Because China is increasingly seen as a threat to U.S. global hegemony, anti-China nationalism is on the rise in American politics. Late last summer, Steve Bannon spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations and discovered — much to his surprise — that his hawkish approach to China had gone mainstream. Early this year, Defense Secretary James Mattis, who is in what passes as the moderate faction in the Donald Trump White House, released the 2018 National Defense Strategy, stating that “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” China leads the list of “strategic competitors” cited by the Department of Defense. In May, Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei warned at Axios that “China is the greatest, growing threat to America” and suggested that “a smart politician could turn China into a unifying villain on virtually every topic.” Earlier this month, the pundit Matt Yglesias appeared to agree, tweeting, “I’m sort of coming around to the view that anti-China politics could be the unifying national project we need.”
This mounting anti-China nationalism is bringing the United States to the brink of a potentially disastrous trade war between the world’s two largest economies, with bipartisan support. The Trump administration, after months of threatening a trade war with China, imposed tariffs on $34 billion of imports from China last Friday, and threatened to extend this to cover all $500 billion of imports.
This emerging trade war with China will lead to job loss in the U.S. agriculture, oil and auto industries that are concentrated in counties that voted for Trump. This is a tremendous opportunity for Democrats to attack the tariffs in order to split Trump's base among business leaders and blue-collar workers, but they show no sign of doing so. To the contrary, Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), the top Democrat in the Senate, responded with strong approval when the first round of tariffs were originally announced, tweeting on June 15 that the president’s actions on China are “on the money.” So far, Democrats have saved their sharpest criticism of Trump’s approach to China for when he called for an ease of sanctions on Chinese telecom giant ZTE in order to save it from going out of business entirely, an act which Democrats from both centrist and progressive wings of the party saw as too lenient. In other words, top Democrats are competing with Trump to see who can be the most hawkish anti-China nationalist.
The official justification for the tariffs centers on accusations of intellectual property theft, yet the leaders of the two parties are not pausing to evaluate the strength of the theft accusations. Some commentators are raising objections, including Yale’s Stephen Roach, who has argued that the Trump administration’s case is flawed and comes out of a “scapegoat mentality.” But these arguments are beside the point. The official case does not need to be logical in order to be politically effective, if it is just a political tool in the service of already agreed-upon goals.
Leaders in both parties share the fundamental goal of halting China’s rise relative to the United States as an economic power and, in particular, as a leader in global tech industries. Neither party seems to be grappling with the fact that this is something that the Chinese government has little choice but to maintain its economic growth and rise up the value chain from lower-productivity manufacturing to tech industries, which is the government’s only hope of delivering poverty reduction and continued upward mobility to the Chinese people. This is the regime’s side of an “unwritten contract” with its populace, without which it is at risk of losing popular legitimacy. It is therefore unreasonable and futile to expect the Chinese government to agree to measures that would slow China’s rise in the global economy or the global tech sector. U.S. political leaders have adopted a goal to contain China’s rise that will demand escalating conflict with China.
Anti-Chinese racial profiling on the rise
These political efforts to hedge against China are fueling anti-Chinese racism within the United States. The tenor of this racism, and its grip in mainstream politics, is expressed well by Christian Caryl, an opinions editor at The Washington Post, who warns that China has a “strategy to tap the huge ethnic Chinese diaspora in the United States and elsewhere as foot soldiers in China’s influence campaigns.” This image of an entire “ethnic diaspora” as a potential fifth column within U.S. society recalls the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII.
This racist stereotype is reflected in recent policies and the statements of political leaders. According to a white paper published by the Committee of 100, there is evidence that the FBI engages in racial profiling against people of Chinese and other Asian descent in economic espionage cases. In two high-profile cases, naturalized Chinese-American citizens, Sherry Chen and Xiaoxing Xi, were falsely accused of being Chinese spies stealing intellectual property from the United States. In both cases, the charges were later dropped. Chen’s charges were dropped without explanation, while in Xi’s case the investigators admitted that they had simply misunderstood the technology that Xi works with. In February, Trump’s FBI Director Chris Wray confirmed this institutionalized racism when he declared in a hearing that “the Chinese threat” is “not just a whole of government threat, but a whole-of-society threat.”
More recently, the Trump administration announced new restrictions on visas for people from China, including on international students studying in some fields of science and technology. This is also meant to be a measure to counter “economic espionage” and the theft of intellectual property. This policy again assumes everyone from China to be a potential threat to the U.S. economy and national security. Senator Marco Rubio welcomed this new policy, tweeting, “Imposing limits on some Chinese visas may seem harsh, but it’s necessary. #China poses unprecedented threat. Student & academic visas are another weapon they use against us in their campaign to steal & cheat their way to world dominance.” These visa restrictions have been criticized by university lobby groups, because tuition from Chinese international students has become a financial lifeline for many U.S. universities in the face of reduced public funding for higher education. The restrictions, however, have been largely overlooked by the progressive movement — and the lack of resistance is an open invitation to escalation against this population.
These trends must be examined in light of long-standing racist stereotypes about Chinese people and other Asians. In the United States and much of the Western world, Asians are seen as sources of pure labor power — maximally efficient workers in whom all human capacities that are useful for work (obedience, efficiency, self-discipline, self-denial, studiousness) are overdeveloped, while all other aspects of humanity that do not directly contribute to work (family life, play, creativity, emotion, friendship, autonomy) are degraded, underdeveloped or non-existent. This framework portrays Asians as a step removed from robots. This is especially true of East Asians, who are at the center of the ambiguous and inconsistent category of “Asian” in the U.S. racial imagination.
These racist ideas show up throughout these anti-Chinese trends in both domestic and foreign policy. The racist image of Chinese people as a source of pure economic efficiency makes it easy to see them as little more than a competitive threat to other workers. The racist assumption that Chinese people lack capacities for autonomy or creativity makes it easy to see them as little more than appendages of the Chinese government. As we see in the quotes above, it is common to make Chinese people invisible as individuals, and to imagine them instead as parts of a faceless mass called “China.”
Racism and foreign policy
These racist ideas also impact the approach the U.S. government’s foreign policy approach to China, and help explain why China (and by extension, the Chinese diaspora) is seen as such a fundamental threat. A deep and subtle form of racism is at work when U.S. elites try to understand China’s present actions as the repetition of unchanging patterns established during premodern times. Foreign policy analysts claim that President Xi Jinping is “simply another emperor in a long line spanning over 2,000 years,” or that “Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive mimics a Ming obsession.” Defense Secretary James Mattis recently echoed this framework, asserting that, “The Ming Dynasty appears to be their model, albeit in a more muscular manner, demanding other nations become tribute states kowtowing to Beijing.” This is an expression of a racist notion that Chinese leaders are — and always have been — incapable of the autonomy or creativity, and cannot help but remain stuck in an antiquated political culture that has remained fundamentally unchanged for centuries or millennia. Thus, China is portrayed as foreign not just to the United States, but to the modern world as a whole.
The racist tendency to deny the autonomy and agency of Chinese people as individuals also undermines progressive principles of solidarity with all poor and working people and thereby locks many U.S. progressives in nationalism. Chinese workers have been striking in large numbers, including in Walmart retail stores and in factories supplying the Walmart supply chain. These workers are challenging the same corporations as American workers, and militant labor movements in China and other export-driven economies have the potential to contribute a great deal to the strategy of U.S. progressives who feel out-maneuvered by globalization. Greater solidarity between activist workers in the United States and in China could greatly increase the power of movements in both countries. Tragically, progressive leaders in the United States rarely recognize Chinese workers as potential comrades in a shared struggle against global corporate power, and instead rob Chinese workers of their agency, objectify them as faceless competition to U.S. workers or disregard them entirely.
Even leading progressives like Bernie Sanders can fall short of full-throated solidarity with Chinese workers. In response to Trump’s decision to impose tariffs against Canada and the European Union, Sanders urged the White House to refocus tariffs on China and other low-income countries, saying on June 1, “We need a trade policy that is fair to American workers, not just large multi-national corporations.” This frames anti-China protectionism as a way to “punch up” against corporate power. Yet, don’t Chinese workers also deserve a fair trade policy? In a 2015 interview with Ezra Klein, Sanders did expresses sympathy for Chinese workers and a desire for them to achieve a “higher standard of living.” Yet, he also described them as competitors, saying, “I don't think decent-paying jobs in this country have got to be lost as companies shut down here and move to China.” Sanders vocalizing these positions despite, at other times, expressing principles of internationalism: In the same 2015 interview, he asserted that the United States must work more closely with China to combat climate change.
Some leading U.S. unions, meanwhile, embrace overtly protectionist policies. This spring, United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard argued in favor of steel tariffs, casting Chinese workers as competitors against their U.S. counterparts. Gerard cited China’s “dangerous and environmentally toxic mills,” as well as the construction of new ones, as playing a key role in throwing “tens of thousands” of Americans out of work. Also this spring, the AFL-CIO released a statement titled, "Strategic Tariffs Against China Are Critical Part of Trade Reform to Create More Jobs and Better Pay." The statement argues, “Tariffs aren’t an end goal, but an important tool to end trade practices that kill American jobs and drive down American pay.”
It is true that the global economy pits workers everywhere against each other in zero-sum competition for jobs and investment, and locks everyone in a race to the bottom in wages and working conditions. The relocation of factories and deindustrialization have been part of this dynamic, and some of this has taken place between the United States and China. But the role of U.S.-China competition is exaggerated and deeply misunderstood.
As Pun Ngai and Sam Austin write in the Introduction to Striking to Survive, a new book on worker resistance in China to factory relocations:
[R]elatively few manufacturing jobs have moved from the United States to China. The high tide of outsourcing took place in the 1980s, when many manufacturing jobs moved from cities in the northern United States to places such as Mexico, Taiwan, and other parts or the United States with weaker unions and lower wages. Many other jobs were replaced by automation. If mainland China ‘stole’ jobs from anyone, it was not from the United States but from Mexico and parts of East Asia in the 1990s and 2000s.
Automation is a larger factor in manufacturing job losses than relocations to all other countries put together. The U.S. manufacturing sector is doing well, it’s just producing much more with much fewer workers, including in the steel industry. Meanwhile, China has been hit by its own factory relocations to countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. China also has its own “Rust Belt” in the northeast which has suffered massive deindustrialization in steel and coal industries. In other words, deindustrialization and factory relocations to poorer regions is a global economic trend that affects workers in all countries. This is a shared problem which demands that we come together across borders around shared solutions. But the erasure of workers in China and elsewhere makes this impossible to see.
The way forward
Progressives need to embrace internationalism, rather than nationalism. Instead of the mainstream vision of uniting the left and right in the United States against China, progressive internationalists should propose a vision of uniting the workers of the world against the power of multinational corporations that are hurting poor and working people in all countries. It is vital to show a way beyond the impossible ambition to maintain U.S. hegemony forever.
There are many ways to pursue these goals. One is to organize between the United States and China against shared corporate targets — that is, corporations that are responsible for exploitation and oppression both here and there. There is no shortage of abusive corporations whose supply chains and retail chains are shared between the two countries, including high-profile corporate targets like Walmart, Amazon and Apple. International solidarity is, in fact, the only way to successfully confront the power of corporations whose sales, assets and workforces are mostly located in China and other countries outside of the United States. To try to fight them just within the United States is like trying to defeat a hydra by fighting just one of its heads.
Progressives can also propagate stories of progressives and worker activists in China, ideally in their own words. This is a way to reveal to Western progressives that there are counterparts in China who are potential comrades, and to fight back against the racist tendency to see them as faceless competition. There are a number of translated stories and interviews that give a sense of the spirit of workers and activists in China: interviews with Chinese worker activists, the stories collected in the books "China on Strike" and "Striking to Survive," the writings of persecuted student activists like feminist Yue Xin or the “Eight Young Leftists,” the poetry of Foxconn worker Xu Lizhi, satirical works like “Marx pays a visit to Foxconn” and more. Progressives can do more through both traditional and social media to popularize such stories.
Cooperation with the labor movement and progressive forces in China is currently difficult. In order to maintain social stability in the face of threats to economic growth, President Xi has led severe crackdowns on civil society, which especially target independent labor organizations and groups with connections to the United States. But as stories of Chinese activists show, Xi's hold on Chinese society is not as total as most westerners assume. And there are larger openings in Hong Kong where civil society groups remain much freer than in mainland China and also retain connections with the mainland. Replacing antagonistic nationalism with a posture of international solidarity will create new opportunities for progressive forces in China.
Progressives can also propose and lobby for policy solutions that provide alternatives to the existing global economy, which pressures countries to confront each other in a race to the bottom. The solution is relatively straightforward: global standards that will protect poor and working people across borders. This includes a global minimum wage that lifts up wages across borders, global standards on corporate taxes to stop global tax evasion, and binding climate change standards. To help enforce these standards, we can also create cross-border mechanisms for corporate accountability, giving Chinese workers the power to confront U.S. companies for their abuses over there and giving U.S. workers in Chinese-owned companies the same power. These can be built into existing trade agreements, using the power that already exists in those agreements and turning it toward progressive ends. This will create a fairer global economy, halt race to the bottom and reduce competition between national economies. This will also increase global demand, by giving Chinese and other foreign workers the ability to afford the products that they can currently sell only in the U.S. consumer market, which will fuel a new and more equitable era of job creation.
Progressives need a foreign policy strategy that opens up a path to peaceful and constructive collaboration with a rising China and accepts the decline of U.S. hegemony. This is an area where much more research is necessary. Consider, for example, the highly contentious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an immensely ambitious global infrastructure plan that calls for hundreds of billions of dollars of investment per year in at least 65 countries. Improved global infrastructure is in principle a progressive goal, but BRI includes many exploitative and oppressive practices that are far from progressive. There could be a progressive approach that involves offering to collaborate with China on BRI while also demanding an end to abuses.
Progressives must also accept that China’s economy is likely to become dominant, and that eventually this will include the tech sector that the U.S. ruling class is currently so jealously protecting. The current system of intellectual property rights is fundamentally a form of class war that increases the power of corporations to extract profits from consumers. This is becoming increasingly clear when it comes to drug price gouging, but it is true of intellectual property rights in technology more generally. The progressive position is not to pick fights with foreign governments over intellectual property, but rather to promote technology transfers to poorer countries, prioritizing the well-being of all people rather than corporate profits.
Finally, progressives must directly resist anti-China racism as it appears in both domestic and international policy, beginning by rallying progressive and liberal forces against practices of racial profiling at the FBI and in immigration law. Asians must lead this agenda, and must add it to existing struggles around racial justice and justice for immigrants.
The mainstream, bipartisan trend of anti-China politics leads in the wrong direction both domestically and abroad. As I have written elsewhere, when progressives embrace this form of politics it puts them on the ideological terrain of the Right. But progressives cannot compete with the Right when it comes to nationalism. When progressives erase foreign workers and embrace nationalist ideologies which pit U.S. workers against their counterparts in China and elsewhere, they make a strategic mistake by foreclosing on any possibility of truly challenging global corporate power through international solidarity. To make matters worse, the anti-China approach will only end up undermining comrades in China by further threatening China's economy and provoking further crackdowns from the government.
There is a better path forward into a better future, and the needs of working people and progressives in the United States and around the world demand that we take it.
Tobita Chow is Global Justice Organizer at The People’s Lobby, where he leads a campaign for a global minimum wage. He is a co-author of “The Movement We Need,” a pamphlet on analysis and strategy for the progressive movement released by the Center for Progressive Strategy and Research.