Generally, campaign rhetoric in the recent past has not been very favorable to the idea of China. In a struggling economy, China is often painted as the beneficiary of a trend that has put millions of Americans into financial insecurity. Jon Huntsman, who announced his withdrawal from the presidential race earlier this week, often found his former role as U.S. Ambassador to China a liability in his campaign, with attack ads labeling him a “Manchurian candidate” and “China Jon,” and questioning whether he “shares our values.”
Mitt Romney’s supporters have also been attempting to link rival Newt Gingrich to some of China’s controversial social policies, with one ad accusing Gingrich of co-sponsoring a bill with House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi giving funds to a “U.N. program supporting China’s brutal one-child policy.” (Fact-checking organization Politifact found the statement to be false.)
But attitudes toward China are decidedly more complicated in South Carolina, where the next stage of the race toward the GOP nomination takes place in this weekend’s primary. Evan Osnos puts the reality of the state’s relationship with China into perspective:
If summoning the Red Menace makes sense in Ohio and Michigan, in South Carolina it’s preposterous. The state has been one of the most energetic places in the union in extracting benefits from trade with the People’s Republic. In 2005, it opened its own office in Shanghai, alongside offices from Austria and Sweden. The South Carolina Department of Commerce says Chinese companies have invested $307.8 million in the state. South Carolina, in fact, was the site of the first Chinese company to build a factory in the United States, when Haier Group, the appliance manufacturer, arrived in 1999. At last count, it has two hundred and fifty employees making refrigerators and freezers, and it has attracted other Chinese factories.
Many other parts of the state, however, also struggle with the closure of factories often blamed on China’s currency manipulation that allows for cheaper and more attractive exports. In October, Politico described the conundrum faced by Republican state lawmakers conflicted by the conservative ideology of free trade and the state’s manufacturers “hemorrhaging jobs to Asia’s largest economy.”
This year’s jabs are certainly not the first political ads to invoke anti-China sentiment, nor are they the most outrageous. During the midterm elections of 2010, a slew of Congressional candidates summoned the image of a sinister China to attack their rivals in a variety of television spots, complete with mandolin music and fortune cookie clichés. But political ads are attracting much broader audiences in a national presidential election. In the meantime, anti-China rhetoric on the campaign trail remains under close watch by those concerned with upsetting U.S-China relations, as well as Asian-American communities, who often become collateral damage in an atmosphere of “yellow peril.” At the Daily Beast, Dan Levin writes that while Chinese political analysts assure that the rhetoric will pass after November’s election, the “barrage of criticism” against China has continued to feed a general mistrust of the U.S.:
[T]o many Chinese, the constant barrage of criticism, whether over human rights, hacking, military policy, or intellectual property, feeds a sense of paranoia that there is a broad American plan to undermine China.
“A conspiracy theory has taken root in China,” says Liu Yawei, director of the China program at the Carter Center in Atlanta. “Some very influential scholars see the whole currency manipulation as a ploy, along with the dollar devaluation and war with Iraq and Afghanistan, as all meant to make China disintegrate.”