Senators in Close Races Look to China

Capitol Hill at night. Image credits: Don Sniegowski/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the 2020 race for the presidency, both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have emphasized their “tough-on-China” approaches. This messaging has continued down the ballot in several of the races for the 35 Senate seats being voted on in this election, of which 23 are currently held by Republicans and 12 are held by Democrats.

In April, the Republican party released a memo detailing their messaging strategy for COVID-19. Candidates were instructed to blame China for spreading the virus and to minimize or avoid commenting on the Trump administration’s response.

Senators, especially those in close races, are seeking to frame their opponent as weak on China. This is one of many strategies used by those running in this election cycle, but it has appeared consistently since the memo was first reported on by the press. With strong anti-China rhetoric an important part of the GOP playbook, the use of China-centric narratives in various races indicates that any connection to China is a vulnerability in this election.

A screenshot of the Republican memo on COVID-19 messaging. Image credit: Politico

In Arizona, Republican Senator Martha McSally has consistently trailed Democratic candidate Mark Kelly. McSally has repeatedly accused Kelly of being beholden to China, criticizing him for his ties to World View Enterprises, which he co-founded and which counts Tencent Holdings as an investor. These connections were repeated by other prominent Republicans in the press and on social media. McSally, however, was met with criticism over mutual funds that were “invested in Chinese companies or bonds issued by China’s communist government.” She has also criticized him for participating in Chinese “junkets” and taking a banner from one of those events into orbit. In October, former US ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley campaigned in Arizona for McSally, targeting Kelly on China. During the October 15 debate between Kelly and McSally, Kelly directly referenced the GOP strategy, saying “I’ve known China as an adversary my entire adult life, not because I got a memo from Mitch McConnell.”

The Iowa Senate race has been competitive, partly due to the administration’s handling of COVID-19 and fallout from the trade war even as the state retains much support for the president. Senator Jodi Ernst (R-Iowa) has been a vocal supporter of the president’s policies, including his stance on China. She has said that China lied about the virus and has “certainly been a bad actor when it comes to trade.” The first campaign ad in her race against Democratic candidate Theresa Greenfield focused on China. Since his resignation, former ambassador to China Terry Branstad has been campaigning in Iowa for Ernst. Branstad is a popular former governor of Iowa. On October 14, President Trump held a rally in Iowa to support his and Ernst’s reelection bids.

In his campaign against Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina) has been particularly outspoken against China: Tillis released an 18-point plan “to hold the Chinese government accountable” for the COVID-19 pandemic, and his campaign sells “China Lied” bumper stickers. The North Carolina Democratic Party has countered with a detailed campaign outlining Tillis history “of support for US trade with China that [he is] now rushing to offset with hawkish positions.” The race continued to draw media attention following Tillis’ COVID-19 diagnosis and revelations that Cunningham had engaged in intimate extramarital behavior.

In many of the races where Senators are relying on tough-on-China messages, previous and even ongoing financial ties to China sometimes undermine the candidates’ messaging. The simplicity and broad appeal that often fuel anti-China messaging also seem to promote skepticism when a candidate tries to contextualize previous connections to China.

New Hampshire’s Republican Senate candidate Corky Messner has taken a notably critical stance on China, which has been undermined by reports that his law firm Messner Reeves represented China Export and Credit Insurance Corp. when it sued Tennessee-based Carlstar Group in 2016. In Alaska, incumbent Republican Senator Dan Sullivan’s criticisms of China earned reproach after his investments in a company that has operations in China, including manufacturing, emerged.

A screenshot of the Republican memo on COVID-19 messaging. Image credit: Politico

In Michigan, Republican challenger John James has sought to portray incumbent Democratic Senator Gary Peters as soft on China. An ad paid for by a Republican group accused Peters of praising China and blocking aid for small businesses. James has also criticized Peters as an absentee member of the Congressional Executive Commission on China. Peters has run ads asserting his toughness on China. Democrats have since accused James of hypocrisy, saying that his business with China enriches the CCP. On an October 16 call with press that was joined by noted China hawk Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), James put forward a “repatriation” plan for manufacturing from China.

Senator Steve Daines (R-Montana) has been noticeably vulnerable in terms of China messaging. As a businessperson and senator, Daines had extensive contact with Chinese businesses and officials, even being dubbed “China’s ambassador in Congress.” Supporters of Daines’ opponent, Governor Steve Bullock, have focused heavily on his alleged pro-China background despite attempts by Daines’ camp to contextualize his previous engagement with China. In the first week of October, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), an outspoken critic of China, joined Daines on the campaign trail. Similarly, Colorado Senator Cory Gardner has been vocally critical of China in his race against former Governor John Hickenlooper. However, Gardner’s voting record on China has come under fire, mainly because he opposed a measure to address China’s currency manipulation in 2015.

With the election nearing, even races that had not focused on China seem to be drawing on the souring US-China relationship. After admitting that he was “getting killed” in fundraising, Senator Lindsey Graham’s (R-South Carolina) campaign got a boost in late September when the Security is Strength organization announced that it would run adds targeting Democratic candidate Jaime Harrison’s position on China. Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-Georgia), who is running in Georgia’s special Senate election, blamed China for President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis. On October 10, she requested that “an investigation be opened into the use of American nonprofit organizations by the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party for the purpose of interfering with, or otherwise influencing, United States elections and policies.” This request comes a week after her opponent Doug Collins said that Loeffler’s husband, who owns the New York Stock Exchange, should de-list Chinese state-owned companies. There are 10 state-owned Chinese companies on the New York Stock Exchange.

In Alabama, where China loomed over July’s GOP Senate runoff race, China has come into play in the debate over climate change. GOP candidate Tommy Tuberville has sought to minimize or deny climate change and blame China. Incumbent Democrat Doug Jones received criticism for speaking positively of China’s climate change policy. Jones said that “China has been a rogue actor in the past” but has “made strides in recent years to reduce its carbon footprint.” On October 19, John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters on the campaign trail that he has privately disagreed with the president even when publicly supporting him, including on China: “I applaud him for standing up to China, but, frankly, this idea that China is paying the price and we’re not paying the price here at home is just not true.”

<strong> In Debates, Candidates Stump on China </strong>

The first presidential debate took place on September 29 with the vice presidential debate on October 7. Following the president’s COVID-19 diagnosis and his rejection of holding a virtual debate in light of concerns over the virus, the second debate was cancelled.

In the presidential debate, the majority of comments about China were made by the president—Trump explicitly referenced China 10 times, Biden three times—who blamed China for the pandemic and its economic impact, said that Biden was soft on China, accused Biden’s family and especially his son Hunter of profiting off of China, and blamed China for pollution. Biden faulted Trump’s COVID-19 response in Wuhan and the trade war with China. As Biden criticized Trump’s trade deal, the president twice interrupted to say that “China ate [his] lunch.”

In their separate town hall meetings on October 15, both candidates repeated their positions. Trump mentioned China four times during his town hall, all to blame China for the spread of COVID-19. Biden made three comments: one faulting Trump’s COVID-19 response, one faulting the trade deal, and one alluding to the changing US-China relationship (“China is making moves”).

During the vice presidential debate, moderator Susan Page asked both candidates to describe the US-China relationship, asking, “Are we competitors? Adversaries? Enemies?” Neither candidate provided a specific answer to that question.

Vice President Pence, who mentioned China 16 times during the debate, responded by blaming China for the pandemic. Pence also argued during the debate that China acted in bad faith towards the United States, that Joe Biden has been weak on China, and that the Republican party wants “to improve the relationship, but we’re going to level the playing field.” Pence’s China remarks were censored in China, where the debate was aired live.

In response to the moderator’s China question, Senator Harris criticized the Trump administration’s approach to the country as careless and detrimental to the American people. Addressing Pence earlier in the debate, Harris said, “You lost that trade war.” She faulted the trade war for losing 300,000 jobs and referenced a study released at the beginning of October that found that western countries hold Xi Jinping in higher esteem than they do Donald Trump. Senator Harris explicitly referenced China six times.


Chinese government records acquired by university libraries on the East Coast are invaluable for uncovering the names of political prisoners, including those imprisoned for participating in June Fourth. Dui Hua previously reported that a total of 1,602 individuals were convicted and sentenced to prison for their activities during the spring 1989 protests in Beijing and elsewhere nationwide, according to an official account published by the Hunan provincial government.

While most narratives of the “counterrevolutionary rioting” in 1989 focused on the role of students and, to a lesser extent, workers, a Shaanxi government record revealed dissent within the ranks of the military. On May 4, 1989, public security in Wugong County, Xianyang, discovered 104 counterrevolutionary banners near the county government and party committee offices. They were composed by a clandestine group called “China One Central Committee” (中国一中央委员会) headed by an air force officer Ren Zhengyan(任正言). Ren was detained on June 20 alongside 16 core group members.

The government record did not explicitly state that Ren was a pro-democracy protester, but the timing of his detention indicates that this is a strong possibility. Ren allegedly developed hatred of the Chinese Communist Party after he failed an air force academy exam. With 41 members across Xianyang, his group was found in possession of over 1,000 copies of counterrevolutionary propaganda materials. Bullets, detonators, gun parts, and a handwritten copy of an air force ammunition depot plan were seized at the time of detention. Ren’s group was also said to have organized at least two guerrilla groups with a goal to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party.

In the early 2000s, Dui Hua submitted three prisoner lists to the Chinese government to inquire about Ren, but no response was given. The government record revealed that Ren was sentenced to 16 years in prison for “organizing a counterrevolutionary group.” Dui Hua believes that he was released in 2005, assuming that he had not been given any clemency or sentence extensions.

Xianyang is a prefecture-level city situated between the provincial capital of Xi’an and Baoji. Both Xi’an and Baoji were rocked by pro-democracy protests in 1989. On June 4, government sources reported that as many as 40,000 people assembled in Xi’an’s Xincheng Square. The protests in Baoji were also joined by local Muslims calling for a ban on pornographic publications.


Featured: Press Statement: Dui Hua Mourns the Passing of Takna Jigme Sangpo 

SAN FRANCISCO (October 19, 2020) — The Dui Hua Foundation has learned with great sadness that Takna Jigme Sangpo, a Tibetan schoolteacher who spent nearly four decades in prison for counterrevolutionary crimes, has passed away outside Zurich, Switzerland, on October 17, 2020, at the age of 91. 

Dui Hua assisted in the negotiations which resulted in the release of Takna Jigme Sangpo in 2002. “It was our honor to have done so,” said John Kamm, Executive Director of Dui Hua. 


See Also: Human Rights Journal, September 24, 2020: Big Increase in Women Behind Bars in China

Female inmates in political and education reform classes. Image credit: Hubei Prison Administrative Bureau 2019

Statistics released by China’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and recently published by the World Prison Brief have revealed a significant increase in the number of women prisoners incarcerated in MOJ prisons since 2015, the last year for which a number was made available prior to 2019. The numbers were provided in a statement by an MOJ official to the Asia Pacific Conference of Correctional Administrators (APCCA) meeting in Mongolia. The number of women prisoners in MOJ prisons in 2019 has yet to be made available.

Read the rest of this story here.


John Kamm Remembers is a feature that explores Kamm’s human rights advocacy prior to and since Dui Hua’s establishment in 1999.

The Forgotten, Part II

Tanks near Tiananmen Square during the unrest culminating on June 4, 1989. Image credit:

Read Part I here.

Finally, in August 2003, the MFA gave a written response to the United States.

Wang Jun’s death with two-year reprieve sentence had been commuted to a 20-year prison sentence in December 1992. This was a tell-tale sign that Wang was behaving well in prison. Death with two-year reprieve sentences are usually commuted to life in prison, not a fixed term sentence. The response also revealed that Wang Jun was serving his sentence in Fuping Prison, a high-security prison in Weinan Municipality used to hold prisoners serving sentences of more than 15 years, including those serving life sentences and death with two-year reprieve.

I kept pushing for more information. A response to the European Union provided by the MFA in May 2006 revealed that Wang was given an 18-month sentence reduction in August 2001–only months after I had submitted lists including Wang Jun’s name to the MOJ – and another 18-month sentence reduction in December 2004.

An entrance to Fuping Prison in central Shaanxi. Image credit:

Finally, I received information from the Shaanxi Prison Bureau in August 2009 that Wang Jun had received a two-year sentence reduction in September 2008 and had been released from Fuping Prison on May 11, 2009. After I first intervened on Wang Jun’s behalf in 2001, he received three sentence reductions totaling five years.

The Forgotten

The majority of those imprisoned for June 4, 1989 related offenses were convicted of committing acts of violence. In Hunan, the province with the highest number of “two disturbances” prisoners, 133 individuals were sentenced to prison for crimes committed during the protests that rocked China in the spring of 1989. Of these, 33 were imprisoned for counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement, 43 were imprisoned for robbery, and 57 committed hooliganism and sabotage of transportation equipment.

By the time I began advocating on behalf of Wang Jun (王军) in 2000, most of those who had committed non-violent crimes like counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement and leading or organizing a counterrevolutionary group had been released from prison, many before the end of their terms.

One of the last of these prisoners to be released was Yang Lianzi (杨连子), an itinerant troubadour from Gansu Province who sang counterrevolutionary songs to protesters in Tiananmen Square in May 1989. Yang, who figured on my prisoner lists, was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He received three sentence reductions and was released in May 2001.

A few days after Wang Jun was released, two other June 4 prisoners sentenced to long prison terms for violent crimes were released from prison. On May 18, 2009, Liu Zhihua (刘智华), a worker convicted of “hooliganism” for what he did during the 1989 protests, was released from a Hunan Province prison after receiving a two-year sentence reduction in December 2008. Peng Jiamin (彭家民), a Shanghai worker who had been sentenced to life in prison for arson and destruction of transport, was granted early release, according to information received from the Shanghai Prison Bureau.

A case of a June 4 prisoner I paid special attention to was Zhu Gengsheng (朱更生), who was featured on Chinese television atop a burning tank, waving a flag and shouting, “We’ve won!” Although originally detained for counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement, Zhu was sentenced to death with two-year reprieve for counterrevolutionary sabotage. In 1994, his sentence was commuted to life in prison. I placed Zhu’s name on seven prisoner lists and received four responses. Starting in 1997, Zhu received seven sentence reductions. He was released from Beijing Number Two Prison on April 29, 2011.

Zhu Gengsheng as he appeared in a news article published on March 11, 2014. Image credit: Apple Daily

We sometimes found information on the remaining June 4 prisoners in unusual places. In May 2013, Dui Hua researchers uncovered a notice issued by the Jiangshan Neighborhood Council in Beijing about an elderly man who had served a sentence in Yanqing Prison, Jiang Yaqun (姜亚群). Jiang was suffering from Alzheimer’s but had no relatives to look after him.

Jiang had been sentenced to death with two-year reprieve on July 17, 1990 for the crime of counterrevolutionary sabotage. I put him on 10 prisoner lists and received four responses. His sentence was commuted to life in prison and further reduced on five occasions. He was released from Yanqing Prison, which has a ward for elderly, weak, ill, and disabled prisoners in October or November 2012, whereupon he was taken in and cared for by the Jiangnan Neighborhood Council.

Li Yujun (李玉君) was convicted of arson by the Beijing High People’s Court in January 1991 and sentenced to death with two-year reprieve. The sentence was commuted to life in prison on December 31, 1996. I asked about him repeatedly; he was on nine of my prisoner lists submitted to the Chinese government. After receiving six sentence reductions for good behavior, Li was released from Beijing Number Two Prison on May 31, 2013.

Miao Deshun

The last Tiananmen prisoner known by Dui Hua to have served a sentence for an offence committed during the spring 1989 disturbances was Miao Deshun (苗德顺). Miao was a worker from Hebei Province who came to Beijing to participate in the uprising. He was sentenced to death with two-year reprieve by the Beijing Intermediate People’s Court on August 7, 1989. The crime was arson; he and four other protesters had thrown a basket onto a burning tank.

Miao had had no contact with the outside world for many years. At his request, his family stopped visiting him. He was defiant, refusing to admit guilt or participate in prison labor. He spent time in solitary confinement, which contributed to his schizophrenia and hepatitis.

I took a special interest in his case, putting his name on 17 lists submitted to the Chinese government. In late January 2016, I learned from a court website that, after several sentence reductions–the last granted six weeks after my last inquiry–Miao would be released from the elderly, weak, ill, and disabled ward of Yanqing Prison on October 15, 2016.

I announced his imminent release, and journalists became interested in the story. Several went to Yanqing Prison to observe the October 15 event, but no one could sight him.

It is sometimes the case that prisoners are released the night before, or at dawn, at the darkest moment. They are hustled out the back door.

The last of the known June 4 prisoners had been released, but, fittingly, no one had seen the moment, and it has been quickly forgotten.

Soldiers cleaning Tiananmen Square following the events of June 4, 1989. Image credit: