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  • Writer's pictureXiaodong Fang

A brief history of China-bashing in U.S. presidential elections, 1948~1980's

The appearance of China-bashing (toward the regime of the Chinese Communist Party) in U.S. presidential elections originated well before the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. It can be traced back to 1948, the election year even before the establishment of the People's Republic of China.

Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune

The mistake of "Dewey defeats Truman" not only shocked the American public opinion, but also mattered the outcome of the second civil war in China. The campaign rhetoric used by two presidential candidates on China, specifically relating to the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists, played a role in elections in 1948 and, to some extent, shaped foreign policy towards China at that time. After receiving the nomination, Truman, in his acceptance speech, stated that he would continue aiding the recovery of Europe, China and the Far East in the post-war period, but did not make any further reference to China (Rosinger 1948). By contrast, Dewey charged the Truman administration with niggardliness in its provision of aid to the Nationalists in China, and declared that, if elected, it would be a cardinal principle of his administration to help combat communist influences in China (Rosinger 1948). Truman won the election of 1948 and later the Truman administration was blamed for the “loss of China”.

The outbreak of war in Korea in 1950 brought the U.S. and China into military conflict and the two contenders in the 1952 presidential elections debated on the China issue and policy on China. For example, on September 4, 1952, Eisenhower charged President Truman with bungling foreign policy in Asia. He asserted: “We are at war because this Administration abandoned China to the Communists.” In support of Truman’s policy, Stevenson countered Eisenhower by defending the administration’s record and by pointing out America’s limited ability to affect the outcome of the Chinese civil war (Anderson 1980). Keeping his campaign promise that “there would be no concessions to Chinese Communism,” President Eisenhower never attempted to restore friendly relations with Peking in the 1950s (Anderson 1980).

Photo Credit: History in HD

During the Vietnam War era, the China issue might not have played a major role in presidential elections, but it was still discussed by presidential candidates. For example, during the second presidential debate in 1960, Nixon and Kennedy debated the threat posed by Communist China, particularly on Taiwan; Nixon indicated that he would eventually negotiate with the leaders of Communist China during the Republican national convention in 1968, signaling his future policy towards engaging with China (Bostdorff 2002).

Following Nixon’s China strategy, Carter established official diplomatic relations with China. American attitudes towards China had come a full circle since 1970s (Anderson 1980), and anti-China rhetoric had become more muted during presidential campaigns in that period. A study showed that Reagan’s rhetoric towards China was more positive than negative during the 1980 presidential campaign and during his first year in office. The author found that 37% of the news and features in three papers (Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post) were coded as positive towards China, while 28% were coded as negative.

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For more details, please subscribe and read my full article at the Spring 2019 issue of The Washington Journal of Modern China.


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