Why Trump Paints China as the New U.S. Enemy
On Sept. 26, 2018, President Donald Trump made an extraordinary accusation against China during his remarks to the United Nations Security Council, saying, “Regrettably, we found that China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election coming up in November against my administration.” He made the claim without offering any evidence, but he did speculate about China’s motivation: “They do not want me, or us, to win because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade.”
He added, “We don’t want them to meddle or interfere in our upcoming election.” While Trump’s animosity toward China is long-standing and predates even his presidential campaign, the unsubstantiated claim of election interference is a new low, even for him.
Less than two weeks after Trump accused China, Vice President Mike Pence echoed those claims in a speech to the Hudson Institute, saying, “China has initiated an unprecedented effort to influence American public opinion, the 2018 elections, and the environment, leading into the 2020 presidential elections.” He added, “To put it bluntly, President Trump’s leadership is working, and China wants a different American president.”
Replace “China” with “Russia,” and reverse the motivation against Trump being president and these accusations sound an awful lot like the Democrats’ theory that Russia attempted in various ways to help Trump win the 2016 election. Except that the Russia interference theory is backed by the U.S. intelligence community with actual documents and even arrest warrants.
So far there is no evidence that China has actually attempted to interfere in U.S. elections. The Guardian pointed out that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said recently: “We currently have no indication that a foreign adversary intends to disrupt our election infrastructure.” Several Democratic senators even wrote a letter to Trump asking him to reveal any evidence he might have justifying such claims. Unsurprisingly, Trump has not responded.
So why would the Trump administration claim that China is interfering in our elections? Given that poll after poll has shown the likelihood of a “blue wave” during this November’s midterm elections, handing control of the House to Democrats, is it possible that Trump wants to create a false narrative to explain the GOP’s imminent losses to his base? Far-fetched as that may sound, for a president who spews lies on a near-daily basis, what matters is not truth as much as cultivating faith among his supporters that he has their best interests at heart.
After all, the Democrats have successfully crafted a narrative that Trump is president because Russia’s Vladimir Putin wanted it so and made it happen—conveniently ignoring the major shortcomings of their nominee, Hillary Clinton. Trump has often taken such accusations aimed at him and turned them around to portray himself as the victim of the same behavior—it is part of the habitual gaslighting we have grown accustomed to. If his party loses spectacularly in the fall, he can conveniently blame China and retort to critics that he and Mike Pence warned the nation about Chinese interference months earlier! It may even deflect from the special counsel’s scrutiny of him and his current and former Cabinet members on election wrongdoing.
Incidentally, this past July, Trump tried to make the Russian interference argument against Democrats, tweeting, “I’m very concerned that Russia will be fighting very hard to have an impact on the upcoming Election. Based on the fact that no President has been tougher on Russia than me, they will be pushing very hard for the Democrats. They definitely don’t want Trump!”
Is it possible that the ludicrous argument found little traction, leading him to pivot to China instead?
China is a convenient enemy for Trump. He has waged a trade war against it and has effectively cast Chinese economic might as the reason why his supporters are hurting financially. He tweeted earlier this year that China was being “vicious” and “targeting our farmers, who they know I love & respect, as a way of getting me to continue allowing them to take advantage of the U.S.”
The idea of China as a bogeyman also plays well into the Trump administration’s rampant racism. White European Russians aren’t useful enemies—Trump’s own wife is Eastern European. But the Chinese are exactly the type of people that Trump can rally his base against—nonwhite. Indeed, as Politico reported, during a dinner with CEOs in August, “Trump noted of an unnamed country that the attendee said was clearly China, [from where] ‘almost every student that comes over to this country is a spy.’ ”
It was recently revealed that Trump’s rabidly racist adviser Stephen Miller—the architect of the immigrant family separation debacle—apparently tried to convince the president to ban student visas for Chinese youth wanting to study in the U.S. Breitbart News—the extremist right-wing online media outlet favored by the Trump administration and its supporters—continued the theme with the publication this past Monday of an article titled “Companies, Universities, Hire Chinese Researchers, Ignore National Security Worries.” In it, writer Neil Munro claimed without evidence that there is a “widespread recognition that China’s government is conducting an aggressive spy campaign.” The claims of Chinese people as spies echoes the sentiment that was used to justify the mass internment of people of Japanese descent in the U.S. during World War II.
Breitbart’s Munro then pivoted to his real concern: the large number of Chinese students graduating in science, math and technology fields from major U.S. universities and how many Chinese graduates then apply for green cards through corporate hiring—and eventually apply for U.S. citizenship. In other words, the real issue isn’t Chinese spying as much as Chinese immigration to the U.S. through student visas.
This is the same type of racist fear-mongering that former Trump adviser Steve Bannon expressed years earlier on his radio show about how “Engineering schools are all full of people from South Asia and East Asia” who have “come in here to take these jobs.” In an interview with Trump, Bannon also claimed that “two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia”— a wild exaggeration.
On the other side of the aisle, neoliberal economists and liberal lawmakers have embraced China—not out of anti-racist benevolence, but because cheaply produced Chinese goods have made American retailers and distributors extremely wealthy. There was a time when Walmart became a leading American retailer chiefly because it slashed the cost of its products by moving manufacturing to China (a move that by one estimate resulted in the loss of 400,000 American jobs).
Today corporations like Apple, Nike and others rely on China’s low-paid nonunion workforce and weak environmental regulations to mass-produce goods to which Americans are addicted. Dollar Tree, the nationwide chain of discount stores catering to low- and middle-income Americans, is hugely reliant on China and deeply worried about how Trump’s trade war will impact its bottom line. According to USA Today, “Many of its inexpensive products can be made only in China, company executives said.” Interestingly, Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who also relies on cheaply made Chinese goods to sell her branded products, will not be impacted by the U.S. tariffs on China.
The racist right-wing fear-mongering against China and the embrace of mass consumerism of Chinese products are both toxic to society and the planet. The former is a manifestation of white nationalism, the latter of neoliberal globalization. While these forces are battling one another, it is imperative to recognize that both cause the suffering of ordinary human beings—whether they are American or Chinese.