China bashing: A U.S. political tradition

By Ted Galen Carpenter
October 11, 2012

In every U.S. presidential election, the major party candidates vie to see who can appear tougher on China. Once the election is over, however, the substance of U.S. policy toward China usually changes little and is far more pragmatic than the campaign rhetoric. There are ominous signs, though, that things could be different this time.

The accusations have been among the most caustic ever. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has denounced the Obama administration for being “a near-supplicant to Beijing” on trade matters, human rights and security issues. An Obama ad accuses Romney of shipping U.S. jobs to China through his activities at the Bain Capital financier group, and Democrats charge that Romney as president would not protect U.S. firms from China’s depredations.

In large measure these jabs resemble a quadrennial political ritual. Ronald Reagan repeatedly criticized President Jimmy Carter for establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing. Bill Clinton excoriated the “butchers of Beijing” in the 1992 campaign and promised to stand up to the Chinese government on both trade and human rights issues. Candidate Barack Obama labeled President George W. Bush “a patsy” in dealing with China and promised to go “to the mat” over Beijing’s “unfair” trade practices.

Obama highlighted his decision to impose tariffs on Chinese tires in a recent campaign speech. The administration, he said, had decided to file two complaints with the World Trade Organization over Beijing’s allegedly illegal subsidies to China’s automobile industries. It was no coincidence that Obama announced this in Ohio, a battleground state where the auto parts industry is a major component of the economy.

Chinese leaders have learned to regard this quadrennial anti-China rhetoric with a mixture of patience and bemusement. They note that despite Clinton’s fiery comments, U.S.-China trade soared during his administration, and after the first year or so, criticism about Beijing’s human rights policies virtually disappeared. Bilateral relations during the Reagan administration were exceptionally good, as the two governments cooperated to contain the Soviet Union’s power.

There are indications, though, that the current campaign hostility toward China may be more than the usual political posturing. Romney’s advisers include several prominent anti-China hawks – including former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and Princeton professor Aaron Friedberg. And the Obama administration has already taken a number of actions that suggest a change in the substance as well as the tone of U.S. policy. The imposition of tariffs and the WTO suits are examples in the economic realm, but shifts in Washington’s security policies are even more evident.

The much-cited U.S. “strategic pivot” to East Asia is clearly motivated by worries about China’s growing power. Washington has also become far more involved in the territorial disputes between China and several Southeast Asian nations over the South China Sea, and between China and Japan over islands in the East China Sea. In both cases, the Obama administration has taken positions hostile to Beijing’s interests. This appears to be a bipartisan development: The GOP platform includes a provision explicitly condemning Beijing’s “destabilizing claims in the South China Sea.”

Bipartisan hostility toward China is also evident in the new report from the House intelligence committee that accuses China’s giant global telecommunications company, Huawei, of cyber-espionage and generally posing a threat to U.S. security. That report is likely to lead to significant restrictions on Huawei’s business in the U.S.

Such attitudes provoke China’s leaders and public. Washington’s implicit tilt toward Japan in the East China Sea controversy led to anti-U.S. demonstrations in several Chinese cities last month – including an attack on the U.S. ambassador’s car as it sought to re-enter the embassy compound in Beijing.

China bashing may have become something other than a periodic political sport. Persistent U.S. economic woes, combined with China’s breathtaking economic achievements, have made China a convenient scapegoat for numerous American political constituencies.

The need to borrow vast sums of money from China to fund the U.S. budget deficit adds to the sense of vulnerability and resentment. Beijing’s growing regional and global clout strengthens U.S. worries about China displacing the U.S. as the world’s leading power.

Those factors are very real, and are far stronger than in previous decades. They’re also unlikely to fade once the election is over. So bilateral relations may be in for a very rough period – no matter who is president come January.

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama,  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque; Chinese President Hu Jintao, and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, REUTERS/Brian Snyder.  

10 comments

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Anything to divert the peoples attention from the real problem. Us. Right here at home. Our laws and regulations. Our values. Our elected officials. Not China. It’s real easy to point fingers and blame another country for our own ignorance and lack of ability to hold our officials accountable by electing capable individuals instead of voting on a popularity contest. Smoke and mirrors to ooh and ahh the Messiah seekers.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive

In regards to the recent report about Huawei (which is the likely inspiration behind this post), I couldn’t agree more with the committee’s findings and their recommendations. Having been the victim of various (and frequently documented and reported) cyber attacks from within China, it’s makes perfect sense for the United States to lessen the likelihood of it happening again, especially to sensitive electronic infrastructure. Yes, it’s protectionist behavior. And? The integrity of the United States’ communications and electronic infrastructure should not be compromised by a company whose ties to the Chinese government lack any transparency. This is not China bashing. This is reality.

My argument comes across as outright xenophobic. I lived in China for a year (sure, not that long, but long enough) and absolutely loved it. The people I met were genuine, caring, curious, and shared many of the hopes and desires as Americans and people everywhere. There is no denying the goodness that exists in the hearts of many Chinese (and people everywhere). But if anyone believes for a second that Huawei would not bend to pressure by the Chinese government to work its magic on its systems installed in the United States, think again.

Taking aim at China as a form of political hoo-rah is unnecessary, but it’s a reality as pointed out in this editorial. But let’s not mistake taking precautions against a company with unknown government connections and uneven transparency as China bashing. It’s the China reality.

Posted by voyager3 | Report as abusive

You state, “China bashing may have become something other than a periodic political sport. Persistent U.S. economic woes, combined with China’s breathtaking economic achievements, have made China a convenient scapegoat for numerous American political constituencies.

The need to borrow vast sums of money from China to fund the U.S. budget deficit adds to the sense of vulnerability and resentment. Beijing’s growing regional and global clout strengthens U.S. worries about China displacing the U.S. as the world’s leading power. Those factors are very real, and are far stronger than in previous decades.”

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I agree, but am somewhat surprised someone from the Cato Institute could produce so neutral an appraisal.

However, what you DON’T say about the sport of China bashing is the real reason for it, and your comments tend to make light of a very serous issue of trade imbalances with China that are obviously growing worse.

The inconvenient truth is the phrase “China bashing” is designed to cover up US wealthy complicity in what for China has been an unprecedented golden opportunity to leapfrog past untold decades of poverty for its people to become the next world power by using Mercantilism as an economic weapon against the US, thanks to the greed and stupidity of the US wealthy class (which you represent).

By “bashing China” the US wealthy class has been very successful in distracting the American people from the real problem, which is what lies at the heart of the issue of the massive and growing trade imbalance — the US tax laws, free trade legislation and banking regulations that have allowed the US wealthy class to slowly bleed the US economy white over the past 30+ years of “free trade” with China.

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Mercantilism for those of you who don’t understand what the term means (from Wikipedia for ease of access):

“Mercantilism is the economic doctrine that government control of foreign trade is of paramount importance for ensuring the prosperity and military security of the state.

In particular, it demands a positive balance of trade.

Mercantilism dominated Western European economic policy and discourse from the 16th to late-18th centuries.

Favors for powerful interests were often defended with mercantilist reasoning.

High tariffs, especially on manufactured goods, are an almost universal feature of mercantilist policy.

Other policies have included:

Building a network of overseas colonies;
Forbidding colonies to trade with other nations;
Monopolizing markets with staple ports;
Banning the export of gold and silver, even for payments;
Forbidding trade to be carried in foreign ships;
Export subsidies;
Promoting manufacturing with research or direct subsidies;
Limiting wages;
Maximizing the use of domestic resources;
Restricting domestic consumption with non-tariff barriers to trade.”

I think you will find a lot of items in that list that you will recognize as a result of free trade with China.

And, of course, the key reason for using Mercantilism was to grow wealthy at the expense of other nations they “traded” with:

“Mercantilists held that a nation’s wealth consisted primarily in the amount of gold and silver in its treasury. ”

(The “modern” version of Mercantilism which the Chinese use means a nation’s wealth consists primarily of a favorable balance of trade in its accounts at the expense of other nations.)

“Accordingly, mercantilist governments imposed extensive restrictions on their economies to ensure a surplus of exports over imports.”

Sound familiar?

It should, because the US has been on the “short end of the stick” of trade with China since it began 30+ years ago.

Doesn’t it seem odd that no one in our highly educated government seems to understand what China is doing?

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

@ voyager3 –

I had not heard about this issue with Huawei before you mentioned it in your comment. This happened to catch my eye as I was checking the economic news on The Guardian (UK) website.

Even if Huawei is not involved in espionage, which is a stretch for me to believe they are not since it would fit with the goals of mercantilism, it has already done a MASSIVE amount of economic damage to the UK. I suggest you read this article from The Guardian.

“Huawei’s relationship with BT under investigation by MPs

Chinese telecom firm facing international blacklisting after Australia, the US, Canada take action”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/201 2/oct/10/huawei-international-blacklisti ng

WHY does the US continue to trade with China when it is obviously damaging our nation to the point where our national security is being threatened?

WHY does no one in US news media push the government to tell the truth about free trade with China?

Clearly, it is not only the US that is being damaged by trade with China, but literally every single nation they trade with has had problems.

What is wrong with you people?

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

China still does horrible things to its own people, who can be imprisoned or even executed for simply speaking out against government policies. It’s been known to do other horrible things as well, such as forcing pregnant women to abort their fetuses. They will trade with us because it’s helpful for them, but it’s only right to be skeptical and wary about their increased power and influence: China is a competitor and a rival, and claims that it will become more democratic someday are ringing a little hollow.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

China and other low price nations is doing the world a favor by selling cheap. But we do not have to buy more than we can afford. It ridiculous to expect other nations to balance our trade. We should buy overseas what we cannot make well or where we have an internal monopoly or goods that do not pay much wages anywhere but only how much we can afford.

We should not import goods that tend to pay high wages every where.

Our own laws should limit imports and and reward exporting firms.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

Recently there was an article in Foreign Policy Mag. about Obama, Romney and ‘China-bashing.’ The question there (brought up by Clyde Pretowitz) was “Is it ‘bashing’ if you are telling the truth?” I wish you would think about that. The U.S. has put up with counterfeit military parts, endless ‘fakes’ on sale, theft of intellectual property, trade practices on China’s part that have drawn international ire and many other things. Even Donald Trump said on a Piers Morgan show, “They cheat,” and he buys a lot of stuff from China. I think accusing Obama and/or Romney of China-bashing is a cheap shot, because most of the time, they are simply telling the truth.

Posted by dwilliams3 | Report as abusive

Recently there was an article in Foreign Policy Mag. about Obama, Romney and ‘China-bashing.’ The question there (brought up by Clyde Pretowitz) was “Is it ‘bashing’ if you are telling the truth?” I wish you would think about that. The U.S. has put up with counterfeit military parts, endless ‘fakes’ on sale, theft of intellectual property, trade practices on China’s part that have drawn international ire and many other things. Even Donald Trump said on a Piers Morgan show, “They cheat,” and he buys a lot of stuff from China. I think accusing Obama and/or Romney of China-bashing is a cheap shot, because most of the time, they are simply telling the truth.

Posted by dwilliams3 | Report as abusive

Sorry I misspelled Clyde Prestowitz’s name in my comment. I didn’t proof-read very well!

Posted by dwilliams3 | Report as abusive

Are the China bashers equal-opportunity bashers? Absolutely not. Dems and Repubs half one another from evaluating fully one another’s fault with the tight guard, but nobody hardly ever fact-checks the bashing about China. That’s just the political reality that many Americans forget.

Could it be good for human rights that China grows at 7% instead of 8% or 9%? I’d think so. It will put some pressure on the Chinese leaders to include more moderates in the top echelon to enable them to manage the growing grievances and demonstrations, particularly on the taking of land without fair compensation by greedy developers.

Is it as good for the United States? No. Because it keeps the Congress dysfunctional in correcting and managing the problems that are overdue for them to tackle. Scapegoating China potentially hurts the U.S. more than it hurts China, because once Americans are misled about the truth and bare bone essentials of what caused what aspect of their current problems, dangerous policy decisions could be forced by the misconceptions. Could be very dangerous indeed.

Posted by jo5319 | Report as abusive