One indication of how the trade war with China is going is to see how administration supporters characterize China now compared to the outset. To be sure, there was always grumbling about Chinese actions, but lately the rhetoric has intensified to criticism of China in general.
Since our actions against China have not reduced their trade surplus with the U.S., and tariffs have accomplished nothing but cost U.S. consumers, the only possible explanation is China is evil, we now reason. It makes no sense, of course, but distracts from our inability to affect trade numbers. The trade war has become about punishing an evildoer.
Past Sins. We’ve suddenly noticed the horrific events of the Cultural Revolution, even though it barely made the news at the time. We conveniently forget a civilization 20 times as old will have many black moments in its past. Attaching personal attributes to an entire nation is just a form of racism, however. Our quarrel is no longer about just Chinese policies. It’s about the Chinese, period.
Xi Jinping’s maneuvering to become president-for-life, a move that bemuses our own president, is another proof of their now vile political ways. Forgotten is the fact that Xi’s tactic is the rule, not the exception. Hu Jintao, his predecessor, was the first Chinese leader to accomplish a timely transition. It will take some time for longstanding traditions of Chinese dictatorship to change.
“Our quarrel is no longer about just Chinese policies. It’s about the Chinese, period.”
Reframing an economic dispute as a struggle of spiritual principles makes drastic, even counterproductive action seem justifiable. We can even admit these crude steps are imperfect and cause considerable collateral damage. In this way, we make a stronger case for victimhood, a role farmers have mastered.
In short, our game has changed from influencing trade practices to moral policing. We have to maintain our clearly ineffective tariff actions to “stand up” to the new Evil Empire. Previous leadership was asleep, China-hawks charge. Timely stern action (presumably tariffs) could have kept China in its place.
Unfortunately, where this place is exactly is not our decision. Nor do we know what measures would have worked. Like a doctor comlaining “you called me too late,” blaming predecessors is an admission of our present global impotence.
Former administrations were well aware of this competition and were painstakingly assembling allies to draw China into accepted commercial rules at a pace that allowed the world economy to adjust and Chinese leaders to maintain face. Scuttling the Transpacific Trade Partnership (TPP) threw away one of our best hopes to lead China to fuller compliance.
This emerging antipathy toward China may not come from a moral awakening so much as the deeper fear of losing our superior global status—an outcome that appears certain. As I have noted before, the anxiety many feel about being the No. 2 power in the world originates from different perceived threats.
One is the fear China could bully us in the future with their economic clout and unpredictability, or to put it another way, adopt our current foreign policy. The troubling debate about their “state capitalism” versus our purer version uncovers uncomfortable truths about how our system is struggling with the breakdown of democratic institutions like Congress.
China’s Edge. What is really a competition involving demographics, economics and governance is being dumbed down to a cartoonish war between good and bad. Not only does this reduction complicate our search for a solution, it leads to dangerous thoughts of military actions. I no longer presume armed conflict is unthinkable, just disastrously consequential. We have nothing positive to show for all the wars of my lifetime, after all.
China is a global competitor unlike any we have known. It is easier for many to whine about how the Chinese run their country than to lead the U.S. to their competitive level. As moral lines are drawn between nations, negotiations become harder, expertise is replaced with motivated reasoning, and risks to not just business but lives increase. It also makes the good guys and the bad guys more alike, and not the way you would hope.