Photos by Phil Roeder and Zbigniew Bielecki
United States / 2020 Election

Trump is Soft on China

Despite campaign bluster, Trump has failed to take on the threat of the rising superpower. 

Trump has long seen his trade war with China as a way to secure his re-election. A closer look at his dealings with the United States’ rival superpower, however, reveals that Americans have borne the brunt of his trade war’s pain. And while blaming China in whole for the coronavirus crisis, he has gifted the emerging rival a concerning, increasing influence over the World Health Organization. At best, his China policy is pure talk. At worst, it is a gleaming opportunity for the country to finally replace the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower. 

Even before the pandemic, Trump’s distaste for China was the central theme of his presidency. Upon taking office, he almost immediately began to fulminate against America’s trade deficit with China and the country’s unfair copyright practices. He met with Chinese president Xi Jinping in April 2017 to talk over such issues; these talks stalled immediately. Flying in the face of contemporary economic wisdom, Trump then started a tariff war with a country on which the U.S. is all but economically dependent, both in debt holdings and imports.

The talks stalled for two reasons: one, because the Chinese do not take Trump seriously, and two, because Trump does not understand his own policies. 

Time and time again, Trump has declared that China is the one paying the steep tariffs he set for goods imported to the U.S. He is completely wrong. Such a statement is entirely antithetical to the reality of protectionist trade. In fact, American consumers are paying the tariffs almost in their entirety. They are a tax on Americans, plain and simple. The U.S. is not even close to “taxing the hell out of China,” as Trump says. The self-proclaimed Tariff Man is increasing the price paid by Americans for goods which are crucial for American manufacturing and business. 

Under normal circumstances, fiscal conservatives would be enraged by such flagrant violations of the policies of free trade that they have championed for decades. However, in typical fashion of the Trump administration, the blind obedience of his base—and its willingness to parrot campaign talking points—has subdued any vocal criticism from the political right. As the Trade War costs farmers billions in exports due to retaliatory tariffs from China on things like soybeans and cotton, Republican senators from America’s heartland stand by hardline negotiation tactics which have yet to bear fruit. If they continue to support him in November, it would not be the first time that conservatives have turned a blind eye to Trump’s errors in the name of party unity. 

Furthermore, a consensus of economists note that trade deficits are not necessarily a bad thing. Trade deficits occur when countries import more value than they export. The United States’ most valuable exports are services like finance and intellectual property, and the country imports commodities and industrial products. Therefore, lowering the trade deficit with China is a boon for blue-collar, low-skilled, and often low-paid jobs. Trump focuses only on increasing the number of jobs while lacking an understanding that that some jobs allow for higher standards of living than others. While most Americans would likely prefer a higher paying, white-collar job over working in a factory, Trump’s laser focus on his blue-collar base prioritizes them over all else.

Either way, Trump has been completely unable to reduce the deficit. In 2016—when Trump accused China of “raping” the U.S. —the trade deficit was $347 billion. For 2019, it was $345 billion. In the words of Brookings Institute China expert Ryan Hass, “Americans got their shit kicked out of them in the exact area where President Trump said he would solve their problems.”

Trump may not be able to understand or execute his own policies, but one thing he does understand is a fellow dictator. Repeatedly, Trump has been a fawning sycophant toward Xi Jinping, especially on Twitter. As the outbreak worsened in January – of course, months before Trump would take any action against the virus – he tweeted that “China has been working very hard to contain the coronavirus.” (A PRC-sympathetic newspaper from Hong Kong noted Trump’s kowtow with pride.)

“In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!” he said. 

All Bark, No Bite – The number of Trump tweets about China since January 1, 2017 show increasing references to the country as the 2020 re-election contest nears.

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Graphic by Nicholas Purchase, data from trumptwitterarchive.com

Many right-wing pundits—and even Trump’s advisors—warn not to take his tweets literally. It’s a consistent conservative defense to say that Trump should be taken “seriously” or “symbolically,” but not literally. Then maybe Trump’s private conversations with Xi would be more telling. 

At a private fundraiser in 2018, Trump said of Xi, ““He’s now president for life, president for life. And he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.” 

According to a book by former National Security Adviser John Bolton—a man hired by Trump himself for the most important national security role in the world—Trump repeatedly sympathized with Xi’s dictatorial tendencies and begged for help in his own re-election. Bolton writes that Trump was “pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win.” Trump apparently begged China to buy more American soybeans, effectively asking for Xi’s help in reversing the consequences of his own trade war. In an abhorrent disregard for human rights, Trump also told Xi that building concentration camps for China’s Muslim minority was “exactly the right thing to do.”

Despite his own apparent adulation for Xi Jinping, Trump soon took to calling Covid-19 the “China Virus” in his tweets and press conferences. Curiously, this practice began soon after the National Republican Senatorial Committee issued a 57-page memo imploring Republicans to “attack China” when asked about the virus. Inevitably, liberals called this practice racist, immediately turning the coronavirus crisis into a culture war, Trump’s most comfortable territory.

The final component of Trump’s disastrous China policy was the U.S.’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization. When it became clear that blaming China alone was not enough to shift the blame from his own mishandling of the crisis, he began attacking the world’s sole global public health institution. He blamed China for pressuring the WHO to “mislead the world.” As a result, the U.S. decided to cease funding the organization when, previously, it was the single largest contributor.  

His complaints are baseless: the WHO warned the world about the virus on January 5, identified it by January 7, and sequenced it by January 12. And Trump’s defunding of it will hand the organization to China on a silver platter. The lack of funding in such a crucial time will leave a gaping hole in the WHO’s finances which China will be eager to fill. Now that it will be by far the largest funder of the World Health Organization and there is no American governmental monetary influence to contend with, China is free to influence the WHO however it likes. Trump’s obtuse attempt to shift blame away from himself and control the news cycle has irreversibly damaged American global influence and put China on an even stronger course to be a true global superpower. Willingly giving up such valuable soft power is not good leadership. Trump’s policy will worsen exactly the problem he protested.

China is an important issue, and one which Americans increasingly care about. In 2005, the Pew Research Center began tracking Americans’ views toward China. Then, 35 percent of the country said it had an unfavorable view – today, 66 percent do. Nearly a quarter of Americans (24 percent) view China as the greatest threat to the United States, tied with Russia. Intellectual property theft makes it risky or impossible for American companies to do business in China. There was a coronavirus coverup. Chinese officials did, in fact, censor posts about the virus and arrest journalists and physicians who criticized the Communist Party’s response. 

The issue, as with many other important policy areas during the last few years, demonstrates a lack of a coordinated, facts-based strategy in the Trump administration. Strategy which, at the end of the day, can be entirely usurped by a late-night tweet.