A Rare U.S. Political Consensus to Get Tough on China

American Views of China at an All-Time Low Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

Amid the coronavirus crisis, foreign policy debates in Washington are coming to center around the future of America’s relationship with Beijing. While a casual reading of American media would suggest a traditional divide along partisan lines, with Republicans favoring a more hawkish posture and Democrats a more dovish one, a closer examination showsconvergence— around an increasingly hawkish stance.

 

CONGRESS AND THE ADMINISTRATION SPEARHEAD INQUIRIES

 

On May 5, Secretary Pompeo laid out a case for a new investigation into the origins of the virus, saying, “It is pretty clear that at the front end of this the Chinese Communist Party misled the world...China covered up the outbreak in Wuhan. Its National Health Commission ordered virus samples destroyed on January 3rd. China ‘disappeared’ brave Chinese citizens who raised alarms. It deployed its propaganda organs to denounce those who politely called for simple transparency.”

 

As far back as March, Republican Senator Tom Cotton, who had been warning of the dangers posed by the coronavirus since January, has introduced new legislation calling for a repatriation of the American medical supply chain out of China. In the Senator’s words, "The Chinese Communist Party has threatened to cut off America's access to vital drugs in the midst of a pandemic caused by its own failures. It's time to pull America's supply chains for life-saving medicine out of China and make the CCP pay for contributing to this global emergency,"

 

DEBATE WITHIN THE DEMOCRATIC CAMP

 

Given that the dynamic of a presidential election year produces a strong political incentive for the opposition party to oppose new policy initiatives by the current administration, opposition to these initiatives has been relatively mild. Early in the crisis, President Trump’s travel ban on China was met with criticism from some Democrats as enabling bias against Asian Americans. “In our response we can’t create prejudices and harbor anxieties toward one population,”Democratic representative Ami Bera said. Kaiser Kuo, Democratic-leaning editor at large of the website SupChina, expressed fears of a “race to the bottom,” in which “Asian Americans will suffer even more terribly from racism.”

 

However, in recent weeks, the Democratic presidential campaign has attempted to position the party as equally tough on China, if not more so than the Trump administration.  In an advertisement geared toward the general election, Biden’s campaign released a video claiming that “Trump rolled over for the Chinese.”  This came on the heels of a similar advertisement, funded by Democratic political operatives, which depicted Trump as under the undue influence of Beijing while declaring that “President Trump gave China his trust.” And recently, senior Biden advisers have taken to highlighting the fact that “the president praised China and President Xi more than 15 times,” signaling a new line of campaign messaging which will seek to depict Trump as “soft” on China for the coming election.  

 

EMERGENT POPULAR CONSENSUS

 

Meanwhile, at the popular level, a new Pew poll shows that Americans have taken an increasingly dim view of China regardless of party affiliation. Nearly three-quarters of Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters look on China unfavorably, as compared with over 60% of Democrats and Democratic leaners. Overall, roughly two-thirds of Americans hold a negative opinion of China, the highest percentage recorded since Pew began polling on views of China in 2005. Indeed, in the last few years, China’s net favorability rating in the US has collapsed from a modest -3 in late 2016 to a -40 today. 

 

According to Mark Penn, chairman of one leading polling firm, skepticism of Beijing “is as much of a consensus issue as you can get in today’s divided world.” Penn added, “overall, there’s very little trust for anything that the Chinese government says or does, especially its premier. Xi Jinping has less than half the credibility of President Trump in this poll.”