East & Pacific Asia

Casualties of the trade war: Washington rhetoric helps legitimize China’s authoritarian policies


Before the Trump administration, a good relationship with China was considered a goal that transcended party lines. However, during President Trump’s 2016 campaign, he pledged to place the privileged status the US bestowed on its largest trading partner under great scrutiny. While a tougher approach on China holds favor in both parties, the discussion surrounding Trump’s escalating trade war with China often misses the point: the U.S. should not let China get way with implementing its unfair trade and monetary policies or committing continuous human rights abuses. For these acts to stop, Washington must coalesce around a unified message to hold the Chinese Communist Party accountable.

President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive in China | November 8, 2017 Photo courtesy of the White House ©2017

There is widespread awareness in Washington and globally that China is riding a wave of economic growth underpinned by the uneven playing field it helped create for itself. Similarly, no one on either side of the political aisle, nor in the media, is disputing the hardships that hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens are enduring as a result of an authoritarian regime. These facts, however, apparently hold no sway in how policy makers devise their approach to the U.S. relationship with China.

It was only five months ago that two Chinese nationals were indicted for stealing confidential data from American government agencies and businesses, leading to international condemnation of what is considered a global campaign of commercial intellectual property theft. Even more recently, the Trump administration proposed penalties for punishing currency manipulators, a measure likely taken with China in mind and one Democrats pushed for as early as 2015. Other problems, especially regarding surveillance and technology, are best exemplified in the recent Huawei scandal with the U.S government claiming ties between the tech company and the Chinese government.

Even more worrisome, especially for human rights activists, are the continuously deteriorating conditions for many of those living in China. The 2018 Country Report on Human Rights Practices, released in April 2019 by the U.S. Department of State, claims “authorities were reported to have arbitrarily detained 800,000 to possibly more than two million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslims in internment camps designed to erase religious and ethnic identities.” This internment is conducted under the guise of combating terrorism. Similarly, arbitrary executions, detentions, and persecution of journalists have only intensified in recent years. As long as the Communist Party controls the state’s security apparatus there is no end in sight to such measures.

Yet, it seems, human rights are the first chip that advocates for a tougher approach on China are willing to trade. The U.S. list of demands for moving trade talks forward in November 2018, made no reference to improving human rights conditions in China, and Trump has yet to mention this as a serious request in any speech, interview, or tweet. When it comes to assessing the possible fallouts of cooling relations, it appears economic considerations, such as maintaining a profitable trade relationship, take precedence. Even with human rights ignored, other issues of importance like currency manipulation are still overlooked. It appears, the only point taken seriously is to end commercial espionage, a demand likely fueled by the number of lobbyists present in Washington ready to defend the bottom line of the companies they represent.

Showing a strong and unitary approach when it comes to China is crucial to ensure the Communist Party is ultimately held accountable for its practices. When policy makers claim they are aware of violations and unfair practices, yet are willing to compromise on them, a signal is sent that the imprisonment of approximately a million ethnic Muslims, or the arbitrary detention of journalists and political opponents are not big enough problems to represent a road block in relations. A tough approach on China is not only needed, but welcomed. Nevertheless, the rhetoric surrounding this approach, wherever on the political spectrum it comes from, must be consistent, firm, and unrelenting.

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