A new bill introduced in Washington seeks to change the way the federal government refers to the leader of China, prohibiting the use of the term “president”, and will – if passed – lead to a dramatic escalation in already tense relations between the two superpowers. According to the SCMP, the “Name the Enemy Act” would require that official US government documents instead refer to the head of state according to his or her role as head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, holds three official titles, none of which is “president”: head of state (guojia zhuxi, literally “state chairman”); chairman of the central military commission; and general secretary of the CCP. However, in the English-speaking world, Xi has generally opted for “president”, which critics say “offers unwarranted legitimacy” to an unelected leader.
Introduced by Representative Scott Perry, Republican of Pennsylvania, the House bill would prohibit the use of federal funds for the “creation or dissemination” of official documents and communications that refer to the China’s leader as “president”. A spokesperson for Perry, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, did not respond to a SCMP request for comment on the extent to which “communications” would include public statements and remarks by US officials.
“Addressing the head of state of the People’s Republic of China as a “president” grants the incorrect assumption that the people of the state, via democratic means, have readily legitimised the leader who rules them,” the legislation states.
The bill singles out China, despite the fact that presidents in numerous countries are either unelected or in power resulting from elections that are not considered free and fair.
The legislation comes as top cabinet officials, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have begun abandoning the term “president” in favor of “general secretary.” A White House report in May outlining Washington’s strategic approach to China used Xi’s party title exclusively.
The bill “formalises something that we’ve been taking note of in administration statements,” said Anna Ashton, head of government affairs at the US-China Business Council.
While Trump has not followed suit, he has stopped referring to Xi as a “friend” as relations between the two countries continue to sour. “I don’t want to talk to China right now,” he said last Tuesday.
Perry’s bill comes amid strategic efforts by the Republican Party to increase criticism of the Chinese government. In recent months, Perry has introduced a flurry of aggressive and somewhat unlikely bills related to China, including legislation that would cut US funding to the United Nations until the body expels China and recognizes Taiwan, and bills that would authorize the US president to recognize Hong Kong and Tibet as countries independent from China. Those bills have languished upon introduction, failing to gain support from any of Perry’s colleagues.
To be sure, the bill faces an uphill battle in the few months left to this congressional session, with legislative efforts related to the coronavirus pandemic and the November elections looming large on lawmakers’ agendas.
“I can’t imagine it will move this session,” one Democratic House aide, not authorized to speak publicly, said of the Name the Enemy Act. Any bill that has not reached the president’s desk by the session’s close in early January is wiped off the docket, and must be reintroduced the following session.
Ashton said that Perry’s bill was less likely to “gain steam” than China-related bills tackling other, more weighty subjects, such as forced labour, supply chains, and regulation of Chinese companies listed on US exchanges.