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Tough Time to be a Friend of China

May 28, 2020

Today, having even the slightest nice thing to say about China seems to be grounds for a major argument, perhaps even a cause to be ostracized in America. In the age of COVID, being a friend of China is especially tough.

A report citing L1ght, a company that specializes in measuring online negativity, concludes there has been a 900% growth in hate speech towards China and Chinese people on Twitter since the spread of the coronavirus. We are at a new low in US China relations. At no other time in my life – with the exception of the aftermath of Tiananmen Square – has there been this much disdain for all things China.

This is borne out by a recent Pew Internet poll. “It’s hardly surprising,” said Orville Schell, director of Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations. “It’s now just about the only thing in Washington that Republicans and Democrats agree on, that we should have a much more skeptical view of China’s intentions.”

The United States/China split was initially triggered by Trump’s campaign for presidency. Once in office, Trump turned up the heat with his congratulatory call to Taiwan’s President, causing concern about the new administration’s commitment to the long established “One China Policy”. It was further stoked by Trump’s trade war, in which billions of dollars in tariffs were slung between the two countries. But the biggest axe is now the coronavirus pandemic. Our relationship is unlikely to improve until we move past the November 2020 presidential election – if then.

There are those that are seriously talking about a complete decoupling from China. This would be a major challenge – America has spent the last 4 decades investing in and increasingly intertwined with China, from manufacturing and trade to culture and education. Even so, there are Americans who fear that the Chinese Communist Party is playing Americans the fool, using U.S. investments to pay for Chinese global dominance. 

Nuance

As someone who has worked for over four decades building cultural, educational, and economic bridges between our two countries, I have become hardened to being berated for my interest in China. Today, it is clearly different. After all the virus deaths worldwide, the animosity is now deep and personal.

Former Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney (R-UT) recently penned an op-ed in The Washington Post saying: “America is awakening to China.” He continued, “COVID-19 has exposed China’s dishonesty for all to see” … and “we need to form a coalition of the like-minded to forge a strategy aimed at dissuading China from pursuing its predatory path.”

The China mean-spiritedness is not coming from just one political party in America, both sides are mixing it up. It is gotten so out of hand that The Washington Post, in an editorial, took both sides to task saying, “Demagoguery about China is hardly new to presidential campaigns, but the latest rhetoric is particularly irresponsible, coming as it does in the midst of the pandemic.”

While the President will attempt to claim this “standing up to China” political lane to himself, it is perhaps one of a few major policy directions he and Democratic leaders share in common.

Bashing China for political gain is an age-old sport but is not helpful in dealing with our current crisis and the economic tsunami it has unleashed. It is a cynical and irresponsible tactic for mining votes. Making China the “boogeyman” diverts American voters’ attention away from actions and inactions of our own American political leaders. 

Here at Home

The fact that the coronavirus appears to have originated in China layered onto the divisiveness and hate that has been allowed to fester under President Trump has turned up the anti-China rhetoric to a level not witnessed by a generation of Americans.

John Cho, an actor best known for his roles in the “Harold & Kumar” and “Star Trek” films recently lamented how he called his parents in the midst of the COVID-19 hysteria to tell them to be cautious when stepping out of the house, because they might be targets of “verbal or even physical abuse”. He recalls it felt strange yet reminiscent to be providing this advice to his mom and dad. He recalled how his pleas mimicked the warnings that he received from his own parents as an Asian child growing up in America.

These attitudes are not likely to get better in the coming weeks as the Presidential election heats up and the economy continues its deep freeze as a result of the pandemic. In fact, these attitudes recall an earlier, unfortunate period in the United States’ political history.

It Happened Before

Triggered by nativist pressures and the economic insecurity of the late 1800’s, the Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882 curbed the influx of Chinese immigrants into the United States and forbade those who left to return. The discrimination foisted on the Chinese who were left behind and is part of the current underbelly of xenophobic ugliness faced by people of color in the United States today.

Now, we find ourselves in a time where Asian Americans are being harassed on the basis of their appearances, and being friendly towards China is politically deadly. Have we entered a new McCarthy era?  

In 1954 Senator Joseph McCarthy began televised Senate hearings, investigating the United States Army, which he charged with being “soft on Communism”. His recklessness, political and indignant blustering, and bullying tactics was an ugly era in American history. One that defined lost lives and careers. Advocating for a sensible bilateral relationship with China, or even for free trade in a brewing McCarthy-esque atmosphere, might be a political kiss of death in the U.S. today.

Anti-China and anti-Communist fears may be used to gin up the spirits of nationalism and bring out voters seeking a leader who offers simplistic solutions to complex problems. A bumper sticker slogan that reads, “Ships jobs to China” may well resonate with weary American voters, much more so than a rational explanation of the complex geopolitical, economic, and power relationships between our two powerful nations. Yet, for political purposes, someone will always propose simple and wrong solutions.

The coronavirus has reinforced this simplistic and misguided political strategy that has become so popular, and the issue is only being exacerbated by the tit-for-tat mindset the U.S. government takes towards China. Ultimately, the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear the need for joint cooperation between the US and China, but it has also revealed just how deep the geopolitical divisions and a unique myopic stubbornness. 

China clearly shoulders responsibility for their delayed acknowledgment of the virus— to their own people and to the rest of the world. China’s slow walking of the alarm internally clearly delayed the global response. Having said that, we need to quickly pivot to the fact that as humans on this Earth, we are ALL in this fight together now. 

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