Demonizing China

While most Americans view China as friendly though not as an ally, those who favor demonizing China seek to change both perceptions and realities.

In a recent op-ed, business professor Peter Navarro concluded that “buying ‘Made in China’ — whether steel for our bridges or dolls for our children — entails large costs… [which are] hurting our country — and killing our economy.”

The harsh content of the commentary was not new. But the venue – the editorial page of the New York Times –was. Such voices do not represent majority views in America. But nor are they any longer marginal.

While they reflect the concerns of a fragmented minority, they do share a common denominator: the quest to demonize China.

China as a “deadly” scapegoat

Navarro’s commentaries on China build on his The Coming China Wars (2008) and the more extreme Death by China (2011), which was co-authored with Greg Autry, who represents Coalition for a Prosperous America and the American Jobs Alliance, which advocate a hard line against China.

Ultimately, these treatises are less about facts and more about political persuasion. In San Diego, Navarro was known for great political ambitions and repeated political failures in the 1990s (e.g., for mayor, city council, county supervisor, congress). Failing to appeal to American voters, he wrote books on business until the great recession. Afterwards, demonizing China offered a way to exploit the national malaise and the politics of resentment – as evidenced by the anti-China campaign ads in the elections of 2010 and 2012.

“Americans are being injured or killed by the Dragon’s dangerous exports: poisoned food, spiked drugs, toxic toys,” Navarro says. “Meanwhile, huge U.S. corporations have allied with China’s state-owned enterprises to destroy American manufacturing…”

Such statements are fatally misguided. In reality, quality issues are not just a Chinese challenge. More than half of Chinese exports are products that are manufactured by foreign multinationals operating in China. For years, many have been cutting corners for cost-efficiencies. The problems extend from quality to fraud, including multinationals that have tried to boost their market share through corruption; from Big Pharma and the French GlaxoSmithKline, which allegedly bribed hundreds of Chinese physicians, to J.P. Morgan which is said to have hired children of influential Chinese officials to win lucrative business.

Furthermore, the argument that Chinese companies have “destroyed American manufacturing” is plain silly. According to U.S. data, some $900 billion of the manufacturing fixed assets of the U.S. companies remain in America, and over $100 billion in major European locations, as opposed to $21 billion in China. The “hollowing out” of U.S. manufacturing originates from the 1970s. In turn, Asian companies have shifted their export manufacturing base to China over the past two decades, which is reflected in the U.S. trade deficit.

China is now the third largest export market for U.S. goods, while currency policies have not had much of an impact on the U.S. trade balance or jobs, as U.S.-China Business Council has argued.

Getting steel-tough against China

“Death by China” calls China the biggest threat to global peace since Nazi Germany, urging U.S. business executives “to be like Nucor,” America’s largest steel producer.

Navarro’s anti-China books gave rise to his documentary, “Death by China” (2012). But who funded the documentary? And why?

Before the great recession, Nucor made fortunes. In 1995-2005, its stock price rose from $15 to $20. Thereafter, it almost tripled to $75 in mid-2008, followed by a plunge to less than $34 in February 2009. That year Nucor suffered a loss of $293 million. It was then that its executive chairman Dan DiMicco and Navarro began to co-write op-eds blaming U.S. trade deficits on China’s currency manipulation (Wall Street Journal); decrying China’s “weapon of mass production” (San Francisco Chronicle); and urging Washington to “get tough” with China (Barron’s). DiMicco gave testimony on Chinese currency policy in the Congress. Navarro penned his Death by China.

When Navarro began to develop his documentary, he again turned to Nucor, but wanted the $1 million deal done through Utility Consumers’ Action Network (UCAN), a San Diego non-profit, led by his friend Michael Shames. So UCAN deposited Nucor’s checks to Navarro’s production company. In February 2012, UCAN, Navarro’s production company, Navarro and his wife were subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury, which wanted to see all financial records and contractual agreements. The legal mess of the UCAN debacle continues even today.

The combination of industry protectionism and corporate lobbying is a déjà vu of the 1980s, the rise of Japan, and the competitiveness debates. That’s perhaps also why China bashers are in a hurry. With Japan, friction eclipsed as the Japanese moved from exports to investment in America. Today, Chinese capital is going global, though from a very low point (in 2012 China invested $6.5 billion in the U.S., barely 1.5% of that by UK in 2011).

Chinese investment in the U.S. means new capital and jobs, which, in turn, has the potential to defuse much of the current bilateral tension. And that is precisely what China demonizers dislike.

From trade hawks and hard-liners to battle plans

In the U.S., the interest groups that promote greater nationalism in economic relations comprise corporate giants that are not well-prepared for global competition; small and medium-sized manufacturers that cannot cope with competitive imports; and organized labor that has shrunk dramatically. These groups are supported by trade hawks, neoconservatives and their intellectual counterparts, as well as democracy, human rights and religious activists. They also hope to shape the future course of Asia Pacific.

Since 2011, President Obama has advocated U.S. rebalancing in Asia seeking to move 60 percent of U.S. naval fleet to the Asia-Pacific by 2020. In the last elections, neoconservatives persuaded Romney to recommend increasing the number of warships far more than the Navy itself asked for. At the time, Romney’s economic adviser was R. Glenn Hubbard, President Bush’s leading economic adviser and Navarro’s co-author in a 2010 book, which blamed America’s economic ruin on the Obama White House. The rearmament would have cost an astounding $2.1 trillion over the next decade, but it would have supported the neoconservatives’ AirSea Battle Plan to militarize containment in the South China Seas – a doctrine that General James Cartwright, aformer vice chair of the Joint Chiefs has criticized for “demonizing China.”

In U.S. history, difficult times have translated to periods of xenophobia, isolationism and protectionism, from the anti-Chinese legislation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the anti-Japanese sentiments in the late 1980s. Demonizing China today is not as virulent as Henry Ford’s International Jew in the 1920s, but it, too, is based on shrewd manipulation of economic data, exploitation of political sentiments, social stereotypes and psychological bias.

Criticism is based on facts, but demonizing also suggests evil culpability. Historically, it has been typical to demonize the enemy in the run-up to war. And yet, only one of ten Americans sees China as an “enemy.” In June, Gallup discovered that more than half of Americans perceive China as friendly, though not an ally. In turn, one of four Americans views China as unfriendly. Accordingly, the strategic goal of China’s demonization is, first, to convert those who already hold negative views on China into a harder line and, over time, to increase negativity among those who see China as potentially friendly.

America’s lingering jobless recovery has hardened views on economic and trade policies. That’s what the messengers of demonization are exploiting, in the quest to mainstream anti-China bias in America.

Originally published as “The Quest to Demonize China” in China-US Focus (August 19, 2013)

6 Responses to "Demonizing China"

  1. michael Leonard   August 21, 2013 at 2:21 pm

    Look at shipbuilding the success of China is amazing and has helped to keep prices low when the freight market was so poor and is still lifeless.
    Only Germany can compete with Cruise ships and Japan and Korea now follow up the rear.
    Yet look at Passenger aircraft the US and Europe totally dominate with the odd exceptions in Brazil et c.

  2. Kathryn   August 21, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    About 750,000 U.S. citizens (of every ethnicity) out of about 1.5million have been "replaced" by non U.S. citizens in less than 15 years here in Silicon Valley, CA The replacements from China, India etc are at least 50% from lesser Universities and Junior colleges, my friend—-these new folks are not the best and brightest. But They are certainly "lower cost." This is just the beginning of a huge trend that is picking up steam. Economic arguments for "competitive advantage" and "economies of scale" are simply NOT GOOD ENOUGH REASONS to wrech peoples lives on a massive scale. Maybe it hasent been done to you so you dont care. Just typical. Economics is not the only consideration when organizing a society.

  3. Dan Lewis   August 22, 2013 at 10:22 am

    What a ridiculous post. Lots of weasel words.

    First, let's consider that the author is affiliated with the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. A shill for the CCP? Maybe. Steinbock loses credibility on this point alone.

    Second, the New York Times also published an op-ed by Chinese Neo-Fascist Eric X. Li. Why shouldn't the Times publish an op-ed by Navarro? Li is downright dangerous, a guy opposed to Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei, a guy with a farcical so-called doctorate from Fudan, someone who supports the authoritarian bullshit of Document Number 9. Li even said to a stupid TED audience that promoting human rights was "boring." Look, if an a-hole like Li can get an op-ed in the Times, why not Navarro? (BTW, I don't particularly care for Navarro and have been following him for several years.)

    Third, there's an implied belittling of Navarro's credentials. Yet, Navarro's credentials are certainly better than Steinbock's. No comparison. Look at Steinbock's Wikipedia page (which I'm sure he created). Talk about fluff and no substance.

    Fourth, the comparison to Henry Ford's International Jew is absurd. Steinbock, is BJ paying you to write this nonsense?

    Finally (because I'm tired of writing this), the nationalism is in China, not America. Yes, there is nationalism in America, but nationalism is much worse in China. Deal with Chinese nationalism rather than falsely perceived American nationalism. And stop citing political rhetoric as policy fact.

  4. george harter   September 10, 2013 at 3:16 am

    Ludicrous article. Uhh, well……poisoned Heparin, poisoned cough syrup killing and maming kids in the Caribbean and S. America, poison dog food(I guess that was an illusion too caused by demonizing evil Americans..), Alar(banned pesticide) tainted apple juice exported to the USA under the humorous guise as "Organic" apple juice, chickens that the FDA can't keep out of the US market because WE ARE NOT ALLOWED TO INSPECT CHINESE FOOD PRODUCTS either at the source or here, since that would be "Unfair" according to their American accomplices.
    And to cut this rant short, what is wrong with wanting to rightly label an enemy, an energy??? The Chinese nation has no good will toward the US why pretend so??? The author seems to be just another toady bootlicker of the Chinese power structure…remember there were hordes who thought the Russia of Stalin and the Germany of Hitler were doing wonderful things!!! I am very critical of many things in contemporary America but the scope and severity of injustice is still far less here. A PS, most Chinese emigrants I know in NYC, refuse to eat in Chinese owned restaurants or eat Chinese made food products. Oh well, many here are still enamored of authoritarian brutality as long as it serves causes they like.
    But, just what does the Chinese Gov't stand for???? Massive use of brown coal??? Destruction of its water supplies??? The great Potemkin village reforestation efforts??(see Natrure magazine on that) Destruction of its rural economy? Recycling out of date Russian
    Aircraft carriers? Diverting water from its neighbors (the Mekong and Brahmaputra)? General oppression of its citizens???
    Who are you? It can't be just ignorance that motivates an article like this?

  5. george harter   September 10, 2013 at 3:19 am

    HAHA The above should have read "…an enemy, an enemy" not energy!

  6. Muscle_tips   February 3, 2014 at 10:58 am

    I am a huge fan of China…i lke the culture and even the evolutionof the chinese economy…