they hold over a trillion dollars of our debt, should we waive the payment on that debt when it comes due because of what they have cost us? You have the China bondholders—U.S. citizens that hold China bonds that have never been made whole. Britain reconciled that issue back in the early 80s—Margaret Thatcher did.

Should we look at that as a portion of this? We know that Confucius Institutes that are in over 70 of our U.S. universities are part of China’s soft propaganda and soft power. Should we eliminate these? We’ve already begun passing restrictions. And all of this is legislation that is in the works, that is moving forward, and we have from now to the end of this session to continue to work on it.

But here’s the important thing: this sends a message by the U.S. Senate taking these actions and moving forward with these pieces of legislation. It sends a message to China that we know what they are up to. We understand that they lie, cheat and steal when it comes to economics.

We understand that they did not tell us what they had with COVID-19; that they withheld that information; that we’re not going to put up with them withholding pharmaceutical supplies to us; that we’re going to hold them to account, and one of those ways to hold them to account is to look at our interactions on the economic front; to look at our interactions when it comes to manufacturing.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s actually jump into the Hong Kong issue. There’s a number of people who are Hong Kong pro-democracy activists and so forth. Alan Leong has been at it for decades. Then we have very young people that I’ve been speaking with. They’re basically saying that Hong Kong vis-a-vis mainland China and the Chinese Communist Party that runs it as a canary in the coal mine, and that the advent of this national security law is the end of Hong Kong as we know it, and a sign of things to come for America and the world. What are your thoughts?

Sen. Blackburn: I think the interactions that you’re seeing with China, with Hong Kong, and I will add to that, their treatment of the Uyghurs and their aggressiveness in Taiwan, coupled with the South China Sea, you have to look at every bit of it collectively. But when you look at what they are doing, it is showing that they see this as their moment.

They have looked at China power as a 100-year marathon. And they have said the 21st century should belong to them. So while they see us in a weakened state because of the virus they sent us, after they took our jobs, our manufacturing jobs to China, they see this as a way to double down on adversely impacting us, and what we have to do is push back.

What they’re doing to the Hong Kong freedom fighters is untenable, and the way they’re trying to push this national security law so that they can use that to say, “Oh Britain, we’re not breaking our agreement with you. What we’re doing is just putting extra security protections in place so that people don’t get hurt.” And they’re taking away that right to protest. They’re taking away that right to go in there and have that expression.

Here’s the interesting thing too. … Mainland China is having a problem with their economy. Their manufacturing is down; their purchasing and orders on consumer goods is down. They even say that their economy has shrunk this year by about 7.5%. So, if it has shrunk 6%, 7.5 ~ 8%, according to China, you know that they have seen a greater drop off than that because their tendency is to not tell you the truth.

So, what we have to do is look at how they’ve used Hong Kong as their financial center. When they wanted to show consistency and stability in their relationships with other companies around the globe, and multinational corporations, they utilize Hong Kong. That has been their safe haven for their money.

Now, what are they saying? “Oh, our economy is in the tank. We need stability. We need to go in and recoup some assets, so let’s just take Hong Kong.” I think you’ll see quite a bit of economic flight from Hong Kong as the situation there becomes less stable, and as our country has even questioned the independence and the autonomy of Hong Kong.

Mr. Jekielek: … In Hong Kong, there’s a saying in Cantonese, roughly it translates [into a] saying that’s familiar to us, “If we burn, you burn with us.” This is the saying that they have. A lot of it is talking about this issue of capital—Hong Kong is the conduit for U.S. dollars for foreign direct investment. With this national security law, essentially, rule of law is out the window. Who is going to be investing and how is China actually going to monetize this? This is baffling to me.

Sen. Blackburn: Well, it is of concern and a bit baffling to individuals, to Tennesseans I talked to that have manufactured in Hong Kong, … or have had business partners in that effort in Hong Kong. There is quite a bit of uncertainty and they’re beginning to look at the fact of, “Well, maybe we need to relocate our manufacturing.” And they’re aggressively looking for other opportunities to be certain that the supply chain is not interrupted, and that they are able to continue in their business because they’re terribly concerned that it all may come to an end overnight—kind of like [COVID-19] was handed to us as a pandemic overnight. And within a week, we are into a nationwide shutdown.

Mr. Jekielek: It’s incredible. Senator Blackburn, any words for the Hong Kong people and also, any final words before we finish up?

Sen. Blackburn: To the Hong Kong people, I would say: The American people recognize your fight and they know that you’re fighting for freedom, and liberty, and justice, and equal recognition and treatment. We appreciate that.

To the American people, I would say: It is time for us to think carefully about how we bring our supply chain, and our manufacturing back to U.S. shores; and it’s important that we think about our relationship with China and the way they’re pushing their tentacles into the U.S.; and think about these Confucius Institutes. If you have a child who is in college, ask the university: what is your participation here?

If you have a child whose K-12 school has a Confucius Classroom, and there are 500 of those scattered around the country, you need to ask what the participation of the Chinese Communist Party is with that classroom because what they are speaking, by their own admission, is propaganda. It is not the truth of Chinese culture.

Mr. Jekielek: Senator Marsha Blackburn, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Sen. Blackburn: It’s a pleasure to join you. Thank you so much.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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