The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats are falling into a familiar trap on China

President Trump visits the Ford Rawsonville Components Plant, which is making ventilators and medical supplies, in Ypsilanti, Mich., on Thursday.
President Trump visits the Ford Rawsonville Components Plant, which is making ventilators and medical supplies, in Ypsilanti, Mich., on Thursday. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
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As polls continue to show a steady lead for Joe Biden, President Trump is getting increasingly desperate. He has now committed himself to an election strategy that is centered on pointing the finger at China and its leader, Xi Jinping. Throughout January and February, Trump had showered praise on Xi, describing him as “strong, sharp and powerfully focused,” repeatedly emphasized the close Sino-American cooperation on covid-19, and praised Beijing for its “transparency.” As late as March 27, Trump tweeted, “We are working closely together. Much respect!”

That was before it became clear that he had mishandled the outbreak in the United States, and before his approval rating began to drop. So he returned to a familiar pattern: blaming foreigners. If the 2016 campaign was centered around blaming Mexico, the 2020 campaign will clearly focus on scapegoating China. Trump surrogates are already insisting that China must pay for the damage it has done — which will presumably happen right after Mexico pays for the wall.

Let me be clear: China engaged in a coverup of the initial outbreak in Wuhan. Local officials silenced whistleblowers. The entire Chinese Communist Party system was terrified that this bad news would slow growth, spook markets and reveal that it had mishandled a public health emergency. The CCP did the same and more during the SARS outbreak of 2003.

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But the Chinese authorities also did some things right. They sequenced the entire genome of the coronavirus and released it to the world on Jan. 12, much faster than happened with SARS. They also realized, belatedly, that in this case their censorship and control were exacerbating the public health crisis. On Jan. 21, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission posted a statement: “Whoever deliberately delays or conceals reporting for the sake of their own interests will be forever nailed to history’s pillar of shame.” (The post was later removed, probably because it revealed that people had been delaying and concealing reports.)

In any event, by the end of January the World Health Organization had announced a global health emergency, and several places moved quickly to combat it. The United States was not one of them. Had Trump done so, the United States would be in a very different situation today. Taiwan, which gets millions of travelers from mainland China each year, didn’t close its borders to China until after the United States, yet it took smart, targeted steps to limit the spread. It has had, to date, seven deaths from covid-19. Hong Kong, a dense city with a similar number of residents as New York, has had four. Those are not typos.

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The real puzzle is not that Trump is engaging in China-bashing but why Democrats are joining in. They are falling into a familiar trap: Republicans take a legitimate challenge to the United States and pump it up into a mortal danger, massively exaggerating the threat and accusing the Democrats of appeasement or even of taking part in a conspiracy with the enemy. And Democrats, instead of standing their ground, get scared and join in the scaremongering. In response to ads bashing Biden and China, Biden released his own China-bashing ad, which even competed with Trump in its racially charged tone. Rather than explaining that policy toward China requires both confrontation and cooperation, the Biden campaign has basically conceded the argument to Trump.

These are not just election-year antics. Such tactics have lasting consequences. Democrats supported coups and covert operations across the world in the 1950s and 1960s for fear that they would be labeled soft. They stumbled into Vietnam in large measure because Lyndon B. Johnson did not want to face Republican accusations that he “lost” a country to communism. The most recent generation of Democrats went along with the Iraq War largely because they did not want to be seen as weak in the War on Terror. In 2002, as Republicans began beating the drums for war with Iraq, Biden joined them. “We have no choice but to eliminate the threat,” he said on “Meet the Press”. “This is a guy who’s an extreme danger to the world.”

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Trump’s latest campaign strategy is to attack China and an international body, the World Health Organization. Never mind that the WHO is, as Bill Gates has noted, more closely connected to the United States than any other country, with deep ties to the CDC. Never mind that it does not have powers to compel sovereign countries (such as China) largely because of rules written and supported by Washington, which is allergic to external interference from international groups.

For Trump, the attacks make sense. He and his followers want to cripple international institutions. They want an end to global cooperation on issues such as climate change. They understand that a cold war with China would destroy globalization and the open, rules-based international order.

But Democrats believe in this world. They see it as the fulfillment of a vision conceived by Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt that has provided for unprecedented peace and prosperity over the past 70 years. So why are they joining in its destruction?

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