White House

Trump’s Illusory Hard Line on China

President Donald Trump meets with China’s President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
The president has not been as tough on Beijing as he’d like you to think.

How much of what we hear from day to day is really just meant to please the Chinese Communist Party? When LeBron James said that Daryl Morey’s pro-Hong Kong comments were “either misinformed or not really educated on the situation,” had he engaged in a direct conversation with a Chinese dignitary or had the NBA merely relayed its concerns to him on China’s behalf? Did some officious CCP official get a pat on the head when the World Health Organization kept praising China’s response to the emergence of a new coronavirus in Wuhan before it declared a global health emergency? When Governor Andrew Cuomo started bizarrely referring to the coronavirus as the “European virus,” was he hoping to preserve Chinese investment in New York?

It’s no longer paranoid or irrational to ask these questions. This week, an op-ed signed by the EU’s ambassador to China and his counterparts from the 27 EU member states was revealed to have been censored and edited by the Chinese government, apparently without the permission or foreknowledge of many of the authors. How common is such chicanery?

We’ve had lots of recent occasions to see China’s pettiness. The CCP made Marriott shut down its own website for having referred to Macau and Tibet as something other than part of China. The Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 tracker quickly changed Taiwan to “Taipei and environs” amid what one presumes was Chinese pressure. German-owned Mercedes is just one company that has had to ask China’s forgiveness for merely mentioning the Dalai Lama. The United Kingdom once had to read an abject statement of apology aloud to Chinese dignitaries after committing the same sin.

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison is one leader who seems to have lost any illusions about China. He’s not calling COVID-19 a “European virus,” and he has demanded an investigation of how the World Health Organization botched things in Wuhan. In response, Chinese state-media outlets have urged consumer boycotts of Australian agricultural products and called Australia “gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe.”

China doesn’t just get the first helpings of BS, it gets the bull as well. Going back to the 1990s, Smithfield has a history of preferring foreign workers because native-born workers are easier to unionize than illegal workers. As globalization advanced, it also found it preferred foreign owners: It was bought by the China-backed Shuanghui Group in 2013. Now, English is just one of the top ten languages at the Smithfield pork-processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D.

The language barrier that Smithfield deliberately creates through the liberal use of our “guest worker” visa system is not just a major impediment to labor organization. It turns out to be a big impediment to communicating public-health information, and a major reason that the Sioux Falls plant became the site of one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the country.

Which brings us to Donald Trump. Trump was elected in no small part because of his opposition to immigration and globalization. He asked who really benefited from these phenomena, and proposed doing something about them. China, as a Communist nation that profits remora-like from the global market that it didn’t build and doesn’t defend or respect, was prominent on his ostensible list of targets, and continued to be after he took office.

Unfortunately, the key word there is “ostensible.” As is the case on so many issues, Trump is not as tough on China as he’d like everyone to think. Yes, he initiated a U.S.–China “trade war” aimed at reining in Beijing’s economic malfeasance, but he has steadfastly refused to bring up any ancillary issues about the human-rights abuses in Xinjiang or the political abuses in Hong Kong. Yes, he signed a bill aimed at pushing back on the latter abuses after it passed Congress with overwhelming, bipartisan support, but his secretary of state has now delayed its implementation. Yes, he’s called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” and bragged about his travel ban on China. But his administration somehow let nearly half a million people through anyway, and he’s proven just as likely to praise the Chinese regime in stomach-churning terms as he is to scold it:

Trump’s supporters might plausibly claim that his reluctance to more forcefully attack Xi’s regime in public comes from a desire to preserve the trade deal he negotiated. They’d have a much harder time arguing that the trade deal is actually a desirable outcome for the U.S. All in all, Trump’s administration deep-sixed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have put more pressure on China, then engaged in a short, inconclusive series of trade skirmishes with China that did nothing to repatriate industry to the U.S., and then announced the trade deal while giving Xi a tongue bath.

Even if, as seems likely, the deal was always a cynical ploy to get Wall Street frothing in an election year, that gambit has been overcome by events, namely the global pandemic. So why is our “nationalist” president still sticking with this trade agreement? Why can’t he criticize the Chinese government?

Who benefits from the rise of this new American “nationalism,” anyway?

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