On Thursday, Sept. 29, the College of East Asian Studies hosted a panel discussion titled “China-Bashing and the U.S. Elections” to explore the historical context of China’s role in American political debate. Featured speakers included Jessica Chen Weiss, Associate Professor of Government at Cornell University, and Alton Wang ’16, Communications and Development Associate for Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote (APIA Vote), a non-profit organization that works to mobilize Asian-American civic participation.
During last week’s Presidential Debate, Republican nominee Donald Trump opened by hammering Hilary Clinton on her past support of the Trans Pacific Partnership, claiming that feeble leadership and bad trade deals have lead millions of jobs to flee to China. Later, after Clinton referred to a tweet from Trump that claimed climate change was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, the Republican candidate offered little more than empty bluster.
While politicians talking tough on China is nothing new in an election cycle, U.S.-Chinese relations have faced intense criticism from both sides of the aisle this year. Pew Research Center polling shows that a majority of the American public holds an unfavorable view of China; over 80 percent believe that Chinese cyberattacks, human rights standards, and environmental policies are problems.
Wang spoke first and began by playing a series of campaign ads that featured both direct and subtle instances of anti-China rhetoric. A humorous clip mocking Donald Trump’s obsession with China was followed by ads from both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, who attacked opposing candidates on their business or political ties to the country.
“From the wide variety of ads I’ve shown, it’s clear that China-bashing is bipartisan,” Wang said. “It especially intensifies in campaigns, as opposed to when politicians are in office. As a Chinese-American, I want to discuss anti-China rhetoric from a domestic perspective in terms of how it affects Asian-Americans today.”
Wang acknowledged early on and later during a Q&A discussion that there are legitimate concerns with many of the Chinese government’s practices. However, he argued that China should not be scapegoated by public figures like Donald Trump who want to blame the country for all of the United States’ economic problems. Wang also worried about the negative affect this type of rhetoric might have on the country’s Asian-American population, which numbers over 17 million people.
“Even if I agree with some of the criticism, it loops around and can affect me in a very negative way,” Wang said. “[It] really impacts the way we question whether we are Americans or whether the narrative of this country is our narrative.”
Instead, Wang believes people’s fear of China stems from a combination of economic insecurity and anxiety over U.S. global dominance. He also cited the 1996 Democratic National Committee (DNC) campaign finance scandal, where the Chinese government was accused of raising money for the DNC to influence American foreign policy, as intensifying scrutiny over the political intentions of Asian-Americans.
During the Q&A session, one student asked about the role of the media in impacting public perception of the Chinese. Weiss noted that the nationalist filter that Wang describes often prevents both the media and the public from acquiring a more nuanced view.
“On foreign policy, the media plays a big role,” Weiss said. “There is a lot of high quality reporting, but often it’s in the direction of hyping Chinese opposition to American interests or the looming threat of China. A lot of things that do not need to be hyped get hyped. Journalists can link up with the armies and marines and actually go to the Philippines and South China sea to get a more direct perspective. However, the Chinese government is complicit by sometimes denying visas to journalists.”
Anti-China sentiment is not something foreign in the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which targeted laborers, was the first law that specifically banned members of an ethnic group from immigrating into the United States. The law’s restrictions were extended in 1924 to include all classes of Chinese immigrants. Until it was formally repealed in 1943, the Act isolated Chinese-Americans from the rest of society, often forcing them to live in self-contained enclaves (later, these communities often became many cities’ Chinatowns). Ironically, the act did not even serve its original racist purpose to restrict the flow of non-white groups into the U.S. Japanese-Americans immigrated in droves in the late 19th century and often filled the economic and social roles the Chinese had occupied. In 1924, the National Origins Act expanded anti-immigration legislation to include Japan as well.
In the late 20th century, the intersection between anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese rhetoric was linked to economic contest.
“People saw GM and American cars failing and they felt insecure or impotent compared to booming Japanese manufacturers,” Wang said.
Panic over the economic ascension of China and Japan is also often premature. Even after rapid GDP growth in 1960s-1980s, Japan faced its “Lost Decade” in the late ’90s after its asset bubble collapsed. While the contemporary Chinese economy is stronger than some critics make it out to be, it has faced sluggish growth and stock market volatility. Nevertheless, both Weiss and Wang described the American public as reactionary; conceptualizing the demise of American competitive advantage as more likely than it appears.
Public discontent with the Chinese continued to escalate in the decades following American’s normalization of relations with China. Wang believes that 9/11 played a clear role in deflecting hostility from Chinese-Americans onto Muslims and Arab-Americans. Weiss added that Chinese cooperation with American anti-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan also soothed this fragile relationship. She argued that the philosophically neutral stance that the Obama Administration has taken on China is a subtle departure from President Bush’s more hawkish view of the country as a strategic competitor.
Looking toward the future, Weiss deconstructed China’s own strategy and the process through which it evaluates the rhetoric of American leaders.
“China looks at two different things,” Weiss said. “First, is campaign rhetoric consistent with what a candidate has done when they are in office? Second, if it is consistent, does it mean a change in the status quo or the previous administration’s policies?”
The challenge of a Trump presidency would necessitate a significant rethinking of Chinese-U.S. relations. Trump has no government record to evaluate and he has hinted that his administration might reevaluate America’s relationship with countries he feels do not take an equal role in multilateral missions. In contrast, Chinese officials largely agree that Clinton would preserve the Obama status quo. While she has taken a tough stance on human rights in China in past speeches, as Secretary of State she made it clear that the two countries could work together independent of Chinese progress on human rights.
The next CEAS lecture, “Blood, Soymilk, and Vitality: The Diasporic Origins of Blood Banking in China” will take place on Wednesday, Oct. 5 at 4:30 p.m. in the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies.