Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cast China’s relationship with the United States in apocalyptic terms during his speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif., in late July. “Securing our freedoms from the Chinese Communist Party is the mission of our time,” Pompeo warned. “If we bend the knee now, our children’s children may be at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party.”
Nine days prior, President Donald Trump delivered a rambling, nearly hour-long address in the Rose Garden, claiming “Joe Biden’s entire career has been a gift to the Chinese Communist Party. … And it’s been devastating for the American worker.” That same week, Peter Navarro, the president’s trade adviser, went one step further by telling Fox News that China “hit us with that deadly virus, that weaponized virus.”
As Covid-19 ravages the United States, the Trump White House and its Republican enablers are leveraging sinophobia as their best chance to avoid an electoral bloodbath in November. Acting in silent collaboration with the Chinese government (which itself is turning toward nationalism in the face of intense political and economic pressures), they have plunged us into what some call a new Cold War.
The consequences of this power conflict are already in evidence: a sharp rise in anti-Asian racism and forms of McCarthyism in the United States, and growing xenophobia and repression in China. The conflict is also deeply reshaping the Republican Party; even if the 2020 election proves a disaster for the GOP, the consolidation of right-wing nationalism may offer the party long-term political viability. In a now zero-sum struggle for global growth, it would be naive to dismiss the possibility of a U.S.-China military confrontation erupting.
Biden and the Democratic establishment, meanwhile, have chosen to attack Trump as insufficiently hawkish. Progressives and the Left, therefore, must provide an alternative path forward — one rooted in global solidarity and international cooperation. Success in this endeavor could defeat not only the coronavirus but the scourges of climate change and global poverty. Failure all but ensures a future ravaged by disease, environmental breakdown and nationalist conflicts.
The Trump campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee formalized their sinophobic strategy in April. First, blame China for the pandemic, deindustrialization and the opioid crisis. Then, accuse Biden and other Democrats of all but surrendering to Beijing. Plus, vow to restore U.S. manufacturing while imposing sanctions on China, the biggest economic rival to the United States. This demagoguery has energized the party’s base and directed attention away from Trump’s failures, allowing the GOP to go on the offensive.
Anti-China messaging, echoed in rightwing media, is all over the president’s 2020 campaign ads. America First, a pro-Trump super PAC, has spent millions of dollars in swing states to attack Biden as supporting China’s rise and for labeling the White House’s January travel ban as xenophobic. Ads call the former vice president “Beijing Biden.” A sponsored website claims the Biden family’s “corrupt ties to the Chinese elite raise serious questions about Biden’s ethics and the secretive motives for his weak stances on China.”
Similar posturing has permeated the rhetoric of Republicans in the Senate. One spot for Sen. Martha McSally (R‑Ariz.) accuses Biden and McSally’s opponent, Mark Kelly, of “selling out to China.” One for Sen. Joni Ernst (R‑Iowa) says,“We rely on Communist China for far too much, from technology to medicine. So I’m fighting to bring it home.”
This brand of sinophobia, portraying the Democratic agenda as pro-China as much as possible, has metastasized beyond discussions of deindustrialization and the pandemic to include such progressive priorities as cutting the bloated U.S. military budget and transitioning to clean energy. Trump even claimed the Paris climate accord “would have crushed American manufacturers while allowing China to pollute,” calling it “one more gift from Biden to the Chinese Communist Party.”
Similarly, the Right has spuriously attacked Black Lives Matter as a Chinese plot. Laura Ingraham of Fox News suggested the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “has its hands in the riots and the current push to destabilize America,” while Chadwick Moore appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight to argue China is funding the movement. Raheem Kassam, a collaborator of former White House strategist Steve Bannon, declared Black Lives Matter is “laying the groundwork” for a “CCP invasion.”
Conspiracy theories like these help buttress the Right’s “blame China” narrative. In an MSNBC interview in early July, Navarro claimed “the Chinese Communist Party is responsible for every bad thing we’re experiencing” while suggesting the coronavirus is a “deliberate” attack. Nationalists also argue the World Health Organization is run by agents of the Chinese government who colluded to ensure the virus spreads — a theory that ultimately led Trump to withdraw the United States from the organization, jeopardizing international efforts to contain the pandemic.
Beyond mere rhetoric, the Trump administration is implementing aggressive policy that reshapes and inflames the U.S.-China relationship. The White House has imposed tight restrictions on Chinese journalists in the United States, declared an end to preferential economic treatment of Hong Kong and sanctioned Chinese officials involved with the persecution of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims in the Xinjiang region. More recently, the White House forced China to shut down its consulate in Houston and floated plans to impose a travel ban on members of the CCP and their families, which could affect as many as 270 million people.
Perhaps most alarming is the increase in U.S.-China military activities. In the South China Sea, two U.S. Navy carrier groups held exercises for the first time in more than a decade. This year’s Senate debate over the U.S. military budget included multiple competing proposals to increase anti-China spending by billions of dollars. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has threatened to engage China (and Russia) in a new nuclear arms race, with head arms control negotiator Marshall Billingslea promising the United States would spend its adversaries “into oblivion.”
These actions have only succeeded in antagonizing the Chinese government, whose anti-Western nationalism increasingly mirrors anti-China sentiment in the United States. Further provocations risk retaliation that the Trump administration is likely to answer in kind, locking the countries in a feedback loop of belligerence and brinksmanship. Escalating pressure to pick a side threatens Uighurs, Hong Kongers, Chinese Americans, and others caught in between. It also serves the Republican electoral strategy: As long as the U.S.-China conflict deepens and remains in the headlines, the GOP can drive voters and increase the power of its xenophobic campaign.
This rise in sinophobia is not just a cynical ploy; it reflects a deeper shift within the U.S. elite toward confrontation with China, driven by militarists and economic nationalists who insist the United States is locked in a zero-sum struggle with China for power and global growth.
Surrounded by U.S. military bases and allies, China is attempting to establish itself as a regional military power, a development the U.S. security establishment perceives as a threat to its dominant position in the Pacific. The size and rapid growth of the Asia market “increasingly defines global power and commerce,” argues prominent Asia policy figure Kurt Campbell, making U.S. primacy essential to “spur domestic revival and renovation [in the United States] as well as to keep the peace in the world’s most dynamic region.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R‑Fla.) — in contrast with Trump, whose trade war against China in 2018 led to a recession in the U.S. manufacturing sector and a spike in farm bankruptcies — offers a different, more sophisticated vision of anti-China economic nationalism. The senator contends that confronting China is key to improving the status of U.S. workers, even as his policy proposals carefully avoid minimum wage increases or stronger labor rights. Instead, Rubio’s policies feature tax breaks, subsidies and other conventionally pro-business demands. For Rubio and his ilk, making U.S. manufacturing more competitive with China requires an intensification of worker exploitation, keeping costs low and profits high.
The white nationalist faction of the White House shares these broader aims while pursuing more blatantly racist policy. Led by Stephen Miller, the faction has used the U.S.-China trade war to lobby (unsuccessfully) for a total ban on Chinese international students, and is almost certainly behind the proposed travel ban on CCP members and their families.
These currents are pushing the Republican Party away from the free-market fundamentalism that defined it for decades, emboldening Republicans to declare themselves champions of so-called regular people and the common good. That these politics are inherently racist and exclusionary has not stopped some putatively progressive commentators from embracing them. Matt Stoller, for example, author of Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy, expresses admiration for the economic nationalism of Sens. Rubio, Josh Hawley (R‑Mo.) and Tom Cotton (R‑Ark.), along with Peter Navarro, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Tucker Carlson. In effect, Steve Bannon is getting what he has wanted for years: a party for which “the economic war with China is everything” and can be used as a focus for its political realignment.
The worst-case scenario is that these trends converge to produce a military confrontation with China, perhaps as an October surprise aimed at changing the dynamics of the presidential race. As The Nation’s defense correspondent Michael Klare argues, the South China Sea is an especially dangerous locus of tension, where “the U.S. military is proceeding down an extremely dangerous path, and one very likely to lead to miscalculation and war.” Shockingly, Rep. Ted Yoho (R‑Fla.) predicted as much in a July interview with the Washington Examiner: “There will be a clash … people will die.”
Republicans are not alone in pursuing anti-China messaging. For a number of years, commentators from across the political spectrum have argued the “China threat” could be used to unify an increasingly unruly population. Of course, uniting the country around a foreign threat invariably invites bigotry — a reality that racist responses to the pandemic have thrown into stark relief. Sadly, this has not prevented Democrats from pushing their own version of sinophobia.
The Biden campaign’s initial response to Trump’s attacks was to cut an unabashedly belligerent ad claiming he would have forced U.S. medical personnel into China early in the outbreak, darkly intoning the president “rolled over for the Chinese” by allowing 40,000 possibly infected travelers into the United States after imposing his travel ban.
A large number of Asian American and progressive groups harshly criticized the ad, in an open letter to the Biden campaign, for “playing to right-wing nationalism and fanning anti-China sentiment.” (Full disclosure: The authors of this article are signatories.) But Biden has made only cosmetic changes in the weeks and months since. After Trump’s Rose Garden speech in July, the Biden campaign issued talking points reaffirming the conservative premise that China must be held accountable for the pandemic.
Although Democrats claim to oppose “the trap of a new Cold War,” in practice they give prominence to international tension rather than chart paths for cooperation. This attitude risks entrenching sinophobia as a defining feature of U.S. politics, endangering progressive priorities by favoring so-called national security over, for example, action on climate change and workers’ rights. Perhaps Democratic operatives see their posturing as doing little more than defusing a potent Republican talking point, imagining that a Biden administration would safely pursue a more moderate approach to China (as former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did) after the election. Such assumptions, however, may prove ill-founded if the public begins to associate China not with low-cost exports and bootleg DVDs but mass death and U.S. economic collapse.
Prior to the pandemic, Americans were already under siege by abstract forces difficult to grasp in their immensity. From workforce casualization to the opioid epidemic, fears of scarcity to an acute sense of economic and cultural instability, millions of Americans were already feeling vulnerable and confused. Anti-China Republicans prey on such feelings, giving them a human face — a foreign face — and offering xenophobic violence as a substitute for genuine security. Polling data indicates this message is taking effect, with a rapid increase in popular antipathy toward China.
If Democrats accept this basic anti-China proposition, they ultimately risk losing their current electoral advantage. Stoking a fear of foreigners strengthens Trump’s hand, as his entire political identity is founded on xenophobia. If Trump’s best path to victory this November is to make the election about China, then Biden is blundering into a trap.
But even if the disastrous Republican response to the pandemic secures a large 2020 victory for Democrats, sinophobia could reorder American politics and embolden the forces of reaction. A left-liberal alliance has the chance to break Republican power once and for all, ending a years-long paralysis in U.S. politics that has stymied any progressive agenda. If Democrats refuse to look beyond November, however, then they risk winning a battle by ceding to the Republicans the terrain on which the war will be decided.
And in the process, Democrats risk a permanent break with China. Such a development would nourish anti-Asian racism in the U.S. and could trigger a frightening new era of militarism, xenophobia and large-scale international violence, extinguishing progressive momentum. What’s more, a new Cold War would render impossible the necessary international cooperation to contain future pandemics and climate change. Even if we were to somehow avoid a hot war, tens of millions of people could become the collateral damage of a protracted conflict.
Progressives are animated by equality and solidarity, essential values that could resolve this burgeoning U.S.-China power conflict, yet the U.S. Left appears ill equipped for the task. For all the groundbreaking domestic policy ideas, the Left lacks a global vision. Progressives may reject nationalism, but their thinking has turned inward just as surely as that of their right-wing counterparts.
Still, a leftist analysis can help us understand the recent intensification of nationalism. Where reactionaries view U.S.-China tension as racially or culturally driven and liberals see it as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism, progressives must understand that our global system has pitted these two countries against each other.
In the 1990s and 2000s, a neoliberal vision of free markets, integration and cosmopolitanism flourished in both countries. The United States and China complemented one another in the global economy; growth was achieved through cooperation. Since the Great Recession, however, faith in this system has steadily eroded amid sluggish growth worldwide, fueling nationalist movements across continents. Those nationalist movements have, in turn, pushed politics in a sharply authoritarian direction in not just the United States and China, but India, Turkey and many other countries. It’s not just China that has set up concentration camps to isolate those considered foreign and dangerous — the United States has its border camps and the European Union its refugee detention sites.
Since the 2008 economic crisis, Chinese leadership has accelerated its development strategy, aimed at ending China’s economic subordination to the West. China increasingly threatens the dominance of American corporations in such high-value sectors as robotics, artificial intelligence and biotechnology, even as the United States becomes dependent on those sectors to sustain its own economic growth.
If these nations find themselves on a collision course, neither homilies about world peace nor promises to return to a bygone era are likely to alter their trajectories. The source of this conflict is not racial, cultural or even political. It is the product of an increasingly dysfunctional global economy, and only by exposing this system can we find a way for both sides — along with the rest of the world — to survive and flourish.
What is the role of the Left in achieving such a transformation?
First, we must ensure the defeat of Trump and the GOP in November. While sinophobia is now common in both parties, the Republican version is unequivocally more conspiratorial, desperate and volatile. A Biden administration would not create an alternative to the new Cold War of its own accord, but it would proceed more cautiously and be more receptive to pressure from progressives — if progressives marshal the requisite support within the Democratic Party.
The Left must offer a clear and compelling alternative to the growing U.S.-China conflict and a path beyond the decaying global neoliberal order. In the short term, this path includes international coordination to combat the Covid-19 pandemic; doing so has the potential to counter anti-China sentiment among voters, according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll from May. When asked to choose between working with China to defeat the virus or holding China accountable for its role in the pandemic, participants favored cooperation over confrontation by a 28-point margin.
Beyond the current crisis, we must demand the United States partner with China (and all other countries) to end climate change and global inequality through coordinated, public investment, and by strengthening the power of labor around the world. Such an agenda could restructure global growth, dismantling the U.S.-China conflict at its source.
At the same time, progressives must affirm the rights of those threatened by the Chinese government — the Muslims of Xinjiang, Hong Kong protesters, journalists and others. The U.S. Left has, so far, allowed the Right to lead on these issues, which is not just a betrayal of our principles but a strategic error. We must make the case that a more cooperative, less antagonistic stance toward China may, in fact, open up more space to pressure the Chinese government. As former Obama adviser Ryan Hass and others have argued, the U.S.-China relationship has become so adversarial that China sees no benefit in yielding to U.S. demands.
Strengthening democracy in China and beyond will not be achieved through direct attacks on the CCP’s authoritarianism, especially when the United States has ignored (if not actively supported) similar abuses from Brazil to India and Saudi Arabia. Instead, we must build a movement of transnational solidarity to neutralize the nationalism and authoritarianism unleashed by our global economic system. Only then can we begin the difficult work of forging a better world.
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Tobita Chow is the director of Justice Is Global, a special project of People’s Action that is building a movement to create a more just and sustainable global economy and defeat right-wing nationalism around the world. You can follow Tobita on Twitter at @tobitac.