Originally published October 12, 2010 in the Badger Herald, University of Wisconsin student newspaper
Politicians have a way of tapping into public anger and directing it at the easiest target—as long as that target isn’t themselves. This election cycle, it would appear that they’ve settled on The People’s Republic of China.
Across the nation, politicians have used China as a scapegoat, claiming their political opponents are sympathetic with the Communist state. Here in Wisconsin, we’ve seen advertisements from Ron Johnson accusing Russ Feingold of helping create “3,000 jobs in China.”
The trend is not confined only to the only Right or the Left—campaigns on both sides of the aisle have attempted to tie their opponents to Chinese job creation. Ohio Democratic Congressman Zack Space accuses his opponent Bob Gibbs of advocating policies that create Chinese jobs at the expense of American workers. “What about Ohio?” his ad asks.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, too, attacked his opponent, calling her “a foreign worker’s best friend” for supporting taxbreaks for companies outsourcing jobs to China.
Ads like these have appeared across the nation, and it’s easy to see why. With unemployment rates still soaring, the last thing a candidate wants is to be seen as more sympathetic to foreign than American workers.
But, such an approach may be unwise.
In today’s political climate, it’s not just politicians who are looking for scapegoats, but the American people as well. That’s why in the midst of this recession, we have seen some of the most blatant bigotry against so-called “outsiders” like Mexicans or Muslims.
These political ads may well stir up a similar popular sentiment against the Chinese. And, having honed anti-Chinese attitudes to generate electoral support, that same force could prove problematic for policymaking.
With China quickly becoming one of the world’s foremost economic powers (they have the world’s second-largest economy as of August) now is not the time to spurn one of the most potentially fruitful markets on the planet. But, if most Americans believe that trading with or investing in China is contrary to American interests, enacting mutually beneficial trade policies could become difficult at best.
Advertisements that were once a strategy to get into Congress could backfire, making the actual job of governing much more difficult.
Then, of course, there’s the argument that the Chinese government is “bad,” and America shouldn’t support the regime. There are few outside of the Chinese government who would assert that China has a spotless human rights record. The government is notorious for suppressing speech, eliminating political opposition, and ignoring minorities’ rights (Tibetans, e.g.). There is good reason to believe, however, that American economic involvement in China my help bring democracy to the country, as opposed to bolstering a corrupt regime.
Statistics show that outside investment in developing nations leads to increased respect for human rights. A 2001 study by David Kucera of the International Institute of Labour Studies found that foreign direct investment leads to greater freedom of association, worker rights, and gender equality. With this in mind, American investment could strengthen the democratizing forces within the repressive communist state.
Now, of course, there are very real concerns about the shifting power dynamics between China and America. It would appear that the Chinese are quickly rising at the expense of Americans as they continue to purchase our skyrocketing debt.
But it is exactly because China is on the rise that America must tread carefully, being wary of a one-size-fits-all approach. The last thing we want is to cut ourselves off from, or make enemies with, one of the most powerful countries in the world. Ubiquitous political advertising demonizing all things Chinese could very well create a baseless national mentality that makes rational policy making impossible.
Obviously we need to protect American jobs, but vilifying congressmen who support trade with China isn’t helping. If we let our fear of outsiders take over, we’ll be left with the same protectionist policies that hurt China for so long—and that’s something we just can’t afford.