An ancient Chinese stratagem instructs military leaders: “Chen huo da jie,” or “loot a house when it’s on fire.” The tactic is simple and self-explanatory — strike when your enemy is most vulnerable. As America’s people and industries reel from the impact of a global pandemic, the United States must take immediate action to protect our economic interests from being looted by a uniquely opportunistic adversary.
Many U.S. companies have been substantially weakened in both market cap and revenue by the COVID-19 pandemic. With countless companies struggling to survive this crisis, the U.S. should institute a temporary but immediate and total ban on the sale of any U.S. company deemed “critical infrastructure,” whose value has been materially impacted by the pandemic, to a Chinese-owned or controlled entity.
Until the president certifies that the economy has fully recovered from the effects of COVID-19, this ban should remain in effect. This crisis necessitates action far beyond the existing review process of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.
China’s aggressive weaponization of its economy is no secret. Whether through currency manipulation or the withholding of critical materials, such as rare earth minerals, from the global supply chain, China has a reputation for using its economy in a targeted manner to further its ambitious global plans. Be it overtly or obliquely, through direct ownership or by de facto monopoly, China has encroached on or outright assaulted nearly every meaningful sector of the U.S. economy.
There is ample evidence of China’s exploitation and deception related to COVID-19. Credible reports are emerging that Beijing has taken donations of personal protective equipment and sold them to Italy and possibly other foreign countries. Further, the dubiously low official infection and death figures released by China are being juxtaposed with higher U.S. infection and death rates to enhance the narrative that China is the more competent nation and should therefore be regarded as the preeminent global leader.
But China’s infiltration and manipulation of the American economy and psyche began well before the COVID-19 crisis. From a national security perspective, Chinese companies have taken ownership of U.S. companies critical to the strategic supply chain, such as cutting-edge battery technologies and microelectronics. The U.S. is entirely dependent on China for segments of the supply of rare earth minerals, which are necessary for everything from cellphones to critical weapon systems. In 2013, a Chinese company purchased Smithfield Foods, simultaneously making the company the owner of both the largest pork producer globally and more than $500 million of American farmland.
Beyond industries like defense and agriculture that form America’s economic and national security backbone, China has opened new fronts to project soft power as well. The Chinese conglomerate Tencent began a 2015 push, as Tencent Pictures, into Hollywood with significant investments in major U.S. films, including quintessentially American films, such as “Wonder Woman” and “Top Gun: Maverick.” The Cold War era was rife with films juxtaposing an American hero and a Soviet enemy. With Chinese investment in the U.S. film industry and the growing importance of the Chinese market for these films, it’s no coincidence there is a dearth of communist Chinese government villains in today’s entertainment market.
In 2004, China launched the Confucius Institute program, with the stated goal of promoting Chinese culture and language overseas. With mounting concerns about the spread of Chinese Communist Party propaganda through these institutes, as well as fears of possible espionage originating from them, universities across the world began canceling their affiliations. To date, more than two dozen U.S. universities have cut ties with these programs.
While America seeks to recover from the economic impacts of this pandemic, Congress and the administration must take swift action to ensure China is not afforded any opportunity to enhance its economic foothold in the U.S.
As distressed companies desperately look for funding and investment, the U.S. needs to send a message that financial exploitation by China will not be tolerated, especially if it involves companies working in industries critical to national security and our broader industrial base.
As part of this infiltration of our business community, defense enterprise and culture, China will likely hire an army of lobbyists and lawyers to oppose this proposal. This, too, should be prohibited for the length of the economic crisis in the U.S.
For millennia, Chinese dynasties have employed the tactic of looting a burning house as they vanquished enemies all around them. America must act before we become China’s latest victim.
Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Jeffery A. Green is the president of J. A. Green & Company. He previously served as a staff director and counsel for the House Armed Services Committee.