A Progressive Approach to China

Progressives must reject the false choice between Trump’s anti-China protectionism and the “free trade” status quo that preceded him

Tobita Chow September 12, 2019

Demonstrators gathered in Chinatown, N.Y., August 17 to show their support of Hong Kong's ongoing pro-democracy struggle. (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

While Trump’s trade war with Chi­na threat­ens to trig­ger a glob­al reces­sion, Trump is react­ing by con­tin­u­ing his eco­nom­ic attacks as well as blam­ing sup­posed inter­nal ene­mies, such as the fake news media.” This emerg­ing feed­back loop between deep­en­ing nation­al­ism and eco­nom­ic dys­func­tion is rem­i­nis­cent of dynam­ics that led to World War II.

But, progressives may ask, how could we seek de-escalation and cooperation with a country engaged in human rights abuses?

To halt our descent into this abyss, and to defeat Trump, we must reject this false choice between Trump’s anti-Chi­na pro­tec­tion­ism and the free trade” sta­tus quo that pre­ced­ed him. The way for­ward is not mutu­al attacks on each other’s economies. Instead, in sol­i­dar­i­ty with labor activists in Chi­na, we should demand U.S. politi­cians com­mit to end­ing the trade war and renew­ing trade nego­ti­a­tions cen­tered on glob­al stan­dards for wages, work­ing con­di­tions and labor rights to improve liv­ing con­di­tions and cre­ate jobs in the Unit­ed States, Chi­na and beyond.

To get sig­nif­i­cant con­ces­sions from Chi­na, a pro­gres­sive U.S. gov­ern­ment must make pro­pos­als in our mutu­al inter­ests. The Unit­ed States could offer, for exam­ple, to col­lab­o­rate with China’s Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive, a mas­sive pro­gram financ­ing infra­struc­ture around the world — on the con­di­tions that it focus on clean ener­gy and trans­porta­tion infra­struc­ture, with pro­tec­tions for work­ers and com­mu­ni­ties. Anoth­er pos­si­bil­i­ty would be to coop­er­ate in the reform of the World Trade Orga­ni­za­tion and oth­er transna­tion­al insti­tu­tions, cor­rect­ing the bias­es that favor the busi­ness inter­ests of wealth­i­er coun­tries over those of the Glob­al South.

But, pro­gres­sives may ask, how could we seek de-esca­la­tion and coop­er­a­tion with a coun­try engaged in human rights abus­es? We must also address the Chi­na-backed crack­down on anti-gov­ern­ment pro­test­ers in Hong Kong and the intern­ment of more than 1 mil­lion Uighur Mus­lims in re-edu­ca­tion labor camps. Pro­tect­ing civ­il rights and polit­i­cal free­doms in Hong Kong is strate­gi­cal­ly nec­es­sary; labor orga­ni­za­tions in Hong Kong, such as Chi­na Labour Bul­letin and Stu­dents and Schol­ars Against Cor­po­rate Mis­be­hav­iour (SACOM), serve as a source of train­ing and sup­port for activists and pro­gres­sives with­in main­land Chi­na, and also link main­land Chi­nese activists to inter­na­tion­al orga­niz­ers. This link is essen­tial to efforts to build grass­roots sol­i­dar­i­ty and counter nation­al­ism in both the U.S. and China.

One obsta­cle to this sol­i­dar­i­ty is that, in the West, con­cerns about Chi­nese rights abus­es can eas­i­ly be co-opt­ed for racist right-wing pol­i­tics. For exam­ple, at one Cana­di­an uni­ver­si­ty, after mes­sages post­ed on a cam­pus bul­letin board in sup­port of Hong Kong pro­test­ers were van­dal­ized, a pop­u­lar stu­dent Face­book group cir­cu­lat­ed a meme accus­ing main­land Chi­nese stu­dents of being spies.

For years, the most promi­nent Wash­ing­ton ally for Uighur and Hong Kong activists has been Repub­li­can Sen. Mar­co Rubio, a right-wing nation­al­ist posi­tion­ing him­self as a top anti-Chi­na hawk. Rubio backed leg­is­la­tion—some of which has won the sup­port of pro­gres­sive politi­cians, includ­ing Sens. Eliz­a­beth War­ren and Bernie Sanders — is shaped by anti-Chi­na pol­i­tics, threat­en­ing pun­ish­ment against the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment and China’s econ­o­my in the name of human rights.

This all sticks, no car­rots” approach will not be effec­tive. Just look to Trump’s trade war: While it’s dam­aged China’s econ­o­my, it has not con­vinced the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment to con­cede to U.S. demands. Instead, offer­ing new forms of coop­er­a­tion around shared goals can increase our lever­age to end human rights abuses.

This strat­e­gy will also address the root caus­es of the crack­downs, which get too lit­tle atten­tion in West­ern dis­course: the pres­sure on the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment to main­tain eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and social con­trol in the face of wors­en­ing eco­nom­ic con­di­tions, which are only exac­er­bat­ed by U.S. eco­nom­ic attacks. In cities across Chi­na, as in Hong Kong, there is grow­ing dis­con­tent with inequal­i­ty, over­work, the loss of upward mobil­i­ty and a sense of powerlessnesss.

The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment man­ages this specter of social unrest through cen­sor­ship and crack­downs on civ­il soci­ety, which is why Chi­na has been so uncom­pro­mis­ing with Hong Kong pro­test­ers: Con­ced­ing to their demands could dele­git­imize the régime in main­land cities as well.

Mean­while, the Uighur con­cen­tra­tion camps — which the gov­ern­ment jus­ti­fies with Islam­o­pho­bic war on ter­ror” rhetoric bor­rowed from the Unit­ed States — serve the pur­pose of secur­ing the ter­ri­to­ry of Xin­jiang for the exploita­tion and trans­porta­tion of nat­ur­al resources, espe­cial­ly oil and gas. U.S. eco­nom­ic coop­er­a­tion could be an oppor­tu­ni­ty to reduce this oppression.

This inter­na­tion­al­ist frame­work is not yet com­mon sense among U.S. pro­gres­sives. To make it so, we need greater polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion with­in our move­ments. We must also orga­nize with­in dias­po­ra com­mu­ni­ties, of peo­ple with roots in both main­land Chi­na and Hong Kong, to pres­sure politi­cians around these issues. Mean­while Uighurs and Mus­lim Amer­i­cans of any ori­gin can lead oth­er pro­gres­sives in under­stand­ing the need to com­bat the cul­tur­al geno­cide of Mus­lims in Xinjiang.

De-esca­lat­ing U.S.-China ten­sions while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly address­ing human and labor rights abus­es is the only path for­ward to secure glob­al peace, a just glob­al econ­o­my and a glob­al response to the cli­mate cri­sis. There are ten­sions between these goals, but only by con­fronting them can we devel­op a response that ris­es to meet the present crisis.

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.

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