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Beyond the balloon: Congress holds hearing on threats from China

GOP Rep. August Pfluger led a hearing Thursday that he hopes will focus Americans' attention on other potential threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party.
Clouds form above the Capitol building.
China is one of the few areas over which both parties in Congress have found common ground.Al Drago / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — As a Chinese spy balloon made its way across the skies of the U.S., many Americans were given a direct look at the potential threat of Beijing’s global ambitions.

But those ambitions are larger than most people realize and go far beyond the relatively minor threat the balloon posed, said Rep. August Pfluger, R-Texas, who hopes to draw Americans' attention to the issue with a hearing Thursday.

“I think most Americans woke up and thought, wow, how did that balloon come across our airspace and fly across with no communication, no planning, and no authority to do so — what else is going on?” Pfluger said. “What about the ranch land or the farmland that leads to our food security that is being purchased by entities close to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party)? What about the land that’s being purchased next to sensitive military facilities? Those are all things that we intend to understand and to warn the American public about if that merits the threshold of a warning.”

Pfluger is a former fighter pilot who served in the Pacific theater and represents a wide swath of West Texas. He believes there are examples all over his district and all over the country of ways China is trying to manipulate basic systems many Americans take for granted.

Pfluger chaired a hearing of his Homeland Security subcommittee on counterterrorism, law enforcement and intelligence Thursday, focused on countering the threats that Chinese encroachment presents to the U.S. 

"This Chinese surveillance balloon was a brazen display of espionage in the U.S. homeland, but it is ultimately one of many ways the CCP is working to exploit our vulnerabilities," Pfluger said in his opening statement. "Today, we must take the conversation beyond the balloon and discuss all the avenues the CCP is threatening U.S. homeland security."

Prior to the hearing, the Republican said he wants his subcommittee to examine threats to critical U.S. infrastructure. "Think about the transmission lines for electricity, for energy, for, you know, our roads,” he said.

China is one of the few areas in the current Congress on which Republicans and Democrats have found common ground, and Pfluger believes the hearing will demonstrate the common interest that both parties have in reining in these threats.

“This is a bipartisan issue. In fact, it’s nonpartisan," he said. "And I think on this particular hearing, especially given that we just saw a Chinese spy balloon fly across the country, it’s important and I think it’s a wake-up call, to understand what else the Chinese Communist Party is doing inside the United States of America.”

“I think they’ve been operating at a threshold below the level of conflict for a long time, but also to their benefit and to the detriment of the U.S.,” he added.

Pfluger’s subcommittee is separate from the House’s new China select committee, which has shown signs of bipartisanship and held its first hearing last week examining the numerous technological, economic and military threats from the Chinese Communist Party.

Thursday's hearing also examined a variety of areas in which China is working to undermine the U.S. The panel heard testimony from William Evanina, the former director of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, as well as experts in cybersecurity, aerospace engineering and Chinese national security.

While Pfluger is increasingly concerned about the infrastructure threats China presents, he also is worried about China getting access to many Americans' data through social media apps like TikTok.  

“I think every consumer, every American, needs to be aware of what they’re signing up for when it comes to those platforms,” he said. 

Several bills are floating in Congress that would give the federal government the ability to reign in TikTok’s influence, with the White House backing new bipartisan legislation that would allow the government to regulate, or even ban, the app.

Pfluger is hoping this is the start of a serious conversation that will lead to tangible results. He made it clear that this is an issue the average American needs to start paying attention to.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy did not respond to a request for comment.