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Foreign Policy

China to Become a Political Piñata in 2020 Presidential Campaign

May 05, 2020

Beijing currently has few friends in America, probably fewer than at any point since the country embarked on its historic economic reform under Deng Xiaoping. People across the ideological spectrum blame the Xi government for having greatly exacerbated the coronavirus crisis, at huge economic and human costs. 

However, the PRC’s reputation was already suffering pre-pandemic. President Xi Jinping’s concerted campaign against political dissent and independent thought, especially NATIONWIDE RESTRICTIONS on religious liberty and detailed oppression of Muslim Uighurs, have raised widespread ire. National security hawks focused on greater Chinese aggressiveness internationally, especially in the South China Sea and against Taiwan. Many American companies have even sharply criticized Beijing’s economic practices. The result was open season on the PRC even before COVID-19 made its appearance. 

As a result, relations between the U.S. and China have been deteriorating for some time, but the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically widened the bilateral rift. Ties between the two governments and peoples are likely to be strained even more as the U.S. presidential campaign develops, with the People’s Republic of China set to become a political piñata. 

It isn’t unusual for battling American politicians to score political points by attacking Beijing. In 2012, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney initiated an ad war on China trade in Ohio, a midwestern industrial state in which many people blamed the PRC for lost jobs. Four years later, Donald Trump upped the ante with his frontal attacks on all trade, especially with China. 

The COVID controversy appears to be heaven-sent for President Donald Trump. He faces a tough reelection campaign and feels no constraint on what he says about China and Xi. Former Vice President Joseph Biden spent eight years in an administration that sought to maintain a civil, cooperative relationship with Beijing, hence making it an obvious attack point given the coronavirus. 

Indeed, the Washington Post reported that “President Trump’s campaign is preparing to launch a broad effort aimed at linking Joe Biden to China, after concluding that it would be more politically effective than defending or promoting Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel observed, “I definitely have seen data that shows voters are very upset with China right now.” 

But this political strategy won’t stop with the White House. GOP senators have run harsh anti-Beijing ads. The New York Times reported, “Republicans increasingly believe that elevating China as an archenemy culpable for the spread of the virus, and harnessing America’s growing animosity toward Beijing, may be the best way to salvage a difficult election.” 

Democrats are attempting to immunize themselves by denouncing the president’s frequent and lavish praise of Xi. A powerful new Biden ad notes that Trump routinely complimented China and Xi before the COVID-19 wave hit America. However, the blame game is one in which Trump has few peers. GOP partisans are disarmingly frank. Campaign strategist Chris LaCivita told the Times, “Trump has always been successful when he’s had a bogeyman, and China is the perfect bogeyman.” 

Given the president’s poor performance in dealing with COVID-19, this strategy might be his best shot for reelection, though he will have myriad opportunities to toss it away. Whatever the result, both candidates are likely to spend the next several months vilifying the world’s other most important nation, with which one of them will have to try to manage a relationship after the election. 

Such a dynamic could prove destabilizing and dangerous at any time, but especially with the ongoing deterioration of relations. The two governments are fighting over the most basic contacts: commercial relations, media coverage, academic exchanges, travel visas, et cetera. High profile and bitter political recriminations by the current U.S. president and possibly the next president could trigger angry Chinese responses, accelerating the race downhill with no bottom in sight. 

It is incumbent on both capitals to separate the actual day-to-day relationship from campaign rhetoric. American officials should privately warn Beijing that campaigns usually bring out the worst qualities in candidates – and this year is likely to be no exception – but the administration remains committed to cooperating against COVID-19, completing the trade negotiations, and working through other issues as they arise. Biden undoubtedly intends the same if he wins. Campaign slogans are about winning political victories, not establishing governing policies. 

This will be an especially critical time to keep communication open. Normal discourse should be continued. Small problems should not be allowed to fester. Disputes should be defused. Planned dialogues, such as over trade, should be held. 

China should recognize that its early attempt to hide and then minimize the coronavirus outbreak gave American hawks, especially Republicans in Congress, a powerful political weapon. The best response is improved transparency and greater humility in addressing critics. Acting like a stonewall will only enrage the PRC’s critics in America, encouraging them to stoke the political fires. 

Moreover, patience and forbearance will prove to be virtues. The U.S. election will pass. The fewer retaliatory verbal barrages, the easier to normalize relations. Given the gravity of issues facing the two nations, it will be important to try to get the relationship back on an even keel as soon as possible. 

None of this is meant to minimize the challenge posed by seemingly irreconcilable differences, at least between the two governments. The peoples have more in common, which is one reason it is important to keep their contacts open, fresh, and vibrant. 

It probably is inevitable that the U.S. and China will face a more fractious relationship in the future. However, it is critical that both sides arrest today’s dangerous descent. That is a low bar, but it may be the best we can hope for this presidential election year.

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