As American voters get ready for the midterm elections next month, candidates from both parties are pledging tough policies on China in hopes of wooing voters.
American attitudes toward China have worsened in recent years, especially since the 2020 coronavirus outbreak. New data from Pew Research Center said that this year, 82% of Americans have an unfavorable view of China, a historical high. Five years ago, that number was about half, standing at 47%.
Polls indicate those negative views are shared by Republicans and Democrats, which is why candidates from both parties are talking about China and Beijing’s formidable economic power.
“We have to stop being weak on China. We have to stop sending American jobs to people who hate us,” said J.D. Vance, the Republican Senate candidate in Ohio who is endorsed by former President Donald Trump.
His Democratic opponent, incumbent Representative Tim Ryan, is equally critical.
“It’s us versus China. China is out-manufacturing us left and right, and it’s time we fight back,” he tweeted. Both candidates support keeping steep U.S. tariffs on Chinese products.
In Pennsylvania, Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman said he will “work to guarantee that we don’t allow China to out-innovate us.” His Republican opponent for the U.S. Senate, Dr. Mehmet Oz, has made “get tough on China” one of his key campaign messages.
In Missouri, State Attorney General Eric Schmitt calls China a growing military, economic and public health threat.
His opponent for the U.S. Senate, Democrat Trudy Busch Valentine, criticizes Schmitt for supporting legislation that allows foreign ownership of farmland that her campaign claims has allowed more than 100,000 acres of Missouri land to be purchased by Chinese-controlled companies.
In Arizona, Republican challenger Blake Masters insists that Chinese students in America are a threat to U.S. national security.
Incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Kelly was a key supporter of the CHIPS and Science Act, a measure that aims at winning the tech war with China.
“China is pretty much front and center in this election,” Dean Chen, an associate professor of political science at the Ramapo College of New Jersey, told VOA Mandarin.
“When campaigns become highly polarized and highly competitive, there’s got to be an issue that is prominent enough that can raise the attention. It is always easier to find an external common enemy and adversary in order to unite local constituents behind themselves,” he said in a phone interview.
Frank Sesno, a communications professor and director of strategic initiatives at The George Washington University, said China is being framed increasingly in the context of national security and less visibly in terms of economic opportunity.
“China is being positioned increasingly as a national threat. Not merely a competitor but an adversary. I would say portrayal has intensified, and it appears to be a theme increasingly of both parties,” he told VOA Mandarin.
‘Rare bipartisan unity’
According to research by the U.S. China Business Council, an industry group helping American companies do business in China, the number of China-related bills considered by U.S. lawmakers has increased dramatically in the last five years.
From 2001 to 2017, the number of China-related bills considered by each Congress hovered around 200 to 250. Since 2017, that number has skyrocketed to some 639 bills in the last Congress and already more than 700 in this Congress.
The Biden administration has passed several important China-related bills since coming into office. The CHIPS Act will provide $52.7 billion in investment in U.S. domestic semiconductor manufacturing and research and development to counter China’s massive subsidies to its chip industry.
The National Critical Capabilities Defense Act seeks to establish a review process for U.S. companies to invest abroad, aiming to prevent U.S. capital from flowing to Chinese technology companies.
The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act prohibits forced labor products from Xinjiang from entering the United States.
All three bills have enjoyed wide support from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
“What’s most interesting about sentiment on China in this country’s politics is it is such a rare point of bipartisan unity,” said Dan Schnur, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He has worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns as one of California’s leading political strategists.
“I cannot think of any other issue on which the two parties set aside their differences, especially in an election year,” he told VOA.
Schnur said the “get tough on China” card is being received particularly well in America’s heartland, because the upper Midwest has been a base of manufacturing capacity. But over the last few decades, many of those manufacturing jobs have left the U.S. and gone to other parts of the world.
“When you have a working-class electorate that doesn’t feel this globalization is working to their benefit, then it’s fairly easy for a candidate of either party to try to capitalize on the sentiments,” he explained.
Anna Tucker Ashton, director of China corporate affairs at the Eurasia Group, agrees.
“That is where there is the most acute sense that U.S. jobs were outsourced to China, that China stole American jobs, and that a decrease in overall quality of life in these communities is directly linked to not being tough on China,” she told VOA Mandarin.
Pew said the negative views of China are tied to China’s human rights record and concerns about its growing military power.
Sesno said Beijing changing its hard-line policies will improve relations.
“The Chinese are fueling this. Things that are driving those numbers up are China’s policy toward Uyghurs, China’s threats toward Taiwan, China’s nationalist rhetoric, [the] Xi Jinping presidency and a third term, and the increasingly nationalist tenure and tone of the Beijing government,” he told VOA. “So, this is not happening in a vacuum, and it’s not happening merely because of American politics.”