(FILES) In this file photo taken on January 13, 2020 US Attorney General William Barr holds a press conference regarding the…
FILE - U.S. Attorney General William Barr holds a press conference at the Department of Justice in Washington, Jan. 13, 2020.

WASHINGTON - China is engaged in an “economic blitzkrieg” to supplant the United States as the world’s only superpower, Attorney General William Barr said Thursday, while taking U.S. businesses to task for bowing to Chinese pressure in pursuit of profit.

From Hollywood to Silicon Valley, American businesses “have also allowed themselves to become pawns of Chinese influence,” Barr said in a speech at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

While Hollywood “regularly censors its own movies to appease the Chinese Communist Party,” tech companies such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Apple “have shown themselves all too willing to collaborate” with the CCP, Barr said.

The Motion Picture Association of America declined to comment.

The remarks came amid elevated U.S.-China tensions over a host of issues, including the coronavirus pandemic, Hong Kong’s sovereignty and China’s military posture in the South China Sea.

Hawkish stance

President Donald Trump once aggressively sought to strike a trade deal with China, but now his administration has embraced an increasingly hawkish stance toward Beijing, blaming it for initially covering up the coronavirus and for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy by imposing strict national security laws.

Trump has also clashed in recent months with social media giants Twitter, Facebook and Apple on a number of issues, including tension between the Justice Department and tech companies over encryption policies.

As part of its influence operations in the United States, the CCP has escalated behind-the-scenes efforts “to cultivate and coerce American business executives to further its political objectives,” Barr said, warning that businessmen who failed to disclose their relations with China could run afoul of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The 1938 law requires agents of foreign governments to disclose their activities and ties to foreign entities.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

In a tweet issued about the time Barr was speaking, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, wrote, “The #US is pressing the accelerator to trash China-US relations, while China is putting the brakes on. The US should know that its enemy is the virus, not China.”

The U.S.-China Business Council, a trade group, said in a statement to VOA that the “harsh rhetoric” from the two sides was not helpful.

“Both sides should also be mindful not to carelessly deepen the economic crisis from which we have yet to begin to recover,” the statement said. “We’re not talking but yelling at each other these days.”

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The strident address by Barr, who started his career in the 1970s as a China analyst for the CIA, was the latest in a series of similar speeches delivered by top administration officials in recent weeks.

Last month, White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien said decades of U.S. efforts to moderate the Chinese political system resulted in “the greatest failure of American foreign policy since the 1930s.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray weighed in last week, highlighting China’s use of economic espionage, cyberattacks, intellectual property theft and malign foreign influence operations in pursuit of its global ambitions.

“The greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property, and to our economic vitality, is the counterintelligence and economic espionage threat from China,” Wray said.

Pompeo speech ahead

In the coming days, Barr said, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “will sum up what is at stake for the United States and the free world.

“I hope these speeches will inspire the American people to reevaluate their relationship with China, so long as it continues to be ruled by the Communist Party,” he said.

On Wednesday, Trump signed legislation and an executive order that said the U.S. “will hold China accountable for its oppressive actions against the people of Hong Kong.” The legislation imposes sanctions on Chinese officials who undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy, while the executive order ends preferential treatment for Hong Kong.

Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the Trump administration remained open to a deal with China, although its tough posture toward Beijing was likely to persist into the November presidential election.

Barr’s speech, Lohman said, essentially built on the themes of a major address by Vice President Mike Pence in 2018 in which Pence laid out the China threat.

"This administration was determined to take them on in terms of addressing the threats they pose much more directly and with much less concern for the overall tone of the relationship,” Lohman said.

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In his speech Thursday, Barr said the U.S. response to China’s ambition to replace the U.S. as the world’s only superpower “may prove to be the most important issue for our nation and the world in the 21st century.”

China uses a variety of “predatory and often unlawful tactics” to gain an advantage over the U.S., Barr said.  China’s nefarious activities have included targeting American universities to steal research, stealing trade secrets from pharmaceutical companies, and hacking into the systems of U.S. academic medical centers and health care companies, according to Barr.

Hackers linked to the Chinese government, he added, have targeted American universities and firms in a bid to steal intellectual property related to coronavirus treatments and vaccines, “sometimes disrupting the work of our researchers.”

'Historic implications'

“How the United States responds to this challenge will have historic implications and will determine whether the United States and its liberal democratic allies will continue to shape their own destiny or whether the CCP and its autocratic tributaries will control the future,” Barr said.

The speech is likely to anger China. Barr said that after Wray gave his speech last week, Wray reported to him that a Chinese Communist Party leader described the address as “disgusting.”

Beijing has long rejected many of the assertions made in Barr’s speech. China’s foreign minister warned Wednesday that Beijing would retaliate with sanctions of its own against U.S. individuals and entities.