Achieving national rather than mere state level visibility is a problem for U.S. Senators without a major leadership position in the chamber. That’s why they often specialize in particular issues or causes. With Donald Trump having exited the scene, the need to change the topic from his ignominious record and claim a measure of policy relevance is especially pressing for Senate Republicans like Tennessee’s Senator Marsha Blackburn. Her decision to focus so much on the People’s Republic of China is unexpectedly astute, though much of the performance is wincingly awful.
U.S.–China relations is crucial for American foreign policy making for obvious reasons. The Middle Kingdom is the industrial workshop of the world, a human rights violator on a massive scale, and our most important great power rival. Without the cooperation of Beijing, there is scant hope that global challenges such as climate change and epidemic disease can be effectively managed.
The problem is that Blackburn’s focus on China is tragically myopic. Most obviously some of her rhetoric is pure primitive 19th century Sinophobia. On December 3, 2020 she tweeted that “China has a 5,000 year history of cheating and stealing. Some things will never change …”
China has a 5,000 year history of cheating and stealing. Some things will never change…— Sen. Marsha Blackburn (@MarshaBlackburn) December 3, 2020
That ugly fusion of resentful cultural inferiority and essentialism is the sort of xenophobia heard during the campaign for the 1880 Chinese Exclusion Act. China is indeed the home to the oldest unbroken civilization, a fact that has long nettled literate white conservatives in the West. Given Blackburn’s electoral base it is too much to hope for recognition of Chinese contributions to world civilization, but appeals to primitive scapegoating are beyond the pale of decency. Her rhetoric is more likely to encourage bigotry against East Asian Americans than to encourage understanding of Sino-American relations. Reading Blackburn’s tweets reveals even more disturbing material. Although China and the United States are busily spying on oner another, as expected of rival great powers, her warnings about espionage are expressed in 1950s era McCarthyite paranoia.
Be careful who you’re talking to… pic.twitter.com/J3nUwMOH4e— Sen. Marsha Blackburn (@MarshaBlackburn) December 18, 2020
Beijing’s agents might be listening anywhere she warns in a silly video in a December 18, 2020 tweet. They are lurking in academia, news media etc. Consistent with Tail Gunner Joe’s sweeping but vague accusation technique, Blackburn repeats claims that the Biden administration will be “soft on China.”
Chinese espionage is certainly real, but Blackburn and her fellow Republicans have good reason to generate as much noise as possible about Chinese influence in American politics to obscure the undeniable: Trump’s role as an agent of influence for Putin. Reluctant to make the tu quoque defense openly because that would be an admission of guilt, they seek to refocus attention on Xi to the same end.