The Awkward Politics of Presidential China-Bashing

In the wake of Michigan Senate hopeful Pete Hoekstra’s widely-covered ad – one of countless campaigns attempting to use U.S. insecurities about China to generate political or economic capital – much comment and discussion about China bashing has surfaced in the media. In his Bloomberg blog, Joshua Green observes that President Obama’s prior remarks about China may have set him on shaky political ground as he prepares to meet Xi Jinping next week:

As Goldman notes [in a previous Bloomberg article], candidate Obama didn’t shy away from using China as a political weapon, famously calling President George W. Bush a “patsy” for not driving a harder bargain on trade talks. That’s a lot tougher for him to do — impossible, actually — now that he’s the one ultimately responsible for negotiations. That’s a difficulty the Romney campaign is happy to exploit.

In a China Daily article about the coming Xi-Obama meeting, recent swipes made by Presidential incumbents and hopefuls are recalled:

Vice-President Xi Jinping’s upcoming visit to the United States will help China-US ties fly clear of US election year turbulence, experts said.

[...]Xi will meet US President Barack Obama in Washington on Feb 14, the White House announced.

China bashing is becoming ever-more frequent in this election year.

Mitt Romney, the leading Republican candidate, pledged to “clamp down” on Beijing as a currency manipulator and openly threatened a trade war.

In his recent State of the Union address, Obama singled out China for unfair trade practices. He also pointed out China’s solar research facility and supercomputer as examples of global challenges facing the US.

An article in The Australian emphasizes the rhetorical nature of China bashing in U.S. politics

Romney’s longstanding efforts to paint himself as someone willing to “stand up to China” exemplifies an alarming trend of China-bashing in US politics.

Rick Santorum has echoed Romney, declaring, the US has a moral obligation to defeat China’s “godless socialism”.

Such statements are primarily targeted at shoring up political support and secondarily at painting Obama as being soft on China. We should not take them as an accurate indication of future policy. And despite this overriding political calculus, these remarks are on to something: Beijing’s currency manipulation gives China a advantage in global trade, and its abuse of intellectual property rights ought to be condemned.

[...]The shortsightedness of the recent China-bashing exhibited in both the Republican primary debates and Obama’s State of the Union address exemplifies Washington’s current lack of grand strategy and historical awareness.

An editorial printed in the Holland Sentinel – Hoekstra’s own local daily based in Holland, Michigan – reprimands Hoekstra for his “political cheap shot”:

Pete Hoekstra should be ashamed for his Super Bowl airing of an inappropriate and insensitive political advertisement aimed at U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

The political cheap shot was aimed at Sen. Stabenow, but its shrapnel hit Chinese-Americans across the state and nation.

In 2012, more than ever, we need less political rhetoric and more solid plans to get Michigan working again. China-bashing is unacceptable and is not a plan. Even in the rough and tumble world of politics, there should be no room for xenophobia and racism.

Also see a response to Hoekstra’s Super Bowl display from the satirists at Funny or Die.