NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE S ince the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, former U.S. ambassador to China Max Baucus has given a series of interviews to Chinese state media outlets in which he criticized the American response to the crisis in a rather provocative manner. Notably, he cast the Trump administration’s insistence on assigning blame to Beijing for the coronavirus pandemic as the rhetorical equivalent of Nazism in the 1930s and the “Red Scare” of the 1950s.
Baucus, a Democrat who also served as a U.S. senator from Montana from 1978 to 2014, first compared Trump’s attacks on Beijing to the rhetoric used by Joseph McCarthy and Adolf Hitler in a May 6 appearance on CNN. Subsequently, he became very popular with Beijing’s propagandists and has since repeated the accusation in at least four interviews with Chinese state media.
“Joe McCarthy [and] Adolf Hitler were making statements based on nationalism . . . riling people up, making people believe things that were really not true,” Baucus told the state mouthpiece Chinese Global Television Network on May 12, initially reported by the Washington Free Beacon. “The White House and some in Congress are making statements against China that are so over the top and so hypercritical, they are based not on the fact, or if they are based on fact, sheer demagoguery, and that’s what McCarthy did in the 1950s.”
The U.S. is entering “a kind of an era which is similar to Joe McCarthy” and “a little bit like Hitler in the ’30s,” Baucus told China’s state run Global Times from his home in Montana a few days earlier. “Today, people kind of like to see China get criticized, which is unfortunate, because I think, basically, the American people like the Chinese people, just like Chinese people . . . like American people.”
The media appearances raise the question of why an American citizen with a long and distinguished career in government has gotten cozy with Chinese propagandists. An answer is hinted at in a 2013 comment by Russ Sullivan, a former Democratic staff director for the Senate Finance Committee that Baucus chaired, who at that time told the Wall Street Journal that the senator held a kind of fascination with the country.
“There were times when I said, Senator, I know you love China, but we need to allocate appropriate time vis-à-vis the time you spend on China and trade issues versus what you spend on [other issues],” Sullivan said, adding that Baucus did not heed his advice. Sullivan said that Baucus’s interest in China was noted in other quarters: “If you were in the multinational business community interested in China, you knew Max Baucus was going over there.”
In the wake of his long political career, Baucus has parlayed his familiarity with China into number of lucrative business roles. According to Baucus’s biography on the website of the University of Montana’s Max Baucus Institute, the former senator sat on the Board of Advisers to Alibaba Group until May 2019. He currently runs a consulting firm, Baucus Group LLC, which advises American and Chinese businesses. (The firm does not appear to have a website or readily available contact information.) The former ambassador also currently sits on the Board of Directors of Ingram Micro, an information technology company based in Irvine, Calif., that in 2016 was acquired by Chinese conglomerate HNA Group. Amid financial woes in 2018, HNA director and founder Chen Feng said the company would “consciously safeguard the Communist Party’s central authority with General Secretary Xi Jinping as the core” and “unswervingly follow the party.” The conglomerate has been completely taken over by the Chinese government during the coronavirus pandemic.
Baucus has managed to keep one foot in government: until July 2019, he served on the External Advisory Board to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Baucus’s sympathy for Beijing surfaced often during his political career. In the mid 1990s, he was among the leading Democratic supporters of increased trade with China, and he advocated delinking the issues of human rights and trade in American policy on China. At the time, the U.S. gave most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status to China, meaning it considered China one of its top trading partners, but Washington annually threatened to revoke the designation because of the Chinese government’s human-rights abuses. Baucus argued that revoking MFN status for China would be counterproductive, because tariffs on Chinese goods would immediately rise and trade with the country would be curtailed.
“Perhaps even more troubling are the implications of revoking M.F.N. for reform in China,” Baucus told the New York Times in January 1994. “Nothing can set freedom back farther than revoking M.F.N.” The Montana senator argued for targeted pressure on specific high-profile contracts and businesses to push China toward human-rights reforms, instead of threatening to change the status of the U.S.–China economic relationship.
Baucus continued to push for delinking the issues of human rights and trade, a position that was increasingly espoused by U.S. government officials. In 2000, then-president Bill Clinton hailed passage of a bill in the House to normalize trade relations with China. “Our administration has negotiated an agreement which will open China’s markets to American products made on American soil,” Clinton said at the time. “By this agreement, we will also export more of one of our most cherished values, economic freedom.”
Baucus helped facilitate China’s introduction into the World Trade Organization, which was finalized on December 11, 2001. At a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee on June 6, 2002, Baucus expressed hope, tempered with some skepticism, that China’s entrance into the WTO would spur “greater opportunities” for U.S. businesses as well as the reform of governance inside China.
“[One] reason WTO accession is so important to the United States involves the potential broader impact of the reforms China must undergo,” Baucus wrote in his opening statement. Reforms implemented to bring China into compliance with WTO regulations “should contribute to the development of a more open, market-oriented society in which not only are the people bound by the laws and regulations, but so will be the government.”
In late 2013, President Obama nominated Baucus to the post of U.S. ambassador to China. This was after Baucus had strongly criticized the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, of which the Montana senator was the “chief architect,” according to his Chamber of Commerce biography; there was speculation at the time that the appointment was made partly to stymie the senator’s criticisms.
During his confirmation hearing in January 2014, Baucus told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “I’m no real expert on China.” Eventually confirmed as ambassador despite his stated lack of expertise, Baucus took up the post at a sensitive moment in U.S.–China relations. Human-rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who had attempted to prosecute state officials for implementing a policy of forced abortions, escaped house arrest by fleeing to the U.S. Embassy in 2012, and was eventually granted asylum in the U.S. along with his family. Baucus continued to highlight human-rights concerns during his tenure as ambassador.
Speaking of his time as ambassador in early 2017 after President Trump replaced him, Baucus called Trump’s decision to speak with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, and willingness to publicly question the One-China policy, “a major blunder, huge mistake.” (China views Taiwan as an inseparable part of its territory, while Taiwan guards its status as an independent nation.)
Trump “has forgotten diplomacy is a lot more complicated than that,” Baucus told the Washington Post. “He’s forgotten Taiwan and one-China is nonnegotiable. . . . Tibet is not negotiable to China. But we have to ask ourselves: ‘What are our bottom lines?’” The former ambassador also offered criticism of the Obama administration for being “weak” and lacking strategic vision with respect to China, warning that the “authoritarian” country was “going to test us.”
These statements reveal an underlying tension in Baucus’s comprehension of U.S.–China relations. On one hand, the ambassador was not ignorant of China’s human-rights abuses and believed that the Obama administration did not condemn them strongly enough. On the other, Baucus accepted as “nonnegotiable” policies that to this day underpin China’s authoritarian nature (on “One China” and Tibet). He called for more pressure on China but consistently sought to keep the overall U.S.–China trade relationship intact. Thus, Baucus implicitly rejected using one of the strongest sources of leverage available to the U.S.
It was the Trump administration that rebelled against the premises of the U.S.–China trade relationship. By 2018, the U.S. was running a $378.6 billion trade deficit with China, and in 2019 both countries began imposing extensive tariffs on imports from the other in an escalating trade war. In the middle of these developments, Baucus opined that the Chinese could become even stronger than the U.S.
“The Chinese are so tough, they can withstand more pain, in my judgement, than can Americans,” Baucus told CNBC’s Squawk Box. “The Chinese respect strength more than any other people. . . . I think they can smell weakness better than any other people.”
The U.S. is currently grappling with the fallout of the two-decade outsourcing of business and manufacturing to China. It is undeniable that these policies have resulted in an economic windfall for certain American businesses. However, the idea that the introduction of American business practices would simultaneously “export” American values to China has been dashed. As the National Basketball Association discovered in fall 2019, when you play in China, you play by Chinese rules.
With the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, American voter sentiment has turned sharply against China. Both Republicans and Democrats have questioned why supply chains of essential goods, especially medical equipment needed to fight the coronavirus, remain anchored in China. Senator Josh Hawley (R., Mo.), who has established himself as one of the foremost skeptics of the global-trade regime’s status quo, has even called to disband the World Trade Organization that Baucus and countless U.S. officials helped China to join.
In light of these developments, it is possible that Max Baucus believes that he can play a role in diffusing U.S.–China tensions. But if so, comparing Trump to Hitler, or to McCarthy, is an odd way of going about it: Baucus is feeding Chinese state propaganda outlets exactly what they want to hear.
The former ambassador did not respond to National Review’s request for comment.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article stated that Max Baucus currently sits on both the Board of Advisors to Alibaba and the External Advisory Board of the CIA. After publication, the former ambassador’s biography was updated to state that Baucus ended his tenure with Alibaba in May 2019 and with the external board of the CIA in July 2019.