The Red Scare of the 1950s is widely regarded as one of the most shameful periods of modern American history, and anyone these days who’d say the opposite would probably be considered an extremist. Movies critical of McCarthyism garner praise and awards many decades later, as do all the other kinds of media that cover the hysteria of the time and valorize the heroism of those who dared speak out. During the Donald Trump years, his close ties to the malevolent Roy Cohn, chief counsel for Senator Joseph McCarthy, were thought to explain his own authoritarian leanings, and warnings abounded that his demagogic style was a revival of this disgraceful anti-communist crusade.
We’ve reached a basic consensus in American society that McCarthyism was a disaster not to be repeated. Why, then, are we seeing an alarmingly similar phenomenon bubbling up in US political culture today?
Earlier this month, Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, officially called on the Department of Justice to “immediately investigate” a batch of “certain far-left organizations” over potentially violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), the foreign government lobbying law that might be most familiar to readers for its recent role in Trump’s “Russiagate” scandal. Those organizations included antiwar group Code Pink, the Manhattan bookstore and events space the People’s Forum, and a collection of other organizations involved in pushing back on rising US-China conflict.
Rubio’s request was directly inspired by a New York Times exposé the same month, itself based on a January 2022 report from New Lines magazine. Code Pink and others singled out by Rubio have taken hundreds of millions from Maoist tech millionaire Neville Roy Singham, who is also married to Jodie Evans, the cofounder of Code Pink. The donations are framed by the Times as “part of a lavishly funded influence campaign that defends China and pushes its propaganda,” and by New Lines as “the big business of Uyghur genocide denial.”
The reporting raises numerous legitimate points. The Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghur population is well documented, heinous, and indefensible, and antiwar groups shouldn’t deny that it’s happening or defend the Chinese government that carries it out.
But the recriminations in this episode go much further, casting entirely reasonable antiwar arguments as not just beyond the pale but suspect, and charging a broad swath of organizations that do all kinds of work on many diverse issues with being part of a vast pro-China propaganda network taking its marching orders directly from Beijing. It’s part of a disturbing and rising trend of modern-day McCarthyism over China that’s only getting worse as US tensions with the country rise.
Going Too FARA
You could look at Rubio’s demand as a fairly narrow matter. FARA, after all, is a very specific law with very specific legal requirements. But FARA has a long history of being used to attack left-wing groups and dissent, particularly when it comes to US foreign policy.
Socialist and civil rights icon W. E. B. Du Bois was notoriously prosecuted under the law in 1951, for circulating a petition authored by a French communist and Nobel Prize–winning chemist that called for a nuclear weapons ban, which then secretary of state Dean Acheson called a “propaganda trick in the spurious ‘peace offensive’ of the Soviet Union.” Since then, the law has been used against US organizations fighting on behalf of El Salvador and Palestine, and Republicans even brandished it against the Natural Resources Defense Council as recently as 2018 for its work in China, accusing it of “aiding China’s perception management efforts.”
Some of what Code Pink founder Evans is quoted as saying is truly objectionable, like her inability to think of a single negative thing to say about Beijing’s policies. There are, in fact, quite a few criticisms to make of the Chinese government from the left, including its repression of workers’ movements, its lack of democracy, and its clampdown on basic freedoms of speech, worship, and more. Resisting an idiotic war with China doesn’t require whitewashing these things.
But some of the criticisms veer into outright McCarthyism. As evidence for Code Pink being “sympathetic to authoritarian governments considered hostile to the US,” New Lines points to, first, the group’s 2020 “China Is Not Our Enemy” campaign and its call to lobby Congress to “affirm your commitment to peace and cooperation with China”; and second, a line in its FAQ section on China about its mistreatment of Uyghurs:
The Chinese government’s violation of their human rights is of concern to us and we join the call for justice for the Uyghurs. At the same time, we call out the US government, which is using the human rights of the Uyghurs as a tool to drive war with China, instead of a human rights issue that needs to be addressed as such.
This mirrors right-wing attacks on the group for its advocacy against sliding toward a war with China, including the corporate-funded American Enterprise Institute, which cited this same FAQ to charge that Code Pink was “now at the forefront of apologia, if not outright genocide denial” over Uyghur repression.
But is it really controversial, or even tantamount to Chinese state propaganda, to point out that the US national security establishment may have ulterior motives in its supposed concern for the repression this Muslim group is facing? The same establishment that rounded up, deported, and spied on thousands of innocent Muslims in the United States? That created a worldwide network of torture dungeons reserved for mostly Muslims, including Uyghurs themselves, and for which it kidnapped and condemned to years of imprisonment a shocking amount of random innocent men? That spent more than a decade bombing seven different Muslim-majority countries, and launched a series of wars in the Muslim world that resulted in more than 4.5 million deaths?
Are we seriously arguing that the Trump administration — which repeatedly fought to ban Muslims from coming into the United States — was genuinely moved by the Uyghurs’ plight when it formally accused China of genocide two years ago?
As for the repugnant suggestion that arguing for peace and cooperation with China is apologism for its government or doing its bidding, the less said the better.
This is all bigger than Code Pink and whatever unfortunate statements its cofounder and one of its donors have made. It’s about fencing off broad swaths of antiwar speech as out of bounds, and ramping up suspicion and intimidation of anyone working to move the United States off the immensely dangerous path of war with China that it’s currently set on. If calls for conciliation with China and criticism of Washington’s existing China policy are simply parroting Chinese state propaganda, how long before anyone else who’s doing the same is accused of violating FARA or threatened with investigation?
More Than Words
This isn’t an isolated incident. There’s been a worrying pattern of similarly McCarthyist, China-related finger-pointing and policy that has ramped up as US-China relations have worsened.
This is the case across the political spectrum. On the Right, former Fox News host Tucker Carlson made a regular habit of accusing his political opponents of literally working for the Chinese government, while Trump has nicknamed potential election opponent president Joe Biden “China Joe” and called him a “Manchurian candidate.” Right-wing media is replete with “scandals” involving Democratic politicians and their aides having friendly ties to Chinese diplomats.
Among leftists and liberals, last year saw a dustup between Justice Is Global director Tobita Chow and American Prospect coeditor Robert Kuttner, who responded to Chow’s critique of Democratic Senate candidate Tim Ryan’s China-bashing in his campaign by accusing Chow of writing “innumerable articles in left publications . . . defending the Beijing regime and its global policies.” In reality, you’ll struggle to find any example of Chow doing so in the many, many articles he’s written on the subject, most of which criticize Beijing’s policies. The matter was ultimately minor but showed how easily even debate on the broad left on US-China policy can devolve into smears and innuendo.
This unfortunate trend in the field of public debate and discussion on China has been paired with similarly McCarthyite policy. The controversial China Initiative under Trump, sold as a push to crack down on Beijing’s economic espionage, in practice turned into a xenophobic witch hunt targeting academics of Chinese descent or heritage for failing to disclose all their connections to the country in grant or visa applications. It’s also been a classic case of shooting yourself in the foot, causing an accelerated exodus of many hundreds of Chinese scientists from the United States. That program has technically been ended under Biden, but in name only.
Biden has also kept in place a May 2020 Trump order that expelled and barred graduate students and researchers who got funding from, were hired by, or did research for any Chinese entity “that implements or supports the [People’s Republic of China’s] ‘military-civil fusion strategy’” — an incredibly broad category that, given the nature of the Chinese system and its government’s funding for universities, has ensnared people with trivial or even out-of-date connections to such entities. Lawmakers have introduced a bill to ban all Chinese nationals from graduate and postgraduate studies in the United States, as well as a spate of state and federal bills barring broadly defined “Chinese agents” from buying real estate, some of which have become law.
The Chinese government’s shameful repression of its Uyghur population is very real, unjustifiable, and worthy only of condemnation. It’s also something that left-wing organizations and media have frequently denounced right up to the present.
It is possible to take issue with the positions or statements made by antiwar organizers without resorting to smears and accusations. This isn’t behavior that anyone in a civilized society should engage in, and certainly not anyone on the Left. It’s also the oldest, cheapest way to shut down debate and attack antiwar dissent, and as we’re already seeing, it directly feeds into right-wing efforts to train repressive state power on the Left, which will no doubt only ramp up in the years ahead.
It’s right to oppose the Chinese government’s repression of the Uyghurs. But doing so in a way that casts aspersions on entirely reasonable antiwar arguments, resorts to the kinds of smears and insinuations that are increasingly becoming a regular part of all US political debate, and enables the Trumpist right’s plans for a new Red Scare is wrong and self-destructive, for leftists most of all. The McCarthy era wasn’t good for anyone except the worst people in the world, and there’s no reason to think a second one will turn out any different. Let’s steer clear of it while we can.