Anti-war protesters. Audiovisuals. Tough talk on the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party.

The House Select Committee on China kicked off its first hearing Tuesday evening with fireworks as it laid out the challenge facing the U.S. in catching up and confronting an aggressive foe in Beijing. 

“We may call this a ‘strategic competition,’ but this is not a polite tennis match,” Chairman Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.) said in his opening remarks. “This is an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century — and the most fundamental freedoms are at stake.”  

The committee, which was established by a bipartisan vote to run for the tenure of the 118th Congress, is an ambitious attempt by lawmakers to craft the next generation of U.S. policy towards China that has buy in from the majority of Congress and the world.

Republicans and Democrats hand-selected to participate on the committee have stressed their professionalism and commitment to civility and pursuit of bipartisanship, but opening remarks by the top lawmakers touched on issues that are deeply divisive — both in policy and culture.    

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), the top Democrat on the panel, immediately sought to distinguish between the CCP and Chinese citizens and those of Asian heritage. He warned against verbal attacks against people within those demographics, pointing specifically to those targeting members of Congress.  

“We must practice bipartisanship and avoid anti-Chinese or Asian stereotyping at all costs,” he said. 

He referenced recent remarks questioning the “loyalty” of Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), holding back from naming Texas Republican Lance Gooden, who suggested she be denied access to sensitive classified materials.  

“These comments only feed the scapegoating and targeting of Chinese Americans, further endangering them and other Asian Americans. Indeed, this xenophobia and stereotyping is what the CCP would want to happen. The CCP is counting on us being divided. We must rise to the occasion and prove them wrong,” Krishnamoorthi added.  

The meeting — held in the same hearing room and at the same time as the kickoff for the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack last year — took another page from the panel’s playbook, introducing the topic with a video rolling through actions taken by the CCP. 

The committee is not expected to produce the same level of excitement that surrounded the Jan. 6 hearings, which uncovered numerous previously unknown details surrounding the attack on the Capitol, but instead aims to serve as a deep dive into how the U.S. can navigate a deeply interconnected, but perilous, relationship with China. 

And even as the committee sought attention with its primetime rollout, it had to contend with drama it wasn’t bargaining for when a series of protesters interrupted its meeting, casting the committee as aggravating tensions between U.S. and Beijing. 

The protesters were from the group CODEPINK, which are known for staging disruptive public displays of confrontation, advocating a blanket non interventionist approach to global conflicts. 

One protester, who stood up and shouted, held up a sign that read, “China is not our enemy,” before being forcibly removed by security. A second protestor stood up shortly after, holding a sign that read “Stop Asian Hate,” and shouting accusations that the committee was “saber-rattling.”  

That drew a reaction from Gallagher, who told the protester, “Your sign is upside down,” as well as a remark from the committee’s expert witness, who said that such dissent would not be tolerated in Beijing. 

“They’d have no such right in China. It wouldn’t be broadcast, their voices would be silenced perhaps permanently,” said Scott Paul, President for Alliance for American Manufacturing, ahead of his opening remarks.  

Despite the interruption, the committee was largely substantive, with lawmakers digging into topics including human rights, trade, technology, global relations and military deterrence.  

Other expert witnesses included two former Trump administration senior officials — former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and former deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger — and Tong Yi, a Chinese human rights advocate who talked about her imprisonment in a Chinese labor camp related to her work alongside pro-democracy activists. 

“I was handed a two-and-a-half-years sentence for disturbing social order and sent to a forced labor camp,” Tong said in opening remarks.  

Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi jointly produced a video focusing in on human rights criticisms in China and included other video presentations underscoring the Chinese Communist Party’s ambitions to undermine and overtake democracies like the U.S. 

“The success that the Chinese Communist Party once enjoyed presenting itself as constructive, cooperative, responsible, normal, was one of the great magic tricks of the modern era,” Pottinger said.  

Lawmakers addressed questions to the experts on some of the most contentious issues plaguing Washington. 

This included newly reported intelligence assessments that lends more support to the theory that the COVID-19 pandemic originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China; whether the U.S. is adequately positioned to help prepare Taiwan to defend itself against a potential military invasion from the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army; and the security risks posed by the ubiquitous, China-based social media app TikTok.  

Gallagher, speaking to the professionalism on the panel, said he sought to allow each lawmaker the breadth to question the experts even as the committee hearing was set to last for more than what would be a two hour meeting. 

“If you are the eager student that stays until the end, I will entertain a second round of questioning,” Gallagher said. “So you may find yourself alone with me and the witnesses at 1 a.m. asking endless rounds of questions if you’re so interested in the topic.”  

The chairman did not receive requests for a second round of questioning and closed the hearing just before 10 p.m.