How Tariffs Are Playing Into Trump’s Xenophobic Agenda

Trump’s anti-China protectionism and “free trade” neoliberalism are both dead ends. To confront multinational corporate power, the answer is global solidarity.

Tobita Chow

We should look at Chinese workers as our comrades, not our enemies. (Scott Olsen/Getty Images)

In ear­ly March, Pres­i­dent Trump announced steel tar­iffs as part of a pro­tec­tion­ist, anti-Chi­na eco­nom­ic strat­e­gy. More recent­ly, Trump esca­lat­ed to tar­get $60 bil­lion of imports from the Chi­nese tech indus­try with addi­tion­al tar­iffs. Some pro­gres­sives are sup­port­ive of these tar­iffs on the grounds that they pro­tect work­ers in the Unit­ed States. For exam­ple, Unit­ed Steel­work­ers Pres­i­dent Leo Ger­ard argues that steel tar­iffs may give a bad­ly need­ed boost to employ­ment in the steel indus­try and the com­mu­ni­ties that depend on it. Nonethe­less, it is strate­gi­cal­ly dis­as­trous to offer sup­port to Trump’s tar­iffs, and the strat­e­gy that under­lies them.

Pro­gres­sives can­not com­pete with the Right on pro­tec­tion­ism. In 2016 Hillary Clin­ton and Bernie Sanders attempt­ed to make use of anti-Chi­na rhetoric, but Trump out­did them with ease. Polling of vot­ers in both major par­ties’ 2016 pri­maries showed that only Trump had a base that strong­ly sup­port­ed pro­tec­tion­ism. Pro­tec­tion­ism plays much bet­ter to the Right, where it is a core prin­ci­ple that for­eign­ers are com­peti­tors and threats.

Because of these under­tones, pro­tec­tion­ism can inad­ver­tent­ly pro­mote xeno­pho­bia. It is all too short a road from treat­ing Asian indus­try as a threat to treat­ing Asian peo­ple as a threat. Trump already start­ed down this road by propos­ing restric­tions on visas for peo­ple from Chi­na as part of his trade” fight, while Chris Wray, Trump’s FBI Direc­tor, recent­ly all but admit­ted that he is racial­ly pro­fil­ing Chi­nese-Amer­i­cans and Chi­nese immi­grants in inves­ti­ga­tions of eco­nom­ic espi­onage.” His­to­ry shows that this can esca­late to vio­lent extremes. In 1982, resent­ment against the Japan­ese auto indus­try con­tributed to the mur­der of Chi­nese-Amer­i­can Vin­cent Chin in a Detroit sub­urb. He was killed by an auto plant super­in­ten­dent and a laid-off autowork­er who declared, It’s because of you lit­tle moth­er­fuck­ers that we’re out of work.”

Ulti­mate­ly, pro­gres­sives need to think beyond the debate around tar­iffs. Since the tar­iffs are meant to cre­ate jobs, this is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to counter with our own job cre­ation pro­gram. Sen. Kirsten Gilli­brad (D‑N.Y.), con­sid­ered an ear­ly fron­trun­ner in the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­maries, recent­ly came out in sup­port of a fed­er­al jobs guar­an­tee, an idea that is gain­ing momen­tum. This pro­gram could be under­writ­ten by mas­sive invest­ment in pub­lic works. For exam­ple, a Green New Deal” to build clean ener­gy infra­struc­ture would both com­bat cli­mate change and cre­ate jobs in the steel industry.

In addi­tion to domes­tic pro­grams, we need a pro­gres­sive approach to the glob­al econ­o­my. Too much of the debate around Trump’s tar­iffs has remained stuck in a false choice between anti-Chi­na pro­tec­tion­ism and free trade” neolib­er­al­ism. Both are dead ends.

The alter­na­tive is to reach across bor­ders and form a glob­al pro­gres­sive alliance to con­front multi­na­tion­al cor­po­rate pow­er and cre­ate a more egal­i­tar­i­an glob­al econ­o­my. Many U.S. pro­gres­sives are unaware that there are pro­gres­sive and work­ing-class forces in Chi­na with whom we could ally our­selves. Chi­nese work­ers have been strik­ing in huge num­bers, mak­ing Chi­na the world epi­cen­ter of wild­cat strikes. Mean­while, activists and artists agi­tate for fem­i­nism and migrant rights, young work­ers devel­op Marx­ist cri­tiques of Chi­nese soci­ety, and stu­dents orga­nize in sol­i­dar­i­ty with work­ers. Work­er unrest has also touched China’s own Rust Belt” in the north­east region of the coun­try, where hun­dreds of thou­sands of steel­work­ers are los­ing their jobs due to glob­al over­ca­pac­i­ty, just as has hap­pened here.

Work­ers and pro­gres­sives in Chi­na and the Unit­ed States face shared prob­lems, and we have a shared inter­est in cre­at­ing a new glob­al eco­nom­ic sys­tem that works bet­ter for all poor and work­ing peo­ple. This new glob­al econ­o­my could include a glob­al min­i­mum wage sys­tem, the right to col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, and a régime of cor­po­rate account­abil­i­ty that holds com­pa­nies respon­si­ble for vio­la­tions of labor stan­dards any­where in their glob­al sup­ply chains. These reforms would great­ly ben­e­fit work­ers in Chi­na and oth­er low-income coun­tries. Cor­po­ra­tions would lose the abil­i­ty to force U.S. work­ers into com­pe­ti­tion with work­ers who are much worse off, improv­ing the sta­tus and pow­er of work­ers here as well. Com­bined with a fed­er­al job guar­an­tee, this is our best path forward.

The need for pro­gres­sive inter­na­tion­al­ism goes beyond eco­nom­ic issues. Not only Trump, but also main­stream Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats are com­mit­ted to con­tain­ing the ris­ing pow­er of Chi­na in order to main­tain the Unit­ed State’s sta­tus as the world’s sole super­pow­er. We should be braced for polit­i­cal lead­ers to stoke nation­al­ist sen­ti­ments in order to build pop­u­lar sup­port for esca­lat­ing con­fronta­tions, from tar­iffs to immi­gra­tion restric­tions to mil­i­tarism. In order to escape this nation­al­ist abyss, we must unite with like­mind­ed peo­ple in Chi­na around a shared inter­na­tion­al­ist vision. It is there­fore urgent that we set aside pro­tec­tion­ism, which pro­motes the coun­ter­pro­duc­tive nar­ra­tive that Chi­nese work­ers are our com­peti­tors, rather than our poten­tial comrades.

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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