US lawmaker urges hiring of Mandarin speakers to keep up with China challenge

Robert Delaney, South China Morning Post

Posted at Oct 20 2020 12:43 PM | Updated as of Oct 20 2020 12:53 PM

The chairman of the US House Intelligence Committee and frequent critic of President Donald Trump called on the government to hire more Mandarin speakers to help counter a China that has become "economically dynamic and politically regressive".

Speaking virtually at a Brookings Institution event, Representative Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, echoed assessments of many within the Trump administration that more needs to be done to reorient an intelligence community that has been focused on counterterrorism towards a better understanding of how the Chinese government works.

"Now more than ever, it is evident that we must challenge ourselves to ensure our national security apparatus is right-sized to focus on the areas of competition that will define the 2020s and beyond," Schiff said. "For the intelligence community, this means taking a hard look at how it conducts its China mission."

"It is obvious we need to hire more Mandarin Chinese linguists and people with technical backgrounds, but it's more complex than that," he added. "You need people who both understand challenging functional and technical questions and can simultaneously relate these to China's unique political context.

"That's why we need to do a better job of making sure that all intelligence community employees - especially those that do not work full time on China - have a baseline familiarity with China 101."

While Schiff, who led the House proceedings that led to Trump's impeachment, has clashed with the administration more than many Democratic lawmakers, his hawkish message was more in line with recent messaging by administration officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said last week that he directed US military academics to devote half of their coursework to understanding China to more effectively counter Beijing.

"I also tasked the military services to make the People's Liberation Army the pacing threat in our professional schools, programmes and training," Esper said in a speech at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation think tank.

The National Defence University is run by the Pentagon, offering graduate programmes mostly for members of the US military and the State Department, and is a key resource in the development of America's national defence strategy.

According to a 2013 US Census Bureau report, Chinese was the third most widely spoken language in the country after English and Spanish. That count includes Mandarin, Cantonese and other Chinese dialects.

Schiff's comments underscore the bipartisan nature of efforts in Washington to take action related to China.

In April, Representative Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, co-authored with Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, a letter to Pompeo requesting that his department's assessment of Hong Kong's autonomy reflect a recent wave of arrests of pro-democracy activists.

Pompeo ultimately recommended that Trump suspend Hong Kong's status as a jurisdiction separate from mainland China, a move that paved the way for sanctions against Hong Kong officials, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

FBI Director Christopher Wray and US Attorney General William Barr have all delivered high-profile addresses characterising Beijing as America's foremost national security threat.

In July, Barr criticised Hollywood studios and American tech firms for "kowtowing" to Beijing, accusing the Chinese Communist Party of seeking to "extend its influence around the world, including on American soil". Wray said just days earlier that China wanted to become the world's only superpower, supplanting the United States with a government-directed "campaign of theft and malign influence".

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