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Viewers tuning in to last week’s carefully choreographed hearing of the US select committee on the Chinese Communist Party got a jolt when two protesters interrupted an almost unbroken stream of tough-on-Beijing rhetoric – a disruption all the more striking given recent bipartisan cooperation on China in Washington.

The highly anticipated evening event convened by the newly formed House panel, itself a reflection of alarm within the American government about China’s rise, was but one of about a dozen congressional hearings this year devoted wholly or in large part to the threat posed by Beijing.

Less than half an hour after committee chair Mike Gallagher framed the US struggle with China as “existential”, a woman dressed in pink held up a sign bearing the words “China is not our enemy”.

“I hate to interrupt,” she interjected as star witness and former US national security adviser Lieutenant General HR McMaster spoke. Most of her words were drowned out by McMaster’s remarks, but phrases like “we need cooperation, not competition” made it through to the prime-time audience.

Seconds after law enforcement ushered her out of the room, a man stood up holding a “Stop Asian hate” sign.

“This committee is about sabre-rattling,” the protester declared. “It’s not about peace. We need cooperation.”

As the second protester was led away, McMaster said the outbursts showed “the effect that the United Front Work Department has had”, referring to the Chinese Communist Party group responsible for liaising with non-party entities.

They signalled a “curriculum of self-loathing”, he stated, reinforcing “the idea that America is the problem in the world and only if America disengages, or in this case, becomes more passive, things will get better”.

The woman was later identified as Olivia DiNucci, an organiser with Code Pink, a women-led anti-war group that made its name advocating against the Iraq war. The man was identified by Code Pink as Hector M, a Washington DC resident and friend of DiNucci.

While Code Pink stands out for its confrontational methods, the group joins a small but growing list of actors publicly calling for increased dialogue between the US and China to reduce the risk of bilateral conflict.

Among their ranks is the Quincy Institute, a think tank founded in 2019 to “expose the dangerous consequences of an overly militarised American foreign policy”. Others include a group of senior American business and policy leaders convened last year by CV Starr & Co CEO Maurice Greenberg, as well as a “China and global business” platform launched last week by media company Semafor.

“The dynamic now that’s going on between both sides is very corrosive, and is really jeopardising the chance for continued stability and peace in Asia,” said Michael Swaine, a senior fellow at Quincy who spent almost two decades researching US-China relations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

And the costs of conflict are likely high, according to Jessica Chen Weiss, a political scientist at Cornell University who has joined high-profile media commentators like Fareed Zakaria in urging less inflammatory rhetoric towards China. At a recent Foreign Policy event, she argued that a conflict in Taiwan “would devastate the global economy and probably lead to the deaths of many on the island”.

These newer efforts to improve dialogue build on the long-standing work of organisations like the National Committee on US-China Relations, founded in 1966 to promote bilateral cooperation and understanding, which have seen their voices crowded out in recent years.

But what Code Pink really highlights is that frustration with the status quo – and recognition of the high cost of conflict – is going beyond seasoned China watchers to groups that have not previously focused on China.

And that there are those not afraid to be very loud about it.

The protesters got a final acknowledgement 90 minutes into the hearing, when committee member Ro Khanna, a California Democrat, said they had earned his respect despite his disagreement with their message.

“It takes guts to come into the halls of power with a dissenting view,” Khanna said.

“When we listen to dissent – when we listen to people who question the very existence of the committee – we show, by example, exactly what makes the United States of America different than the Chinese Communist Party,” he added.

It is not uncommon for protesters to disturb congressional hearings, though they risk not only ridicule but breaking local law. Both protesters were arrested, according to Code Pink co-founder Jodie Evans. DiNucci must appear before the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on March 23.

Evans, who co-founded the organisation in 2002, is an anti-war activist who worked on political campaigns for former California Governor Jerry Brown, a noted environmentalist, and former South Dakota Senator George McGovern, a fierce opponent of the Vietnam war.

“China is not our enemy” is one of three campaigns featured on Code Pink’s website, along with “Peace in Ukraine” and “War is not green”. For Evans, the overarching goal of all three is “creating conditions conducive to life”.

Evans started the China campaign about three years ago when she saw media coverage of the country increasingly frame it as an enemy, reminding her of narratives surrounding the Iraq War. She recalls thinking, “why is this happening? This smells, feels, tastes like war”.

A key moment for her was watching American news reports on Eileen Gu, a US-born freestyle skier who chose to compete for China in the 2022 Winter Olympics. Gu’s decision sparked a debate about nationality and allegiance in the lead-up to the games.

“Somebody is proud of their culture, and you’re going to beat them up?” Evans remarked.

“The messages of our [China] campaign are that we need cooperation for the planet and the people on it…and we have to stop Asian hate because that makes Asians around the world vulnerable”.

“It’s not about China, it’s about war,” she said.

The campaign, with staff and backers around the US, is ramping up hiring to “meet the madness” and combat the “manufactured common sense” in the halls of Congress, Evans said. Along with disrupting hearings, it conducts congressional advocacy, hosts educational sessions and builds community-based, grass-roots coalitions.

Code Pink’s congressional allies include those seeking diplomatic solutions to war. The organisation supports an ongoing effort led by Democratic congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, to call for greater diplomatic efforts – including direct talks with Russia – to end the war in Ukraine.

The disruption last Tuesday – the third China-themed event Code Pink has interrupted in recent months – has sparked an influx of new volunteers for the organisation, particularly Asian-Americans.

“Bipartisan consensus is why this country is in such bad shape,” Evans said. “We don’t need consensus. We need to fight. We need to understand the issues.”

Since 2018, China has increasingly drawn bipartisan alignment, fuelled by the rhetoric of then-president Donald Trump, according to Weiss, a former US State Department adviser. Though there are some signs of a changing rhetoric – like warnings by some Democrats that the select committee might be counterproductive – hawkishness remains the prevailing policy tone in Washington.

Weiss described the phenomenon as emanating from a “self-fulfilling escalatory spiral”: politicians speak harshly on China to avoid appearing weak to voters who demand a strong stance because of fear fuelled by the harsh rhetoric.

Framing a problem in terms of countering or competing with China discourages careful assessment of “the shape of the challenge and the costs and benefits of different policy responses,” she said. It also leads the other side to presume hostile intent, which can feed into miscalculation and deadlock, she added.

Weiss believed the costs of this rhetoric were not only potential, as in the case of conflict over Taiwan, but had already happened, such as tariffs that hurt American businesses and a loss of incoming talent from places like China.

Indirectly responding to McMaster’s portrayal of the protesters, she cautioned against a framework in which “anybody who wants to engage in the … rational, measured debate over China’s intentions and US policy responses is likely to be smeared or marginalised as somebody who is sympathetic to the [Chinese Communist Party].”

Code Pink, for its part, appears to be unafraid of misrepresentation by others.

Evans has repeated narratives often advanced by Beijing, including that China has succeeded in lifting millions out of poverty. She has also granted interviews to Chinese state media, who were the first media to reach out to Code Pink after the hearing.

Asked how she would respond to people who claim she is a Chinese government apologist, Evans called herself “a peace activist” not driven by fear and said “the [US] government is an apologist for so much violation”.

Swaine is unpersuaded by arguments that blame one side for the state of the US-China relationship, saying that they miss the “interactive dynamic of worst-casing and escalation”. He also cautioned against thinking that generic calls for peace could lead to concrete solutions, but noted the potential parallel between the miscalculation that triggered the Iraq war of 2003 and the current situation with China.

If the notion that China has given up on peaceful reunification with Taiwan takes hold within the US government, just as the Iraqi nuclear weapons belief did, then “you have a situation that becomes very dangerous”, he said. Swaine voiced particular concern about who might come into power after the Biden administration.

Meanwhile, voices like Code Pink could open up more room for dissenting views and broaden the policy landscape.

“The words ‘China is not our enemy’ [got] printed in The New York Times and The Washington Post,” Evans said. “That was a victory.”

This article was first published on SCMP