Guest blog: To bash or not to bash

Guest blog: To bash or not to bash

In yesterday’s (Nov. 25) Financial Times, my friend Claremont College professor Minxin Pei commented that "China may choose to do nothing (with regard to trying to rein in North Korea) just to prove that the west cannot bash it and beg at the same time."

It wasn’t the question of China possibly cutting off its nose to spite its face that caught my attention. After all, China may really not consider North Korea to be or any danger to it at all. Rather it was the use of the term "bash" and its ascription of bashing to the "West." Let me hasten to say that my comments here are not at all meant as a criticism of Minxin who I am sure used the term simply as a repetition of current usage and without giving it much thought. But that in itself is significant as a manifestation of how extant this powerfully loaded term has become.

Ask yourself what bash means or what people would be trying to say if they called you a basher. The word suggests a vicious, even irrational and probably gratuitous or perhaps racist, attack on someone or some group or some country. And let me say up front that I know this and am sensitive to it, because in the 1980s and 1990s when I was first a U.S. trade negotiator with Japan and then an analyst of globalization at the Economic Strategy Institute, I was routinely referred to in the press as a "Japan basher."

In the case of yesterday’s article, the comment was in relation to the fact that China has been criticized over the past few years on a wide range of issues including its claims of sovereignty over disputed isles in the South China Sea, the ramming of a Japanese ship by a Chinese fishing vessel, refusal to relax its intervention in global currency markets and to allow its currency to revalue significantly, reluctance to accept some degree of responsibility for rebalancing the current, massive global trade imbalances, as well as its refusal or inability to do anything about its North Korean allies’ nuclear proliferation actions.

Now, no doubt, there are two sides to all these stories and China has a right to voice its claims and to act or not to act as it sees fit. But surely other countries may have grounds for their criticisms. China no more than any other country should be immune from legitimate criticism. But this is, in effect, what happens when we use start using the terms bash, bashing, and basher. Because they suggest irrationality, hatred, and racism, they inhibit and obviate serious and necessary discussion of important differences and issues. Are there no legitimate grounds for concern about China’s territorial claims in the Pacific or about its currency and trade policies? Certainly the Federal Reserve’s monetary policies and U.S. currency policies were subjected to withering criticism at the last G-20 meeting.

But this only underlines another interesting element of phenomenon. "Bashing" is something that apparently can only be done by the West, and really only by the United States. No one calls China a U.S. basher when it criticizes Ben Bernanke or the U.S. banking system. No one calls Germany a U.S. basher when it levels criticism at U.S. economic policies.

The term basher was first popularized by Washington Post columnist Hobart Rowen in the 1980s when, in his passionate advocacy of free trade, he used it to undermine the legitimacy of any U.S. response to or even criticism of Japan’s mercantilist, export led growth strategy of the time. His tactic proved so effective that it was quickly adopted by the officialdom and media of Japan and other countries wishing to deflect and halt U.S. pressure on them for change.

It’s time to stop using this term in reference to debate with or about our international partners. We should be speaking of "criticizing" rather than of "bashing."

Clyde Prestowitz is president of the Economic Strategy Institute and author of The Betrayal of American Prosperity.