The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Our overdue reckoning with China

A demonstrator holds a U.S. flag during a protest in Hong Kong on Oct. 15. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

John A. Burtka IV is executive director of The American Conservative.

Thomas Jefferson once observed, “Merchants have no country. The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains.”

This timeless wisdom was on full display this week with National Basketball Association superstar LeBron James’s wild claim that showing solidarity for protesters in Hong Kong could lead to physical, emotional and spiritual harm for “so many people.”

The United States is at a crossroads. We live in a country where the titans of industry have betrayed the national interest in search of profits from a communist dictatorship. Companies that have prospered on account of the United States’ political and economic freedom, infrastructure, and military protection, now limit the speech of Americans and others seeking freedom to appease their minders and masters in Beijing. The consequence of this? The abolition of national sovereignty, individual liberty and the consent of the governed.

In August, President Trump was widely criticized when he tweeted: “Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China including bringing your companies HOME." Whether anyone took this “order” seriously, Trump was right then and still is today. We are a country with a market, not the other way around. If this country’s Fortune 500 companies value access to Chinese markets more than the vital interests of the United States, then it’s imperative for the American people to marshal both political and consumer power against them until those companies are forced to choose who they will serve.

President Trump criticized several NBA coaches and players at the White House on Oct. 9. (Video: The Washington Post)

It’s long past time to render a value on the United States’ 40-year relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). What result of it has come to the American heartland besides an opioid epidemic, rising suicide rates, the destruction of the world’s greatest manufacturing base, low-wage service jobs, and the big-box stores that have killed the American main street? Not to mention the hundreds of billions of dollars lost to stolen technology, the dumping of excess product in markets to destroy U.S. industries, as well as egregious human rights abuses.

Perhaps the greatest irony is the fact that the companies such as the NBA and Google, which would purport to lecture “backward” Americans on the virtues of social justice, are often the ones going to bat for doing business in a regime that has put more than 1 million Muslims in concentration camps, has institutionalized sexism in the form of a one-child policy that led to the infanticide of untold numbers of girls, and has polluted the environment at a rate greater than the United States and Europe combined. We live in the age of populism, nationalism and socialism — not because the American people are ignorant, but because they are outraged by the hypocrisy of an elite class whose commitment to liberal values extends only so far as their pocketbooks or their next deal in the PRC.

The consequences of decades of liberalized trade with China reverberate far beyond the halls of power. My home state of Michigan has been ravaged by the loss or displacement of more than 80,000 jobs since China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001. My current place of residence, Chester County, Pa., also suffers at the hands of Chinese mercantilism. The spotted lanternfly, an invasive Chinese insect that arrived on cargo ships, could cost nearly $18 billion in damage to statewide agriculture products. Chinese mushrooms of questionable legality have bankrupted a local mushroom farm in Kennett Square; and Coatesville, once known in Pennsylvania as the “Pittsburgh of the East,” suffered the horrific consequences of deindustrialization for decades until Trump’s tariffs provided much needed aid to boost the city’s steel industry. Prediction: The candidate with the guts to “put the screws” to those bought and sold by Chinese President Xi Jinping will win at the ballot box in 2020 and gain the affection of the American people for a generation.

No matter how the trade talks turn out, the sun is setting on the United States’ trade relationship with China. It’s time we take significant economic measures to repatriate manufacturing supply chains to the Americas and establish a trading block that spans from Alaska to Argentina. In doing so, we’ll create an economic boom in Latin America, ameliorate tensions at the border with Mexico, and restore dignity to the United States’ middle and working classes.

Read more:

Josh Rogin: Washington gives Chinese diplomats a taste of their own medicine

Robert D. Kaplan: Here’s the real foreign policy disaster that Trump has created for the U.S.

Henry Olsen: This is why Trump is right to challenge China

David Ignatius: Trump’s Twitter diplomacy with China is no substitute for clear policy