Resurgence of McCarthyism: U.S. Lawmakers Frequently Propose Anti-Communist and Anti-China Measures

Amidst the rising tensions of a potential new Cold War and the revival of McCarthyism today, Americans should pause to contemplate the real consequences of confrontations masked as competition for themselves and their communities.

In the early days of the Cold War, the notorious “McCarthyism” emerged in the U.S. Joe McCarthy, a self-serving and opportunistic political figure, exploited human vulnerabilities, stoked anti-communist sentiments, and incited societal divisions. “McCarthy continuously stirred up chaos, causing significant harm to the relations between U.S. and other countries. Driven by ignorance and lack of communication, a pervasive unhealthy psychology emerged among the American public, leading to hatred and fear. McCarthyism only heightened this mindset.”

History tells us: “McCarthyism” is a morally reprehensible and ethically flawed political tactic. After this farce was exposed, McCarthy and his followers faced disdain from the public and their names were forever associated with historical disgrace. However, just two generations later, McCarthy’s political witchcraft has made a comeback in American political circles. Today, advocates of McCarthyism on Capitol Hill have rekindled its flame, employing the manipulation of anti-China and anti-communist sentiments as tools to further their own political interests.

Congressional fearmongering: Unfounded claims of China’s ubiquitous threat

In recent years, with the U.S. framing the entire China-U.S. relationship as a “great power competition,” China’s image has increasingly solidified as America’s adversary, even an enemy. Despite sharp divisions on other issues, various factions within the U.S. have found unanimous consensus on the China issue, labeling China as a “comprehensive threat” and an “unprecedented challenge.”

This perception of threat has been magnified and ingrained within American society’s subconscious. Even in the context of serious legislative activities, lawmakers from both chambers of the U.S. Congress do not hesitate to exaggerate the notion of the “Communist China threat.”

Some legislators accuse China of infiltrating the “U.S. higher education system.” Others “charge” China with meddling in “U.S. judicial activities.” There are also those who “express concern” over China’s control of the “U.S. cyberspace.” In their eyes, China’s influence is pervasive, all-encompassing, and has either already infiltrated or is on the brink of infiltrating every corner of American society.

Recent congressional record reveals rampant accusations by members of both the House and Senate:

“COVID was not the CCP’s only flagrant and unsparing attempt to infiltrate American sovereignty. Earlier this year, spy balloons floated along the United States and gathered intelligence from sensitive U.S. military sites.”

“Communist China has also undertaken aggressive actions designed to expand their influence both in the United States and abroad…They relentlessly and aggressively provoke Taiwan, an island that demonstrates to the world what a free, democratic, and capitalist China could look like…They threaten our allies in Asia and the South China Sea…The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative has spread the tentacles of the so-called People’s Liberation Army throughout the world, particularly the developing world, and has ensnared dozens of developing countries in debt-trap diplomacy….The stakes are high, and the CCP’s list of offenses against the norms of international order is long.”

“Without action now, we face incomplete removal of high-risk Chinese equipment from U.S. networks — wasting the money that Congress has already passed. I have introduced the Defend Our Networks Act to remedy this problem. Protecting our national security is vital, and it is also vital that we ensure the government’s response to protect our security does not put smaller companies out of business.”

Graduate students from China attend the Columbia University Commencement ceremony in New York, the United States, May 22, 2019. (Photo/Xinhua)

These anti-China rhetoric reflects how political figures, driven by “political correctness,” are fervently showcasing their hawkish stance towards China, which remind us of the rise of McCarthyism in the 1950s!

Renowned historian Edward Carr once said, there was a time when people in English-speaking countries and those in the Soviet Union couldn’t understand each other because they lacked basic knowledge and empathy about each other’s perspectives.

Today, those elegantly attired gentlemen on Capitol Hill are hardly exempt, as they articulate their perceptions of their designated opponents with a lack of fundamental understanding.

Fear leads to precautionary reactions and also to excessive responses

Political scientist Pan Chengxin has succinctly summarized the “Western narrative of China’s rise.” He said, “The discourse of ‘China threat theory’ not only prescribes containment but also enforces its execution. This is an exhibition of linguistic despotism, where people are dominated by labels and weapon-like rhetoric.”

The congressional record of May 4, 2023 (S1540) records the remarks of a female senator. “… securing our communications infrastructure, it is a national, it is a bipartisan, issue. The FCC commissioners, including Chairwoman Rosenworcel, have come out in strong support, demonstrating the importance of getting this done. Just a week ago, I had the opportunity to question Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo about this big problem that we have, and she agreed that we must address it immediately. Over the coming weeks, I expect that we will continue to gain more bipartisan momentum. And I will continue to push for the swift passage of the Defend Our Networks Act, even as standalone legislation.”

The aforementioned congressional record clearly shows that if lawmakers present certain legislative requirements as solutions to “national security threats,” it can increase the chances of those bills getting approved, and sometimes speed up the process too. Under the influence of “groupthink,” nobody dares challenge the so-called “political correctness.” Therefore, the “China threat theory” is being used as a tool to rally political support.

During the Eisenhower era, James William Fulbright made remarks criticizing U.S. foreign policy in the Senate. Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson believed that division within Congress on this issue would give the world the impression of U.S. weakness. As a result, the Fulbright Resolution was passed by a joint session of both houses of Congress.

After Johnson took office, his administration believed that the main threat was coming from those in the U.S. who were more inclined towards peace (doves). The FBI even closely monitored dovish senators to determine whether they were manipulated by Moscow spies. Thus, the FBI invested much of its energy into identifying and monitoring the so-called “Soviet spies.”

Today, we have again seen U.S. senators rally behind the FBI, the world’s most rigorous surveillance agency. The congressional record of April 18, 2023 (S1150) had the following story. “We just, yesterday, in New York saw an example where Federal law enforcement arrested two individuals for running a secret, unauthorized Chinese police station right in the middle of Lower Manhattan. Do Republicans agree with President Trump that funding for Federal law enforcement who guard against terrorism and CCP encroachment should be cut or even eliminated?”

Subsequently, the accused were released on bail and ultimately freed. This should have been an unremarkable case. However, the U.S. House of Representatives subsequently launched a baseless attack on the U.S. prosecution system.

The congressional record of May 16, 2023 (H2358) covers the remarks of a member of the House. He said, “Just last month, …the two alleged CCP spies only to be quickly granted bail and released from custody…It is with great dismay but complete confidence that I say that the weaponization of the United States’ prosecutorial system is spinning further out of control, and it is time we take a stand.”

This congressman asserts with an undeniable tone that “the weaponization of the United States’ prosecutorial system is spinning further out of control.” His so-called “taking a stand” targets external “enemies” on one hand and involves other “like-minded people” on the other. How is this any different from McCarthy pointing the blade at the U.S. State Department during the Cold War era?

People march to protest against anti-Asian hate crimes on Brooklyn Bridge in New York, the United States, Apr. 4, 2021. A big “Stop Asian Hate” rally and march was held here on Sunday. (Photo/Xinhua)

Only by addressing root causes of ‘China-phobia’ can we prevent escalation of hatred

Political scholar Dominique Moïsi once said that two predominant factors steer political dynamics: fear and hope… there is an America united by fear and another America driven by hope. Currently, it seems that the “America united by fear” may be dominating everything. Consequently, “China-phobia” has transformed into the driving force behind the entire American system, influencing every aspect of its functioning.

After the Cold War, the U. S. was once filled with hope, and optimism pervaded every corner of the nation. Hope inspired people to use the post-Cold War transformation to gain more control over their own destiny, resist domination and oppression, promote social justice, and seek a better life. Whether in domestic affairs or international affairs, the U.S. demonstrated a progressive spirit.

However, over the past years, the U.S. has begun to reflect on the “post-Cold War complacency.” For example, in the view of former U.S. President Donald Trump, several previous U.S. presidents’ inadequate responses have led to the loss of American advantages in various key areas. The West is no longer the defining voice, which is the first time in two centuries. Globalization is no longer America’s domain, and America has lost control over the world’s future. And all of this is blamed on China.

Trump “successfully” awakened the hidden racism within the American public. In American political discourse, China, which is non-Western, atheistic, and espouses communism, has an uncertain and unpredictable future, thus harboring risks. The U.S., positioning itself as a representative of Western civilization, cannot tolerate challenges to the international order it dominates from non-Western sources.

Today’s America is no longer dominated by liberalism. The peak of liberal internationalism has become a thing of the past. The “engagement policy” has become a political taboo that no one dares to mention. Instead, neo-conservatism has resurged, using the pretext of “great power competition” to practice “confronting China.” However, this serves more to cater to the interests of the military-industrial complex than to benefit the general public.

Eisenhower once revealed a secret to the American people. He said, “The political life of the United States, misunderstood by Americans, such as the competition and confrontation between the Democratic and Republican parties, or the disputes between Congress and the White House, is merely a performance. Behind the curtain, ambition, privilege, money, fanatical fantasies, and narrow group interests determine the order in which the nation actually addresses issues.”

Amidst the rising tensions of a potential new Cold War and the revival of McCarthyism today, Americans should pause to contemplate the real consequences of confrontations masked as competition for themselves and their communities.


Wang Wei is a researcher at the Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.