vision 2020

China Is Going to Be a Big Issue in the 2020 Campaign. But What Does That Mean?

Photo: AndrewCaballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Donald Trump’s rhetoric on China has long been more bellicose than almost any other American political leader. But, as the revelations from John Bolton’s new White House memoir make clear, Trump’s policies toward the PRC have been softer. An excerpt from Bolton’s book in the Wall Street Journal describes a leader who begged Chinese president Xi Jinping for a trade deal for political benefit and shrugged off the country’s use of concentration camps to detain 1 million Uighurs.

Even before Bolton’s book, the coronavirus pandemic has made China a leading issue in the 2020 campaign. While the Chinese response to the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan will take center stage, China policy encompasses a host of complex strands ranging from industrial policy to the opioid crisis to civil liberties in Hong Kong. This complexity makes the issue difficult to explain to voters, but especially so when Democrats are trying to grapple with a certain level of cognitive dissonance — while Trump’s rhetoric on China may be far harsher than they’d use, they also view his record on China as weak.

Trump and his team have already made China central to his reelection effort with a concerted effort to place the blame for the deaths of over 120,000 Americans from COVID-19 on the shoulders of Xi and the Chinese Communist Party. In contrast, his campaign has painted Biden as being weak on China and attacked him for his past support of free trade deals with the PRC as well his son Hunter’s murky business dealings there.

In the same way that Russia has been the focus of liberal angst for much of Trump’s term, China has now become an international hobgoblin for the right. Its evils are pointed out nightly on Fox News and its failures are regularly excoriated by the president on Twitter. Steve Bannon, a former top strategist for Trump, told Intelligencer that he believes the Republicans won the upper Midwest and thus the election in 2016, “by talking trade and China.”

This is reflected in polling as well. An April poll from Pew showed that 66 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of China and 62 percent view it as a major threat. Further, a May poll from Harvard-Harris found that 76 percent of Americans are very or somewhat dissatisfied with China’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

Democrats have not argued that China’s failure to contain the virus in early 2020 is “fake news” from the president and his allies. Instead, they have acknowledged China’s actions but argued that Beijing’s sins do not excuse Trump’s failures or the faith he publicly expressed in the PRC at the outset of the crisis.

The Biden campaign has released two extended web videos hitting Trump over his response to the pandemic and arguing “he ignored the threat while praising the Chinese government.” But while the first ad in April attacked Trump as much for his “failure to hold China accountable” as his mismanagement of the coronavirus response, the second, released in mid-May, has focused more heavily on the latter. As one Biden adviser described Trump’s blind eye toward China as the pandemic spread, “It’s kind of an origin story to his mismanagement.”

Biden allies think Trump’s attempts to attack the former vice president on China are just an effort to deflect from his own failures in dealing with the country, which began long before anyone had heard of Covid-19. This critique includes his decision to launch a tariff war with China that devastated US agricultural exports to reach a trade deal that they view as underwhelming as well as undermining the alliances and international institutions that they see as vital to promoting US interests around the world. That case has been bolstered by Bolton’s claims that Trump begged Xi for a politically-beneficial trade deal and turned a blind eye to China’s human rights abuses and espionage in hopes of securing an agreement.

As one Democratic strategist involved in the 2020 campaign noted to Intelligencer, “the risk that Democrats run is that both sides are running ads on [how] China is evil” — and making the election a debate over “who believes [China’s] lies the most” is a losing proposition. “In tests that we’ve seen, ads that are fully [about] Trump’s China response don’t do well,” he added. “It is more powerful to respond with facts about Trump and not just make it about China and tit for tat.”

Polling data has indicated this as well. An April survey from Navigator Research shows that adding a simple acknowledgement of the Chinese government’s mismanagement before blaming Trump for his public-health failures is more persuasive to voters. Without the acknowledgement, 51 percent agreed more with a statement blaming China than blaming Trump. That number fell to 46 percent when a mention of Chinese mismanagement prefaced a statement about Trump’s failure.

There also is a point where strong rhetoric on China may alienate some voters on the left. Matt Duss, a senior foreign policy adviser to Bernie Sanders, told Intelligencer, “Imagining that you can out nationalize and outhawk the GOP is a race to the bottom. You are not going to be more a ridiculous hawk than Ted Cruz or Donald Trump because they will always double down.”

Democrats are sensitive to some of these concerns, particularly at a time where Trump is openly referring to the coronavirus as the “kung flu” at campaign rallies. As Ian Sams, a Democratic strategist who advises Navigator Research, warned, “I think you have to be careful how you talk about this. You don’t want to encourage racist or xenophobic tropes or stereotypes.” This concern was echoed by Bannon. “I do think the left has got a point [about being careful about language],” the former Trump strategist told Intelligencer. “This is not about China or the Chinese people. This is about the Chinese Communist Party.”

However, it’s still unclear how much U.S.-China policy motivates voters and whether there are many single-issue voters on the issue. In data obtained by Intelligencer from WPA Intelligence, a top Republican data firm, modeling shows that 21 percent of the electorate could be moved by a campaign message focused on “holding China accountable.” However, it would be counterproductive for 23 percent of voters. In particular, in the key Rust Belt states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, the rhetoric shows mixed effectiveness. In Michigan, 16 percent of voters would be responsive to a “tough on China” message and 12 percent would recoil, and in Pennsylvania, those numbers are 29 percent and 28 percent. But in Wisconsin, such a message would resonate with only 8 percent of voters and be counterproductive with 25 percent of the electorate.

As an explicit issue, China last truly featured in a presidential election in 1960 when Richard Nixon and John Kennedy debated whether the U.S should intervene militarily if China invaded Quemoy and Matsu, two sets of Taiwanese islands just off the coast of mainland China. However, U.S.-China relations have long been an undercurrent of the debate on trade in American politics with populist critics in both parties pointing a finger at trade deals that sped China’s economic rise for job losses across the United States.

Trade still lingers as an issue for Trump, too. The victory he hoped to herald with “phase one” of his trade deal could unravel in the response to the coronavirus, dealing another blow to a weak farm economy. As Ely Ratner, a former senior adviser to Biden described Trump’s dilemma to Intelligencer, “On the one hand, he’s sitting on this totally empty trade deal, but on the other hand, it’s the only thing he can talk about as a concrete agreement.” Further, there is the potential for a foreign-policy crisis to inject itself into the campaign as China cracks down further on Hong Kong, although polling shows that to be the aspect of the U.S.-China relationship that Americans are least concerned with.

Whatever the campaigns decide, there will be consequences far beyond Election Day. The battle lines set out during the coming months will likely inform the policy debates and campaigns in years to come. While policy-makers have been grappling with the rise of China in recent years, presidential campaigns have still occurred in a unipolar post–Cold War world that doesn’t quite match reality anymore. As unlikely as it seems now, the pandemic will one day go away and the economy will recover from the massive dislocation it caused. The challenge posed by China and its authoritarian capitalist system will remain.

China Is a 2020 Campaign Issue. How Will Democrats Play It?