China-Bashing 2016: We've Seen This Movie Before

It doesn't end the way most candidates would have you believe.

Photographer: Paul J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

With the presidential campaign in full swing, China-bashing is back in season.

The market turmoil in China and its currency devaluation has provided the latest opening for Republican presidential candidates.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio enters the fray Friday with a foreign-policy speech his campaign says will focus on China. On the campaign trail, the Republican presidential hopeful has elevated his rhetoric on China recently, calling for tougher U.S. retaliation against incidents of alleged Chinese computer hacking.

Front-runner Donald Trump has already been fanning long-standing mistrust of China by saying the country's leaders have out-maneuvered the U.S. on trade. He said he'd serve Chinese leader Xi Jinping a Big Mac rather than a state dinner. Another Republican candidate, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, called on President Barack Obama to cancel Xi's U.S. visit altogether.

The candidates are following a grand campaign tradition that extends at least as far back as Ronald Reagan and includes the current president. Once in the Oval Office, however, presidents typically take a more accommodating stance to a country that is the world's second-largest economy and a nuclear-armed military power with a vital role to play in U.S. priorities from Iran to North Korea. Consider the history:

Ronald Reagan

On the campaign trail, Reagan condemned predecessor Jimmy Carter for normalizing relations with China and abandoning Taiwan, suggesting he would restore official ties with the island where opponents of the mainland Communist government fled, and sell it advanced fighter jets. Barely a year after he was elected, his administration rejected sale of the fighters. He never reopened the Taiwan embassy.

Bill Clinton

With the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre still a fresh memory, presidential candidate Bill Clinton denounced the "butchers of Beijing" and, after being elected, signed an executive order early in his administration setting human rights conditions on China's most-favored nation trade status, only to later back down and let the order lapse. He eventually pressed legislation through Congress that granted China permanent normal trade relations.

George W. Bush

Republican George W. Bush—whose father, George H.W. Bush served as the U.S. diplomatic representative in Beijing in the 1970s—in turn attacked President Clinton for treating China as a "strategic partner" instead of a "strategic competitor." But after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush chose a policy of engagement with China in order to gain cooperation in the war on terrorism.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (R) shows the way for U.S. President George W. Bush (L) at the Diaoyutai State Guest House November 20, 2005 in Beijing, China.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (R) shows the way for U.S. President George W. Bush (L) at the Diaoyutai State Guest House November 20, 2005 in Beijing, China.
Pool Photograph/Getty Images

Barack Obama

During his first presidential campaign Obama played the China card when courting blue collar workers who see China as a threat to U.S. jobs. He accused Bush of being a "patsy" of China and promised to "take them to the mat" on currency manipulation and unfair trade practices. Obama has never sanctioned China for currency manipulation.

The criticism is perennial and bipartisan because it works. Americans have long distrusted China. Hostility, which once expressed itself in 19th century racist fears of the "Yellow Peril" extended through the Cold War to today's concerns about outsourced jobs in a globalized economy. Fifty-four percent of Americans hold an unfavorable view of China, according to a Pew poll taken April 13 through May 3. In a Gallup poll taken a year earlier, China topped the list of countries considered the U.S.'s "greatest enemy today," so named by 20 percent of respondents—ahead of North Korea, Iran and Russia.


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