One of the leading China hawks in the U.S. Senate is Republican Rick Scott of Florida. For a book I am writing on U.S.-China policy, I sat down with Scott for a wide-ranging discussion on the issue.
We talked about the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ambitions, partisanship on China and its effects on policy, the competition between our two nations for technological dominance, Wall Street’s cozy relationship with the CCP, and a host of other topics. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our June 17, 2020 conversation.
Ben Weingarten: What in your view does the Chinese Communist Party ultimately seek to achieve? And if it were to achieve it, what would that mean for the lives of Americans?
Sen. Rick Scott: The Communist Party of China is in for world domination…And so it’ll be a pretty dark world…I don’t believe it’ll happen…If we do our job…
[But if China dominates,] my kids and my grandkids will not live in a world where there’s a lot of personal freedom…They [the CCP] want to build a military to dominate us and dominate the world. They don’t believe in anybody’s individual rights. You can see what they’re doing in Hong Kong right now. You can look at how they run the country. Look at their threats against Taiwan. And they’re bullies. They’re thugs…
Because Australia says they want an investigation of the origin of the virus, there’s a guy that just got given a death sentence for having drugs in China. There’s unbelievable tariffs on Australian beef and on Australian barley. You’re not gonna have personal freedoms, personal liberty for your religion…So everything we believe in…how this country was built and developed is the opposite of what’s going on with the Communist Party of China.
Weingarten: Since you referenced the coronavirus, let me go narrow with a question and then go back to some broader ones. There’s obviously great outrage at what has transpired, and…the polling indicates something like nine out of 10 Americans basically view China as an adversary. So this presents a unique opportunity where the public is really awake to the threat.
Do you believe there will be an effort to hold China accountable with real teeth, or do you assume that as public sentiment sort of abates, as we get months and months from the throes of the pandemic, that Washington will back off?
Scott: It depends on who gets elected. Probably, it’s the choice between Trump and Biden. Biden clearly is an apologist for China. You look at the Democrats right now, they’re not aggressively going after China.
I had a bill last week that I got all the Republicans to sign off on, and I was gonna get it passed by unanimous consent, and it was very simple. We know from U.S. intelligence and British intelligence agencies that Communist China wants to sabotage or delay our vaccine. So I had a bill that says if a Chinese student is gonna come over here and work on vaccine development, we’re gonna…require a vetting of that student ahead of time. Pretty simple. And the Democrats fought this, because…they’re apologists for China. So, it depends on who gets elected.
I just think that where we are right now is…the public has come to the conclusion that China is our adversary. So the biggest thing we can do right now, we have to pass a law: Stop buying anything from Communist China. Nothing. Don’t buy any products from them.
Now, it will require the Walmarts, the Amazons, the Targets to start telling us where things are made, but if they do, it’s gonna have a devastating impact on the Chinese economy. And they are taking the profits they make off of selling us goods and using it to, one, control their own citizens, and two, build a military to try to dominate us.
Weingarten: You sort of preempted my next question, which is, given China’s influence over U.S. corporations, academic institutions, media companies, what can be done legislatively to unwind this integrated relationship that gives China such enormous influence and leverage over…our country?
Scott: Well, first off, every person in this country, whether you run a company or you’re just simply buying products, every company…everybody has to say, “Let’s act in Americans’ best interest rather than the best interest of the Communist Party of China.” And so I’ve got a bill that would say that you have to disclose where products are made. So Amazon…will have to start telling people where stuff’s made. I think it’s pretty simple. And Amazon ought to do that voluntarily, but if it takes legislation, it takes legislation.
We’ve gotta build up our own things that we’re gonna need for the next pandemic. So whether that’s pharmaceuticals, or whether that’s PPE [personal protective equipment], whether that’s ventilators, we gotta build it with American companies with the ability to ramp up.
I think these things are pretty basic. We shouldn’t allow people to come here and infiltrate our universities and our research institutions. And so let’s start with the COVID-19 vaccine research. …I’m optimistic all these things are gonna happen. But in reality, it doesn’t take any legislation. It takes people to act in the best interest of other Americans. Understand that if you care about your family, and you care about your grandkids, and your kids, and your neighborhood, and your friends, then buy American products and don’t buy anything from Communist China.
Weingarten: How do we ultimately triumph in the realm of 5G telecommunications technology, and more broadly, given China’s state-backed efforts to dominate every major technological fields—including lying, cheating, stealing and operating on a completely un-economic basis—how does our relatively free market approach ultimately succeed?
Scott: I think the free market approach allows the best talent to win. Now, government can tip the scale on that, and that’s what China’s trying to do. And so in that case, we gotta be honest with ourselves and we have to say, whether it’s Chinese drones, or whether it’s Huawei, whether it’s ZTE, in this country, we’re not gonna do business with them, and by the way, we are to use our influence. And a lot of it…
All you need to do is explain to people the risk. If you explain to Great Britain the risk of the privacy of their citizens and their government, and then they’ll make a logical decision with Huawei, and I believe other countries will too, and the more countries that do it, it gets easier. And so Australia clearly is there, Great Britain’s heading there, the U.S. is heading there, or is there. So I think other countries will do it as we stand and we educate.
I don’t think we have to be the bully. All we have to do is tell people, “Hey, hey look, here are the rules. You want us to share intelligence with you? We can’t share intelligence with you if we know that we’re sharing it with Communist China.” They’re not our friend… Xi has elected to be our adversary. The choice the Communist Party of China has made, they have elected to be our adversary.
Weingarten: I wanna jump back briefly to one of the industries that I would argue, and I think it’s objectively true, that Wall Street has probably lobbied as hard as any industry in favor of the chosen Chinese Communist Party position, and obviously there’s both legislation and then executive action as well right now, which implicates potentially the mass de-registration of Chinese equities from U.S. capital markets. Do you believe that Wall Street will ultimately come on board, or is it too strong a lobby to overcome?
Scott: They’re gonna come on board for this reason: It’s logical. We know that you cannot do your due diligence on a Chinese company. It’s impossible to do it. And also, you know that if you buy a Chinese security…and they lie to you, then you have no recourse….You can’t go to China and get any laws enforced, and so ultimately because we’re on the right side and we have a capital market that understands that you have to have disclosure and you have to have enforcement…
And then I think we’re gonna decouple ourselves from the way Communist China companies do business. They’re not transparent. They have an easy ability to lie. And when you catch them, there’s nothing you can do about it.
…I’ve been working…with the SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission] to make sure they’re public about what the risks are, and I’ve been talking to Wall Street, and I think it’s an indefensible position to raise money for Chinese companies, and it’s an indefensible position to have them as part of pension plans in this country. I think it’s indefensible for them to be on our stock exchanges because you don’t know what you’re buying, and that’s not the way our security laws are set up. Our securities laws are premised on the fact that there’s good public disclosure, and there’s enforcement opportunity.
Weingarten: What’s your assessment of China’s economic strength versus that of America?
Scott: Well, I’ve always believed that centralized planning doesn’t work. I grew up competing against Soviet Russia, and we know it didn’t work there. I believe long-term it won’t work in China. If you look at the policies…individual freedom, you get the best ideas, you get the best talent, and that’s what America stands for…
In countries where you don’t have the same opportunities, you don’t have the same innovation, you don’t have the same creativity, you don’t have the same passion, you don’t have the same nationalism. So I believe that freedom wins, I believe this country ultimately wins.
I think it’s gonna be a very difficult time because we have allowed Communist China to take advantage of us for decades. We’ve elected people that have been apologists for Communist China. We have people that have allowed them to take advantage of our citizens, take our jobs, take our companies…
We put money in the NIH [National Institutes of Health], and money goes back to China there. When I came in, we were paying…to teach people in China English. For what purpose? Nobody could explain to me…Communist China…really, in so many areas, took advantage of this country, and we just sat there and said, “Okay.”
Weingarten: What’s your assessment of China’s military might and intelligence capabilities versus those of America?
Scott: …I think we have to understand that we’ve given them unbelievable access to our technologies. They’ve been able to steal our relationships which they have taken advantage of. And so now they’re amassing a military that…their goal is to be able to defeat us.
Now my belief is that in America—[saying this as] someone who was in the U.S. Navy—we care about our country, we care about the freedoms. When you fight for Communist China, you’re clearly not fighting for individual freedoms, and so it’s a totally different military service there. And I believe that we’ll always be able to prevail.
But we have to take…into consideration because of our actions over the last 60 years, we have a lot of catching up to do. And we’ve given them a head start on being able to compete against us. And so it’s gonna take ingenuity, its gonna take creativity, it’s gonna take a dollar commitment to be able to put ourselves in a position that they can’t take away our freedoms.
And they’re clearly now threatening Taiwan that they will take away their freedoms. They’re doing it right now in Hong Kong. So…But, do I believe in America? Yeah, I believe America will prevail. But we’ve got our work cut out for us.
Weingarten: And since you mentioned Taiwan, two questions related to that. First, how do you make the case to the American people that it ought to be a clear objective to defend Taiwan, given how war-weary the country is generally? And two, do you believe that there’s an appetite in Washington to break the One China Policy and recognize Taiwan?
Scott: …Here’s what’s great about Taiwan and here’s what’s great about Israel, two great allies, two allies that need our financial support, need access to our military might, but are willing to defend themselves. They’re willing to go to war on their own. They’re not sitting there, saying, “Oh, why don’t you have troops here and defend us?”
Those two countries are great allies. And they are clearly committed to defending their freedoms on their own. They just need American support, and most of it is our military equipment.
Weingarten: Relatedly, on the military question, the Trump administration put out a study on the manufacturing and defense industrial base, which showed that there were hundreds of gaps, vulnerabilities in supply chains that directly impact American life and limb. Is Congress doing anything to ensure that we fill these gaps?
Scott: Yeah, the first step of everything is to acknowledge you have a problem. And so, we now know that we have been taken advantage of. So I think the first step is acknowledge that; and now what we’re expecting, now, with our defense budget, is the companies that we do business with, as we rebuild our military, they’re gonna be building American supply chains, or supply chains that are clearly controlled by democracies that are our allies around the world.
Weingarten: You’ve alluded to apologists, and I think it’s probably been on a bipartisan basis for decades, less so today. Any number of people I’ve interviewed have talked about the fact that there’s a growing, bipartisan understanding of the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party and the consequences, if we don’t comprehensively counter it.
Do you believe that there is a real understanding on a bipartisan basis in Washington of the stakes of the issue, and do you believe that ultimately partisanship is going to trump it—that is, that people will set aside the fact they know that this is truly an existential threat if they can win political points not handling it?
Scott: I would have said I would have been more confident six months ago. But when Biden became the nominee for the Democratic Party, and he’s soft on China…watch the U.S. Senate now, the Democrats got soft on China.
Why would Tammy Duckworth [D-IL] stop my bill that…all it said was you’re gonna vet Chinese students that are coming over here to do COVID research, when we know our intelligence agencies have said it’s a risk? You look what’s happened. They’re rallying behind, a) their nominee who is clearly soft on China, and so I would have been more confident six months ago.
Now, is it worse than the American public? I think the American public…clearly, understands the threat of China, and I think the fact that the Democrats are soft on China will have an impact on the November elections.
Weingarten: Congress controls the power of the purse. Why should we fund any entity that is an accomplice to the CCP or captured by the CCP? In other words, shouldn’t we go much further than just defunding the World Health Organization to any international institution that serves the CCP’s ends?
Scott: Absolutely. I did it with the Peace Corps. I said…there’s no value of us teaching English to people in China. We ought to be doing it with every entity…I’m looking at how the NIH dollars are being infiltrated back and spent by our universities back in China.
So I’m looking at every way, and I think every government, state, local, and federal, in this country ought to say, “These are American taxpayer dollars. They’re not gonna be spent propping up the Communist Party of China.” So I think every day there’s more people doing that, but I do believe that it’s become a partisan fight where the Democrats have become apologists for China.
Weingarten: What in your view are the Chinese Communist Party’s greatest vulnerabilities, and how ought we to exploit them?
Scott: I think the biggest vulnerability is their beliefs. I think the human spirit wants freedom, and I think we’ll all fight for freedoms. If we understand the fight is about our individual freedom, people will show up for that fight. That’s the biggest risk that Communist China already has, is that nobody gets up and says, “Oh, yeah, I’m gonna go fight for you because I get to live my own life.”
So I think that’s their biggest vulnerability, and it’s our biggest strength. And as a result of that, I think we’ll have more innovation, more creativity, and more commitment for our beliefs. So…and I think the right thing’s happening. The first step is we now know we have a problem. There might be different ways that people want to solve the problem, but the first step is to acknowledge you have a problem, and after that, then you start thinking about how you’re gonna fix it.
Weingarten: Short-term, what in your view are the most critical policies that must be advanced to counter China?
Scott: Well, first off, I think the biggest thing is to continue to talk to the public that the most important thing you can do to counteract China’s ability to do all the bad things they do, is stop buying anything built there. Don’t buy it…I mean, it’s not…it’s not about the Chinese people, it’s about the Chinese government. And when you buy products there, you’re supporting that Communist China Party that is the anathema of what you believe in, in this country.
And so, I think that’s the biggest thing we can do. There’s plenty of legislation we can do to hold them accountable. But reality is, if we stop buying from them, we hold them accountable faster than any of the other ways.
So we can, in the next month, all Americans, stop buying anything from Communist China… Their economy would be in a position where their government could not take these flyers to build a military to defeat us…and they wouldn’t have the money to be able to put their thumb on every individual in China’s neck to control them.
Weingarten: Long-term, what should a whole-of-government strategy for combating China consist of—really a whole-of-society strategy for combating China consist of?
Scott: I think the way to think about it is, don’t focus on what government should do. Focus on what you can do. And I think if all of us understand what we can do, then…we won’t even need a government response.
Because we will hold them accountable. We won’t buy things from… if Amazon doesn’t want to disclose where things are made, people stop doing business with Amazon. If Walmart or Target don’t want to tell us where things are made, somebody else will, and we’ll do more business with them.
And so, I think it all comes down to all of us acting in our own family’s best interests, in our own community’s best interests. And that’s buying American products, and stop buying anything from Communist China. That’s the biggest thing we can do.