China, COVID-19, and the 2020 Presidential Election

President Donald J. Trump, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping . (Photo: Patrick Semansky,Liu Bin, AP)
President Donald J. Trump, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping . (Photo: Patrick Semansky,Liu Bin, AP)

by Duncan McFarland

First published in the “CCDS Mobilizer”

In 1950 the anti-communist right led by Senator Joseph McCarthy attacked progressives in the government over “Who lost China?”  In 2020, will a major issue in the presidential election campaign be “Who’s soft on China?” Regardless, the Covid-19 crisis presents the dominant anti-China sector of US imperialism a golden opportunity to advance its agenda for global hegemony by attacking China, perceived to be the main long-term competitor.

Trump’s campaign made a pre-emptive strike in April accusing “Beijing Biden” of being soft on China, pointing to his actions as vice president and statements such as “China won’t eat our lunch.”  The Biden campaign struck back saying that President Trump “rolled over for the Chinese” early in the year by not challenging Chinese accounts of the emergence and spread of the coronavirus.

The immediate motives were clear.  Trump sought to distract from his own botched handling of the Covid-19 public health crisis by blaming everything on the Chinese and their supposed coverup.  He used the term “China virus” encouraging anti-Asian racism and persisted in the theory that the pandemic started at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, implying dark motives on China’s part.  This in spite of a consensus of the scientific and intelligence community that Covid-19 was not man made.   There were charges of Chinese hacking to steal medical research for a vaccine and demands for reparations in the trillions of dollars.

The Democratic Party, for its part, may be planning in the election campaign to attack Trump from the right on China, saying that Trump coddles authoritarian leaders like Xi Jinping – and Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, etc.   This of course contrasts to the supposedly democratic and humanitarian Democratic Party, and rings of the Democratic undermining of Trump’s quixotic relationship with the North Korean leader Kim.

The two camps may be attacking each other in the election campaign but they agree on bashing China.  Mainstream media as well is playing its part in the anti-China echo chamber.  The New York Times blamed what it called China’s opaque, bureaucratic, and authoritarian political system for bungling the initial response.  But US media downplayed subsequent effectiveness in containing the virus, implying that China lied about the facts.  News about China’s large-scale program of international solidarity in supplying medical aid to countries like Italy, Serbia and Iran was scarcely reported.  Cuba and Vietnam’s international solidarity were likewise hardly noted.

The roots of China-bashing are deep.  For decades US capitalism-imperialism has been ambivalent about how to deal with China.  Regime change for a counter-revolutionary, US friendly government is desired.  But is the better strategy soft power or confrontation?  A large sector of the US business community is heavily invested in China which is a major source of profit, for example, Apple Computer, General Motors, Starbucks.  On the other hand, rightwing and neocon strategists like White House Advisor Peter Navarro (author of “Death by China”) see the country as a dangerous threat to US global dominance in the “New American Century.”

The tilt towards confrontation began in the Obama administration, with the pivot to Asia pushed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  The Asian pivot or rebalancing policy was based on the analysis that East and Southeast Asia were rapidly developing and becoming the center of world economic growth.  US forces should therefore be shifted from the Middle East to this region.  This in practice meant surrounding China with military bases and adversarial diplomatic agreements.  The military pivot was accompanied by its economic partner, the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership, a huge trading block excluding China and designed in part to isolate and pressure the People’s Republic economically.  The Trump administration disliked the multilateral TPP, withdrawing the US from the deal in favor of the unilateral trade war on China.

The White House paper on global strategy issued in December 2017 identified Russia and China as the principal “revisionist” competitors (seeking to change the world order) in a new era of great power competition.  No longer was terrorism the primary threat to US interests, rather Russia and now especially China.  This assessment was strengthened by the testimony of US intelligence leaders before a US congressional committee in Jan. 2019.  China was depicted as a dangerous power run by an authoritarian, communist regime, suppressing civil liberties and Western liberal values, a threat to the American way of life.

China is regarded as especially formidable due to its economic strength; Chinese gross domestic product is projected to eventually surpass the US.  Already the world’s biggest trading nation, vast projects such as the Belt and Road were growing Chinese influence in the world, especially in the global South.   China’s support for a multi-polar global system was directly contrary to US hegemony.   China was actively working with the Group of 77 from the global South on climate change and other issues, including opposing the illegal use of economic sanctions as an aggressive weapon. 

Blaming Covid-19 on China therefore was not only a Trump tactic of disclaiming responsibility, but also facilitates the long-term anti-China program of the dominant faction of US imperialism.   The favored tool of white supremacy could be deployed to attack Asian and Chinese Americans, preparing US public opinion for heightened tension and possible conflict.  China does not want war but US imperialism but may be willing to take the risk.

US imperialist strategy of targeting China is very damaging not only to prospects of peace but also to necessary international cooperation in fighting pandemics and global warming, as well as working together for economic development and cultural exchange.  The anti-China program is currently a consensus of US ruling elites, both in the Republican and Democratic Parties.  This destructive path will continue unless power shifts to the more pragmatic wing of US capitalism. 

Regarding the 2020 election campaign, the Republican Party seems committed to the anti-China strategy.  The Democratic Party may be more ambivalent as forces within the party pushed back at Biden’s words.  Asian American groups and others objected to the inherent racism.   Corporations with major investments in China may want to tone down the rhetoric.  The progressive wing does not want intervention and war.  Consequently, a Biden administration might de-escalate and shift to a soft power approach instead of confrontation.   In the long term, the new Cold War is bound to persist in different forms resulting from the contradiction between US and global capitalism and China’s independent foreign policy and “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

— Duncan McFarland is a member of MAPA and of Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS)