Attorney General William Barr took aim at U.S. tech companies and Hollywood on Thursday over their relationship with China, accusing them of "kowtowing" to the Chinese government for the sake of profits.
In a nearly 45-minute speech on U.S.-China relations, Barr presented America's response to Beijing's global ambitions as a generational struggle that will define the political future of the world.
He railed against the Chinese Communist Party, calling it authoritarian, corrupt and bent on overturning the U.S.-led liberal democratic order to "make the world safe for dictatorship."
China, he said, is waging "an economic blitzkrieg" to supplant the U.S. as the world's preeminent power, and it's using everything from currency manipulation and state-led strategic investment to cyberattacks and espionage to achieve its goal.
But the attorney general directed some of his sharpest criticism not at China's rulers, but at U.S. businesses that he says jettison American values to chase the lucrative Chinese market.
China is aiming to expand its influence internationally, Barr said, including on U.S. soil via what he called American dupes.
"All too often, for the sake of short-term profits, American companies have succumbed to that influence — even at the expense of freedom and openness in the United States," he said. "Sadly, examples of American business bowing to Beijing are legion."
Barr's first target was Hollywood and the actors, producers and directors whom, he said, "pride themselves on celebrating freedom and the human spirit."
"Every year at the Academy Awards, Americans are lectured about how this country falls short of Hollywood's ideals of social justice. But Hollywood now regularly censors its own movies to appease the Chinese Communist Party, the world's most powerful violator of human rights," Barr said.
"This censorship infects not only versions of movies that are released in China but also many that are shown in American theaters to American audiences."
The attorney general cited a decision by Marvel Studios to change the origins of a key character in the film "Doctor Strange."
In the comic book source material, the character is Tibetan, while in the film version the character is Celtic — a change the screenwriter has said was made to avoid offending China's government and possibly losing access to the country's massive movie market.
China invaded Tibet in 1950 and since has suppressed movements there for autonomy or independence.
Barr slaps Big Tech
America's film industry "is far from alone in kowtowing" to the Chinese government, Barr said, adding that U.S. tech companies "have also allowed themselves to become pawns of Chinese influence."
He pointed to a recent decision by Apple to remove the news app Quartz from its app store in China after Beijing voiced concerns about its coverage of protests in Hong Kong.
There was no immediate reply from Apple to the attorney general's remarks.
Barr also has said business executives need to be aware of what he said were the Chinese government's efforts to use them to further its political interests.
Recently, he said, China has stepped up behind-the-scenes attempts "to cultivate and coerce" U.S. business executives to advance Beijing's own political objectives.
He described a move by Chinese authorities to push American corporate executives to promote — publicly and in conversations with political leaders — policies and actions that benefit China.
"Privately pressuring or courting American corporate leaders to promote policies or U.S. politicians presents a significant threat, because hiding behind American voices allows the Chinese government to elevate its influence and put a 'friendly face' on pro-regime policies," Barr said.
It is unusual for an attorney general to weigh in like this on U.S. relations with a foreign country. But Barr has a particular interest in the U.S.-China relationship dating back to the 1970s when he was an analyst at the CIA on China matters.
His remarks Thursday, though, also fit into a string of recent speeches from senior U.S. officials, including national security adviser Robert O'Brien and FBI Director Christopher Wray, that took aim at China.