China scapegoated for apparent US ills
Populist opposition to globalization and expanding international trade has emerged as a key feature in this year’s abrasive US presidential election campaign, with China featured as a handy scapegoat for the country’s perceived economic ills.
Republican candidate Donald Trump adopted the line in his first televised debate with Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton on Sept 26.
“You look at what China is doing to our country in terms of making our product,” he told more than 80 million domestic viewers. “They’re devaluing their currency, and there’s nobody in our government to fight them…they’re using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China.”
Although debate fact-checkers challenged Trump’s assertion that Beijing is engaged in currency devaluation, that is unlikely to temper the impact of the Republican nominee’s message in states such as Ohio, in the heart of the so-called Rust Belt, where voters appear inclined to blame their very real economic ills on unfair foreign competition.
A nationwide phenomenon of stagnating wages and growing economic inequality is felt most keenly in a region that has suffered the impact of industrial decline that dates back half a century, long before China emerged as a global trading power.
More recently, Ohio has been hit by a collapse in the price of aluminum, one of the few bright spots on the state’s industrial horizon, leading to layoffs and plant closures that are widely blamed on China’s expanding production and supposed flooding of the world market.
It should come as no surprise then that Trump has targeted a battleground state that he needs to win if he is to make it to the White House.
Ohio voters have picked the winner in all but two presidential elections in the past 120 years and they are currently trending toward the Republican by margins of between 1 and 5 percent.
Trump mentioned Ohio no less than three times in the debate with Clinton, while the combined campaign advertising spend of the two candidates in the state is the secondhighest in the nation.
Trump set the tone of his antitrade rhetoric in a speech in Ohio at the start of September. “We’re going to stop the foreign cheating,” he told his audience in Wilmington. “The era of economic surrender – which is what we’ve done, essentially – is over.”
The isolationist trend on globalization and trade is not confined to the Republicans. The Democrat runner-up, Bernie Sanders, also seized on foreign trade as a scapegoat for the country’s economic ills, consistently arguing that free trade with China had hurt American workers.
Protests against the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact between the US and 11 other Pacific Rim countries, have been a regular feature of Democratic Party rallies, perhaps explaining why Hillary Clinton has hardened her opposition to ratifying the deal. The TPP does not include China, although Beijing has cautiously welcomed the free trade deal.
In Ohio, the China issue has spilled over from the presidential race to the parallel battle for the state’s seat in the US Senate. A campaign ad on behalf of Democrat challenger Ted Strickland accused Republican incumbent Rob Portman of being “China’s best senator.”
“After all, Portman voted for eight different trade deals. Portman even led the fight to give the Chinese permanent special trading status,” the ad’s narrator intones.
In the midst of such political bickering over trade and China’s alleged role in America’s economic ills, some commentators have been attempting to distinguish myth from reality.
Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson noted earlier this year that while US manufacturing jobs dropped by 5.8 million between 1999 and 2011, the share caused by China was a bit less than one-fifth. He also noted: “With US exports about 80 percent of imports, they offset most — though not all — of trade-related job loss.”
Others have noted that, while Rust Belt industries have been hollowed out for decades by many factors, more recently the region’s politicians and officials have been welcoming an influx of Chinese investment that has spurred optimism about the future.
In Ohio, China’s Fuyao Glass has revived a redundant General Motors plant, partly thanks to a $9.7 million tax credit from the Republican-run state.
This year China has made acquisitions worth $75 billion across all sectors of the US economy, reviving job prospects in regions such as the Rust Belt. That includes $4.1 billion in Ohio and neighboring Michigan alone, according to a research report.
China Daily reported just last month that a unit of aluminum maker China Zhongwang Holdings Ltd had agreed to acquire Ohiobased Aleris Corp in a deal valued at about $2.33 billion.
These deals may not be enough to dampen the political China-bashing that has marked this year’s election campaign, but they might convince at least some Ohio voters that the benefits of world trade are not just a one-way street.
This year China has made acquisitions worth $75 billion across all sectors of the US economy, reviving job prospects in regions such as the Rust Belt.
Harvey Morris is a veteran foreign affairs commentator. He contributed this article to China Daily USA.