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Thursday, April 24, 2008

U.S. candidates' top target: China


Ever since the Tiananmen Square military crackdown of 1989, China has become an issue in domestic American politics, usually with the party in power — either Republican or Democratic — being attacked by the opposition party for not being tough enough toward Beijing.

In 1992, the first presidential election after Tiananmen Square, incumbent President George H.W. Bush was accused by candidate Bill Clinton of "coddling the butchers of Beijing." However, when the junior Bush ran for the White House in 2000, he ostentatiously distanced himself from the Clinton policy toward China by saying that Beijing was a strategic competitor, not a strategic partner.

Now, with the U.S. presidential campaign heating up, China is again becoming an increasingly prominent campaign issue, with both Democratic candidates being openly critical of Beijing. China's crackdown on Tibetan protesters plus the highly publicized demonstrations accompanying the journey of the Olympic torch around the world have come on top of other issues, such as human rights, China's trade surplus and the loss of American jobs.

Sen. Hillary Clinton last week took the lead in a high-profile assault on China, calling herself "the only candidate who isn't just talking about cracking down on China, but I have a specific plan on how to do it." She accused China of unfair trade practices and of "abusing human rights, mistreating the Tibetans, failing to help us stop the genocide in Darfur."

Clinton also called on President George W. Bush not to attend the Olympics opening ceremonies in Beijing in August and poked fun at Sen. Barack Obama, saying that he could not even make up his mind. "If you can't stand up to China over an opening ceremony," she said, "how are you going to stand up to China when it comes to trade and currency manipulation and stopping them from taking advantage of us?"

Her challenge was quickly taken up. Obama now says that if Beijing does not "take steps to help stop the genocide in Darfur and to respect the dignity, security and human rights of the Tibetan people, then the president should boycott the opening ceremonies." Obama went on to accuse China of "dumping goods into our market" violating intellectual property rights and "grossly undervaluing" its currency.

Not to be outdone, Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has also spoken out, saying, "If Chinese policies and practices do not change, I would not attend the opening ceremonies."

No one believes that U.S. campaign rhetoric will have any effect on Beijing's behavior. However, the bashing that China is taking from presidential candidates appears to be having an impact in the United States.

Richard Baum, a China expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, resigned as an adviser on East Asia to the Clinton campaign because of what he called her "grossly misguided accusations." He regretted the fact that Clinton had "chosen to take the low road" in trying to gain her party's nomination.

On one level, Clinton's words are understandable since she was campaigning in Pennsylvania, where it is popular to blame China for the lost of more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000.

But none of the candidates is doing what is needed — educate the electorate as to the real cause of the country's economic problems and its trade imbalance, much of it created by outdated calculation methods that attribute to China 100 percent of the value of items although the bulk of the materials and labor actually originated in other countries.

With the Democratic campaign likely to go on for many more weeks, the danger is that the two candidates will compete not in presenting sensible policies but in increasingly shrill denunciations of China. And, once the Democrats choose a candidate, the real campaign will begin and that candidate will, in all likelihood, compete with McCain to see who will assume a more muscular stance vis-a-vis China.

Fortunately, this is simply campaign rhetoric and, after the election, will quickly be forgotten. The record shows that American presidents almost invariably sound tough during campaign season and, after assuming office, realize that the real world is more complicated than they depicted while running for office and opt to continue the more moderate policies of their predecessors.

Unfortunately for China, it is likely to be the butt of criticism on the part of presidential candidates between now and November. And, even though campaign rhetoric may not translate into policies, it will play a part in shaping American public opinion and reinforcing unwarranted negative impressions of China.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.


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