Thursday, 23 April 2020


China bashing is the new American sport

In a move that will help define the election, Democrats are trying to outdo Republicans in blaming Beijing for Covid-19

Gerard Baker
The Times
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, has been struggling to gain attention in the face of the national coronavirus emergency. Anyone would find it hard to compete for airtime against the combination of a lethal epidemic and a media-hungry president with nightly access to a soapbox. However, the former vice-president’s near-invisibility has worried some in his party who fear it fuels doubts about the leadership potential of a 77-year-old man whose occasional live television forays have been marked by a succession of verbal miscues and hints of cognitive decline.
So late last week the people around him decided it was time to muscle in more aggressively on the public consciousness. A campaign group closely associated with his presidential bid released a political advertisement that sharpened attacks on President Trump’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. However, instead of berating Mr Trump for initially downplaying the seriousness of the epidemic, or failing to provide enough medical equipment to fight it, Mr Biden slammed the president for being soft on China.
Over images of Mr Trump and President Xi of China getting all cosy at various international summits, the ominous voice of a narrator said that Mr Trump had “rolled over for the Chinese”. It featured clips of the president saying that he believed Beijing had been open and honest about the virus and was bringing it under control.
“Everyone knew they lied about the virus,” the ad says. “President Trump gave China his trust.”
This might seem an unusual angle for the Democrats to take. After all, Mr Biden is a man who, as Barack Obama’s vice-president, pursued warm relations with Beijing, in an administration that has been accused of failing to act to redress Chinese abuses in international trade and regional politics.
The Democrats’ new line of attack demonstrates how the pandemic is reshaping global politics. In a nation sharply divided over just about everything, including the proper policy and medical response to the coronavirus, hostility to China is just about the one issue that commands bipartisan support. Mr Trump of course had already declared economic war on China with his tariffs and it was striking that over the past three years Democrats have been reluctant to criticise him on that, even as he reversed the decades-long US approach of seeking rapprochement with the rising power. And of late the president has himself been blaming China for failing to contain the coronavirus and covering it up, even as he has sought to maintain a functioning personal relationship with Mr Xi.
Both parties are eager to seek political advantage from what opinion polls indicate is a rising tide of anger against Beijing, and a demand that the country be held accountable for the damage to public health and the economy. A poll by Pew Research published this week indicated that two thirds of Americans had a negative view of China, the highest percentage recorded in the 15 years the pollster has been asking the question.
This week two Republican senators, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Martha McSally of Arizona, leapt on the opportunity, tabling a bill that would allow Americans to pursue China for damages: the Stop China-Originated Viral Infectious Disease or, to give it its helpful abbreviation, the Stop Covid Act (members of Congress put a ridiculous amount of effort into coming up with titles for their legislation that can be framed as snappy acronyms).
The bill would empower Americans to sue China in a US court and seek compensation for the “devastating harm the deadly virus has caused to the economy and human life”. It has a chance of passage in the current climate though its practical impact will be limited. We are unlikely any time soon to be seeing members of the Politburo hauled before a Perry Mason figure in an American courtroom while a jury deliberates on a multi-trillion-dollar penalty.
However, the political push for recrimination is strong and growing daily. In the wilder corners of the web conspiracy theorists insist that the disproportionate damage to the US from an event that started in China is no accident. You don’t need to be a fan of implausible fiction to see that this crisis is pushing the world’s two superpowers towards ever greater mutual suspicion and hostility.
Simple economic reality is already playing its part. US pharmaceutical and medical supply companies are already busy undoing their dependency on China for many of their products. Companies across the economy are reordering their supply chains to ensure that their operations can never be hostage to unpredictable and potentially cataclysmic events in China. Travel and trade with China will be curtailed as trust in that country plummets.
To these inevitable economic realities has been added the temptation of political opportunity. Both US parties are competing for the large and growing sinophobe vote.
China clearly has much to answer for and there will need to be some kind of reckoning, but as one China policy veteran who has served in multiple administrations over the past half century tells me: “The irony is that the coronavirus threat reminds us that most of the challenges we face require a higher level of co-operation, but the politics will push countries to resort to a higher level of confrontation.”
The combination of a national emergency, a rising foreign power that has much to answer for and an election campaign with high stakes will have consequences for geopolitics and world peace that will linger long after the virus has been vanquished.

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