Understanding Legislative Trends: The 117th U.S. Congress on U.S.-China Relations

The 117th Congress of the United States (2021–2022) ended on January 3, 2023. Unusual occurrences like the Capitol Hill attack on January 6, President Donald Trump’s second impeachment, and the passage of significant pieces of legislation like the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 reflect the character of this Congress and provide context for understanding China-related legislation.

The legislative activism involving China that started during the Trump years continued with the 117th Congressional session; attempts to decouple the relationship between the top two world economies accelerated and more China-related bills and resolutions were proposed and passed. This analysis will assess the impact of the 117th Congress on U.S.-China relations. I argue that Congressional hawks have successfully turned the tides, contributing greatly to the new direction of bilateral relations. Domestic politics and unforeseen events such as the COVID-19 pandemic played a significant role in the rapid deterioration of U.S.-China relations. Thus, the relevant questions are: Is the Democratic-controlled Congress and White House steering the bilateral relationship in a new direction, given the strong pressure from Republican legislators to push for decoupling? In Congress, who are the key figures of the political opposition to China? How did the China hawks in Congress and the administration shape laws and policy toward China?

The Tide Has Turned

Without question, congressional activism against China has grown in recent years.[1] Anti-China sentiments documented by a recent study show that China is by far the top country featured in “foreign affairs” Tweets by members of Congress on social media. Starting in 2018, both Democrats and Republicans were equally negative on China. In 2019 and 2020, there were as many tweets about China as the next two most-tweeted about countries, Mexico and Russia, combined. Republican legislators were at the forefront of the negative sentiment; a quarter (25%) of Republicans’ “foreign affairs” tweets concerned China, while the corresponding number was only 7.2% for Democrats. While important, trade issues were the second-most common, whereas the majority of tweets were about security and human rights. While the Republicans highlighted security, the Democrats focused on domestic issues. Both, however, emphasized human rights.

The new Washington consensus to halt engagement with China in favor of opposing Beijing has continued. By way of background, the current antagonistic approach toward Beijing originated during the Obama era. Alarmed by a more assertive China, President Obama pursued his “Pivot to Asia” strategy. In response, Congress moved away from its traditional “episodic and reactive” involvement in U.S.-China policy and adopted a more comprehensive and bipartisan approach toward China. This new consensus continued in the 116th and 117th Congresses.

Several events subsequently accelerated the policy reformulation process in Washington. These include:

  • China’s rapid rise as a major economic powerhouse, including its ambitious “Made in China 2025” plan to make China dominant in global high-tech manufacturing.
  • The discovery of what Beijing calls “Uyghur Vocation and Training Centers” in Xinjiang.
  • The political turmoil in Hong Kong in 2019 and the passage of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (often referred to as the Hong Kong National Security Law).
  • The COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan at the end of 2019.

These developments led to a sense of crisis among many Washington politicians and think tanks. A wave of anti-China legislative activities soon emerged in the 116th Congress.  

Another major trigger of the mood change on Capitol Hill has been China’s increased confidence and proactiveness on the world stage. Under President Xi Jinping’s leadership, China has pushed for a more assertive posture in foreign policy, including the Belt and Road Initiative, the New Asian Development Bank, and the construction of several large military bases in the South China Sea. Furthermore, domestically, Xi’s anti-liberal crackdown and strengthening of the Party and State control since 2012 have put him at odds with many Chinese elites as well as Western pro-liberal politicians.

On April 17, 2020, the National Republican Senatorial Committee distributed a 57-page memo to the GOP’s political candidates to address the coronavirus crisis by aggressively attacking China. “The Corona Big Book,” as it was called, asserted that “China caused this pandemic by covering it up, lying, and hoarding the world’s supply of medical equipment” and that “China is not an ally, and they are not just a rival – they are an adversary, and the Chinese Communist Party is our enemy.” The House of Representatives formed a new China Task Force (CFT), which consisted of 15 Republican members and no Democrats. The taskforce characterized China and the Chinese Communist Party as the “greatest national and economic security challenge of this generation” in its final report published in September 2020.

Meanwhile, the Trump Administration published its Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China. It characterized China as an “existential threat” to U.S. national security and proposed an all-of-government approach to compete with China. By doing so, it rejected both engagement and containment strategies adopted by previous U.S. governments and adopted a more confrontational and hostile policy toward China. Combined with the leadership of President Donald Trump, this confrontational approach led to a major shift on Capitol Hill about U.S.-China relations.

The “Deluge of Rain” Continues

Longtime China analyst Scott Kennedy noted that, since the 116th Congress, the branch has reasserted its influence on U.S.-China policy. Kennedy anticipated the 117th Congress would bring “a deluge of rain.” The victory of Joe Biden over Donald Trump as the new president and a Democratic-controlled Congress in the 2020 election did not change the overall direction of U.S. policy toward China. In October 2022, the Biden Administration published its National Security Strategy which maintained the Trump administration’s tough stance toward China but sought to establish a safety net to stop the rivalry between the two countries from escalating into a direct conflict.

The new approach is based on investing in the United States to fortify it economically to compete with China, while also pursuing cooperation with China on international issues, such as climate change and environmental protection. The approach also includes fostering closer ties with allies and democracies to counterbalance China’s global influence. The three-pronged approach to China policy under the Biden administration has replaced the previous administrations’ conventional engagement and containment policy. 

Congressional Action on China

According to data from Congress.gov, ore China-related bills were introduced in the 117th Congress than ever before. Of the 15,066 bills introduced in total, 681 were China-related, making them 4.5% of the total and 30% more than the previous Congress (n=476). Proposed House and Senate resolutions also saw a 12% increase compared with the previous session. (Chart 1)

Chart 1: The Number of China-Related Bills Introduced in Congress

Republican lawmakers remain at the forefront of the campaign against China. They supported 441 bills on China, compared to 239 supported by the Democrats. This number reflects a 37% and 14% (n=183) increase respectively, compared to the previous session. Only 97 of these pieces of legislation have gone through any committee review and 82 of these received committee consideration in the 116th Congress. However, during the 117th Congress, there were 108, a 24% increase, and only 14 of these bills or combined ones became law in the 117th Congress, a slight decrease from the previous session (n=16) (Chart 2). The number of bills dealing with Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong also dramatically increased (Chart 3).

Chart 2: Bills Related to China Become Law
Chart 3: Bills Related to Tibet, Taiwan, and Xinjiang

On the domestic front, Congress worked harder in 2022 to protect the American semiconductor industry from China’s growing competition. Congress enacted the CHIPS and Science Act in July 2022 (P.L. 117–167). For chips made in the U.S., the bill provides $52 billion of federal funds for subsidies and research support. Further, the Act bans selling advanced computer chips to China, which significantly escalates the trade war and economic competition.

As in any session of Congress, most bills introduced by members have little chance of becoming law. However, they are proposed anyway to allow members to promote certain issues and raise their profiles, pleasing certain constituents, such as interest groups, lobbyists, donors, or voters.[1] The focus of these bills is comparable to historical ones, including trade, human rights, export quotas, Tibet, and Hong Kong. Some challenges, however, such as energy, education, health, and investment, were new concerns to Congress in 2022 (Table 1).

Subject % of Changes Number of Bills Examples
U.S.-China Relations
Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, Taiwan Policy Act of 2022, Countering Communist China Act, Combating the Persecution of Christians in China Act
Military and National Security
No PLA Loopholes Act, Taiwan Partnership Act
Foreign Trade and International Finance
China Trade Relations Act of 2022, Fair Trade with China Foreign Act, Exposing China’s Belt and Road Investment in America Act of 2021, China Oil Export Prohibition Act of 2022
Stopping Chinese Communist Involvement in the Power Grid Act, Preventing Investment in the Chinese Solar Economy Act
Protecting our Pharmaceutical Supply Chain from China Act of 2021, No Taxpayer Dollars for Communist China COVID Tests Act
Preventing SBA Assistance from Going to China Act, TELL Act (involving storage of data in China)
DHS Restrictions on Confucius Institutes and Chinese Entities of Concern Act, Transparency for Confucius Institutes Act, CONFUCIUS Act
Finance and Financial Sectors
Countering Corporate Corruption in China Act of 2022, American Financial Markets Integrity and Security Act
Science, Technology, Communication
Chinese Research Funds Accounting Act, United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021

Table 1: Subjects of the Proposed Bills Related to China (117th Congress).

However, the failure of Congress to enact a particular law does not preclude the introduction of the same or a similar bill during a subsequent Congressional session. Many laws already passed have a history of being repeatedly introduced during each Congress. For example, the Senator Chuck Schumer-sponsored Endless Frontier Act of 2020 was updated and reintroduced in the 117th Congress under a new name, the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, though it did not make it out of committee in the 116th Congress.

In recent years, Congress has increasingly used expedited or “fast-track” legislation procedures to get laws passed quickly by preventing delays or long debates. The use of the “unanimous consent” procedure is one type of fast-track process. Surprisingly, many of the key China bills were adopted in this way. For example, the China bills that passed invoking “unanimous consent” include H.R. 3919 Secure Equipment Act of 2021 (P.L. 117–55) and H.R.1145 ‘To Direct the Secretary of State to Develop a Strategy to Regain Observer Status for Taiwan in the World Health Organization, and for Other Purposes’.

In contrast, a typical legislative deliberative process involves a formal procedure of motion, debate, and vote, which can be very time-consuming and cannot guarantee its passage. “Unanimous consent” has historically been used to expedite the consideration of uncontroversial motions or bills. For “unanimous consent” to occur does not necessarily mean that a unanimous vote happened, or every member of the House or Senate would have voted in favor of the proposal. It only means that members who think it would be fruitless to oppose instead choose to acquiesce. A simple requirement for unanimous approval is that no representative of those in attendance must have asked to take a recorded vote or to have the quorum verified.

Another example of an unusual application of unanimous consent was when Senator Marco Rubio in the 116th Congress introduced S. 3471 Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. It died in the Senate at the end of that session of Congress. However, he reintroduced the same Act again on January 27, 2021, and it passed the Senate on July 14, 2021, by “unanimous consent.” House member James McGovern reconciled the Senate bill with the bill (H.R. 1155) passed by the House on December 8, 2021, and introduced H.R. 6256 on December 14, 2021, in the House, which passed by a voice vote. This final bill passed the Senate without amendment by “unanimous consent” on December 16. President Biden signed it into law on December 23. It only took 10 days for Congress to adopt this piece of consolidated legislation. The impact of this bill has significantly damaged the Chinese economy since cotton produced from Xinjiang is no longer allowed to enter the American market.

The Age of China Hawks

According to Congressman Rick Larsen [D-WA], co-chair of the bipartisan U.S.-China Working Group (USCWG), “There are national security hawks on China, trade hawks on China, and human rights hawks on China. So long as they did not talk to each other, they did not realize they all hated China.” These hawkish lawmakers advocate for a tougher U.S. policy toward China, including increased sanctions, tariffs, and military deployments.

These three groups have now come together in recent years and developed a different consensus in Congress, thereby shifting its center of gravity. Congressional China hawks are allied with China hawks inside the Biden administration’s National Security Council, which include Jake Sullivan, the Biden administration’s National Security Advisor, Rush Doshi, author of The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order, Julian Gewirtz, author of Never Turn Back: China and the Forbidden History of the 1980s, Tarun Chhabra, the Senior Director for Technology and National Security, and Jen Harris, the Senior Director for International Economics and Labor. According to Bonnie Glaser, a well-known China analyst,  the U.S. has entered the age of the China hawks, and it is here to stay. Table 2 lists top congressional China hawks and the number of bills they introduced dealing with China-related issues.

Notably, Republican sponsors continue to outnumber Democratic sponsors. The top five House and Senate sponsors in the 116th and 117th Congress look similar. Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Josh Hawley of Missouri were known as China hawks long before coronavirus was first identified in the United States. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina; Marsha Blackburn, a Republican Senator from Tennessee; Rick Scott, a Republican senator from Florida; Ed Markey, a senator from solidly Democratic Massachusetts, are other China hawks in the Senate. Democratic Senator Mark Warner used a speech last year to warn that the U.S. faces a modern-day “Sputnik moment.”

Table 2: Top Sponsors of China-Related Bills. Source: Congress.gov. Data was collected on February 12, 2023. ACU Ratings are compiled annually by the Center for Legislative Accountability, American Conservative Union Foundation. The data are from its 49th (2020) and 50th editions (2021).

Congressional China hawks see President Biden’s public statement to defend Taiwan as a positive sign since it abandoned the long-held U.S. posture of strategic ambiguity. They now consider Biden an ally in their aggressive push for the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022, which would overhaul the U.S. relationship with Taiwan. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan on August 2, 2022, stirred up tension again across the Taiwan Strait. More Representatives and Senators followed Pelosi’s visit as a show of defiance of Beijing’s toughening of its position on Taiwan. These included a five-member delegation led by Senator Ed Markey on August 15, 2022, and an eight-member delegation led by Florida Democrat Stephanie Murphy in September 2022.

A Profile of Lawmakers Who Are Hawkish on China

A closer examination of the congressional hawks’ political and biographical profiles reveals some intriguing results. Members with military backgrounds, Cuban heritage, or Catholic or Evangelical religious backgrounds are more likely to take a harsh line on China. First, many China hawks have backgrounds in the military or intelligence. Republican congressman Mike Gallagher earned a master’s degree from National Intelligence University and worked as an intelligence officer for the United States Marine Corps for seven years (2006–2013). Republican congressman Jim Banks was deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S. Navy Reserves. Republican Senator Tom Cotton served as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army for almost five years. Rick Scott enlisted in the Navy and worked as a radar operator on the USS Glover while on active duty.

Second, several of the congressional China hawks’ families are of Cuban heritage, including Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Robert Menendez . Numerous Cuban immigrants have a strong aversion to communism because of their family background. One commentator noted, “[s]preading fears of communism, terrorism, socialism, and every other evil under the sun comes far too easy for Cuban political extremists.” Demonizing China may have been influenced by this anti-communist culture among Cuban Americans. Since the 1960s, Cuban exiles have become a pivotal anti-communist force in Congress. In fact, since 1976, four of the five Hispanics elected to the U.S. Senate have been Cuban Americans. Notable examples are Menendez, who is the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rubio, who was the Chair and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a member of Foreign Relations Committee and the subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy.

Thirdly, members with Catholic and Evangelical backgrounds appear also more likely to be hawkish on China because of issues related to abortion or human rights. For example, Christopher Smith and James McGovern are the two long-term Catholic China hawks in the House. Rubio, Menendez, Edward Markey, and James Risch are all Catholic Senators. Top sponsors of China-related Bills Rick Scott and Josh Hawley are both Evangelical.  

Finally, most of the China-related legislation is sponsored by prominent ultra-conservative House members and Senators. For example, as seen in Table 2, Rubio had a lifetime conservative rating of 87.9% by the American Conservative Union; Scott, 90%; Cruz, 97%; Risch, 91%; and Cotton, 86%. 

Stacking the Decks Against China

Due to their scope of legislative work, most U.S. legislators are not deeply informed on China-related issues. Their sources of information are heavily informed by U.S. media, information briefings from the Congressional Research Services, and the various annual reports submitted to Congress. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Office of the Secrecy to the President, and the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) submit five annual reports to Congress that have a significant impact on congressional policy initiatives on China.

As several congressional China hawks serve as CECC chairs, co-chairs, or members, they significantly influenced how hearings were held, what topics were covered, and what annual reports were produced. They can influence what other legislators know about China and which laws are to be given precedence. For instance, Cruz, Cotton, Rubio, and Christopher Smith were all CECC members in the past or present and thus, actively involved in researching various aspects of allegations involving China. In 2022, nine CECC hearings were held. The majority of the hearings had a highly critical tone; “The Dismantling of Hong Kong’s Civil Society,” “Tibet: Barriers to Settling an Unresolved Conflict,” and “Control of Religion in China through Digital Authoritarianism,” were among the topics covered in the hearings.

While their personal stories may be accurate, no opposing arguments, opposing viewpoints, or dissenting voices were presented throughout the hearings. In typical congressional hearings, proponents and opponents are invited, and legislators hear from both sides. In contrast, the Commission’s China-related hearings tended to confirm legislative prejudice and biases. For instance, the CECC pushed for two years for the passage Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (H.R. 6210/S. 3471), creating a “rebuttable presumption” requiring companies to prove that goods imported from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are not made with forced labor, after holding Xinjiang-related hearings in 2019 and 2021.


When recent congressional operations are thoroughly reviewed, Congress’ active role in reshaping the direction of U.S.-China relations is evident. The 117th Congress passed several significant pieces of legislation that will profoundly affect two-way ties. The fast-tracking of legislation, particularly in the form of the “unanimous consent” process, prevents Congress from having meaningful and substantial policy discussions. If anything, legislators were not guided by knowledge, logic, or true statesmanship, but instead by passion and politics. The shooting down of the alleged “Chinese spy balloon” in February 2023, and the newly elected Republican-controlled House of Representatives will push Congress and the American public to take an even tougher line towards China. This turn of events makes it even more important to set some “guardrails,” the word coined by President Biden, to prevent the bilateral relationship from moving toward a dangerous free fall.