One of the many effects of the 2020 presidential election is that the issue of China has become highly politicized — by both parties. This undermines the bipartisanship the United States will need to confront the challenge posed by China’s rise. On Monday night, it was the Republican Party’s turn to abuse the China issue, reducing it to a series of catchphrases to zing the Democrats rather than an important problem that all Americans must join together to face.
President Trump led the charge on the first day of the Republican National Convention, delivering his remarks from Charlotte, but also appearing in videos previously taped at the White House. He referred repeatedly to the “China virus,” his name for the virus that causes covid-19, even when it had nothing to do with the subject at hand.
“We could call it many things, the China virus,” Trump said. “I don’t want to say all the names because some people might get insulted. But that’s the way it is.”
Trump’s use of the term “China virus” is meant to point to the origin of the virus but also has the effect of offending some Asians and Asian Americans. At rallies, the president has used the even more offensive term, “kung flu.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who will speak on Tuesday, prefers the term “Wuhan virus,” which is slightly more accurate and slightly less offensive, but not by much.
Donald Trump Jr. went several steps further than his father in using China to both deflect blame for the pandemic and attack Trump’s Democratic opponent, former vice president Joe Biden. The younger Trump said the coronavirus struck the United States “courtesy of the Chinese Communist Party” and referred to a recent statement by a senior U.S. intelligence official that the Chinese leadership does not want Trump to be reelected because he is so unpredictable.
“Beijing Biden is so weak on China that the intelligence community recently assessed that the Chinese Communist Party favors Biden,” said the president’s eldest son, not mentioning that the same official said that Moscow prefers Trump. “They know he will weaken us economically and on the world stage.”
Several other officials touted Trump as “tough” on China and blamed Beijing for the pandemic. But they notably didn’t bother to go into any specifics, such as whether Trump’s trade war achieved its goals (it hasn’t yet) or what exactly the Chinese Communist Party did that caused the pandemic to be worse than necessary (many, many things).
The effort to paint Biden and his party as weak on China similarly wasn’t presented with many concrete examples. Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, declared that Biden is “great for Communist China,” while Trump is “tough on China.” Campaign adviser Kimberly Guilfoyle said Democrats “will selfishly send your jobs back to China while they get rich.” Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, said, “Nice guys like Joe cared more about countries like China and Iran than the United States of America.”
Some of the speakers mentioned specific issues in the U.S.-China relationship but left out crucial details. Conservative activist Charlie Kirk criticized major tech platforms for “promoting Chinese state-funded propaganda.” He was likely referring to the examples of Google, Facebook and Twitter selling ads or otherwise displaying Chinese state-media outlets and their content. Attacking the tech platforms and China is like a 2-for-1 for some conservatives, but no examples were given.
Natalie Harp, a critic of drug approval regulations, warned that, “In Joe Biden’s America, China would control our drug production.” Was she talking about the fact that U.S. pharmaceutical supply lines are over-reliant on China, a vulnerability that Beijing abused when the pandemic forced every country to hoard drugs and other medical equipment? Probably. Is that a serious issue? Absolutely. Is that Joe Biden’s fault? Hardly.
In narrated videos, the Trump campaign accuses Biden of calling Trump’s decision to ban most travel from China on Jan. 31 “xenophobic.” The Biden camp insists the former vice president was not referring to the travel ban decision when he called Trump xenophobic, but he said it that very same day.
“This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysteria and xenophobia — hysterical xenophobia — and fearmongering to lead the way instead of science,” Biden said on Jan. 31. In April, the Biden campaign said that Biden did, in fact, support the travel ban.
It’s clear that the Democrats and the Biden campaign have struggled with how to deal with the China issue. Polls show American voters in both parties are souring on China and support a tougher U.S. approach. The Democratic leadership in Congress told its caucus members not to work with Republicans on any China-related initiatives or legislation. The Democratic National Convention hardly mentioned China at all. The platform released by the Democratic National Committee criticized Trump’s trade war, his closeness to Chinese president Xi Jinping, and his lack of coordination with allies.
Perhaps nuance and bipartisanship on the China issue is impossible in the middle of the pandemic and during the election season. But the more both parties now see China as a political weapon rather than a national challenge, the more difficult it will be later to come together to confront the China challenge, the most important task of leaders in both parties for the next four years.
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