Shadow Government

China Will Be Front and Center During the 2020 Election

Whether it’s about trade or the coronavirus, it’s possible to be tough on China without being racist or reckless.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in Osaka on June 29, 2019.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in Osaka on June 29, 2019. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

The relationship between the United States and China is the most uncertain, most interesting, and most consequential bilateral relationship in international politics today—and likely to remain that way in the coming decades. China’s growing economic weight and the continued absolute control over its politics by the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party (CCP) make the role of China a unique dynamic in the world.

A new Pew poll released in April shows that Americans have increasingly negative views of China. When Pew first started tracking U.S. attitudes to China, in 2005, 43 percent saw China favorably and 35 percent unfavorably; this year, the balance has changed to 66 percent having an unfavorable view versus only 26 percent with a favorable one. While attitudes toward Chinese President Xi Jinping appear to have been particularly affected by the coronavirus pandemic, the poll also shows that concerns about China go far beyond a single issue. More than 4 in 5 polled Americans believe that every one of the following is a problem for the United States: the trade deficit with China, the loss of U.S. jobs to China, China’s growing military power, China’s environmental impact, cyberattacks from China, and China’s policies on human rights.

While there are some gaps between Republicans and Democrats overall and on specific issues (Democrats are more concerned about China’s impact on the environment, for example, while Republicans more concerned about the trade deficit), there is broad alignment on the level of concern. It is unusual that two-thirds of Americans agree on a political matter, and when they do, especially in an election year, politicians often find themselves competing to outdo one another in giving voice to popular opinion.

Candidates—not just for president, but for the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate too—are going to talk about China a lot as the election season heats up this year. The ways in which they do so, and whether they engage with the issue seriously or not, will have consequences for U.S. domestic politics, for U.S. influence in the world, as well as for the United States’ capacity to manage its relationship with China and challenge China’s bad behavior.

There is no need for bombast: The facts about the Chinese regime’s actions are damning enough. China’s government is a brutal authoritarian regime and a strategic competitor of the United States. It is right for candidates to say as much, and to talk about the challenges that China poses, or could pose, to the national security and long-term prosperity of the United States and its allies. Criticism of China is not ipso facto racist or “China bashing.”

Responsible and reasonable arguments about China should follow some general principles. First, it should be clear that the target of criticism and concern is the Chinese government and CCP leadership, not the people of China, and certainly not people of Chinese origin or descent.It should be clear that the target of criticism is the Chinese government and CCP leadership, not the people of China, and certainly not people of Chinese origin or descent. Second, the criticism should be related to specific policies or behaviors of the Chinese regime—for example, its failure to provide accurate and timely public health data both at home and abroad, its forced imprisonment of more than 1 million Uighurs and members of other Muslim minorities in concentration camps in Xinjiang, its apparent adoption of Russian disinformation tactics, its creeping power grab in the South China Sea, its massive number of domestic and foreign political prisoners, its use of state-sponsored corporate espionage, and its engagement in unfair trade practices. Better yet, when politicians identify such problematic behaviors, they should propose how the United States, working with allies when possible and appropriate, might best respond to them. Candidates who propose policy responses are doing more than opportunistically exploiting popular concerns, they are appealing to use government action to address them. Finally, they shouldn’t use implicitly or explicitly racist language in their critiques, and those who do should be called out.

Irresponsible rhetoric on China will fall back on and damage the United States in several ways. First, racist rhetoric can encourage the perpetrators of hate crimes against U.S. citizens and residents. At the same time, it empowers the Chinese regime by reinforcing its propaganda that paints U.S. criticism of the CCP regime as just a cover for a supposed secret agenda to hold the Chinese people back. Moreover, the more factual and specific U.S. politicians are about the challenges and threats posed by the Chinese regime, the more likely they are to build international support for managing those challenges and threats effectively. Conversely, reckless bombast or hyperbole is likely to make allies and partners more likely to see the U.S.-Chinese relationship as a confrontation that they’d just as soon stay out of. The United States has an opportunity to maintain a moral high ground that will enhance its influence with its partners and give it an advantage as it seeks to manage a difficult but necessary bilateral relationship with the Chinese government in the coming years.

To be clear: This is not an argument to pull punches, but rather to land them squarely. For those who believe—as I do—that the world will learn much more about the Chinese government’s negligence and cover-up with respect to the coronavirus in the months to come, and that there will be new instances of aggressive behavior by the regime to confront in the years ahead, maintaining one’s credibility in holding the CCP to account is essential, as is the ability to rally others in the international community to do likewise.

The focus needs to be on substance, not tone: Louder and more offensive is not the same as tougher.The focus needs to be on substance, not tone: Louder and more offensive is not the same as tougher. The more outrageous and obnoxious actors—such as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and (when he isn’t fawning over Xi’s leadership) President Donald Trump, play right into the Chinese regime’s hands while undermining U.S. credibility. Fact-free or crude criticism of China aimed at distracting Americans from the failings of the Trump administration won’t do anything to address those failings and will exacerbate the challenges the United States faces going forward. China’s demonstrable misdeeds merit the prosecution of a sober, robust, facts-based critique. Political stunts don’t advance that objective.

It is unsurprising that after a generation of U.S. dominance of a unipolar world following the Cold War, China’s rise provokes unease. Even if China were a democratic, rights-respecting state, the erosion of U.S. hegemony would still constitute a significant change in the international political system and would induce anxiety in some quarters, as all changes do. Because China is not a democracy, and because its authoritarian government does not share a vision for the world that is compatible with that of the United States and its allies, these anxieties are multiplied and amplified. But it is precisely because the anxieties are well founded, and the challenges posed by China so significant and lasting, that precipitous and reckless rhetoric should be avoided—including by the candidates in this year’s election.

Daniel Baer is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. Twitter: @danbbaer

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