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  • Writer's pictureXiaodong Fang

Five Things To Know About China-bashing In Presidential Elections: How Does It Matter In 2020

Things have changed since the last 2016 election cycle. As President Trump is on a trade war with China, China-bashing appears to be a good strategy that captures the public attention and attract voter groups concerning China. An analysis on the Democratic debates last month shows that “China came up 16 times during Tuesday night’s debate…and on Wednesday night: eight mentions of China.” As a scholar who studies this topic, I suggest the following tips for observers to follow the China-bashing during the 2020 presidential campaigns.

1. It’s the economy, stupid.

When bashing China, presidential candidates are not talking about foreign policy, but mostly about the domestic economy. For example, Trump claimed Obama had allowed China to continue its economic assault on American jobs and wealth; Clinton attacked Trump on his business ties in China that hurt the U.S. economy; Obama’s attacked Romney’s former firm Bain Capital’s job outsourcing to China, and etc. My recent publication on Washington Journal of Modern China indicated that 65 percent of New York Times articles referencing anti-China rhetoric was about economic issues in the 2016 general election period. Not surprisingly, 23 of the 24 mentions of China in last Democratic debates are about trade. China is and will continue to be a scapegoat in addressing issues of the domestic economy.

2. It’s beyond the economy.

China-bashing in presidential campaigns can go beyond the economy. Human rights may be discussed in the 2020 presidential campaigns. As the Chinese government continues suppressing freedom and pro-democracy activism, interfering elections and petitions in Taiwan ( and Hong Kong, and ill-treating people of Xinjiang and Tibet, presidential candidates can attack China on its violation of human rights, which is by moral standards and ethical values. The Democrats’ bashing on China’s human rights may be accompanied by the criticism of Trump administration’s inhumane detention and deportation policies on immigration.

Security is another popular issue with China. On their campaign trails, presidential candidates may either take a tough stance in South China Sea or highlight the cooperation regarding nuclear issues of Iran and North Korea. Check out the potential topics sand issues candidates can use for China-bashing.

3. Freshen, not repeated

Public attention does not mean voter support. China-bashing can increase a presidential candidate’s popularity, but only for the short-term. My time-series analysis comparing the effects of two identical Obama ads on economic issue, the “Sold Us Out” ad (bashing China)” and the “Alternative” ad (not bashing China)” shows that the China-bashing ad significantly increased Obama’s popularity in state polls while the other ad did not. However, the significant effect of the China-bashing ad only lasted for one day, and then effect diminished regardless of the increased spending. Freshness is more efficient than repeating.

The redundant repeating over time may weaken the effect of China-bashing on voters. In 2020 presidential campaigns, the wise candidates will bash China regularly or occasionally, but not all the time.

4. Linkage is the key

Whether bashing China on trade, human rights or security, a successful candidate should link the issue and the negative impression to the opponent(s). Once a candidate is linked to the anti-China issue, he or she will be hurt by all the echoes thereafter. In 2016, Trump built the linkage between China and the Obama administration through his over 200 tweets attacking China, which hurt Hillary Clinton, a former member of Obama’s team; In 2012, Obama established the linkage between China and Romney though early China-bashing ad, such as “The Problem” ad in July, which made Romney’s late (mostly after September) efforts on China-bashing useless, or even self-hurt.

5. It matters to the American opinion of China

Trump and the 2016 presidential election are not alone. The favorable rates of China, according to Gallup’s polls, declined in the presidential election year including 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016 and went up after then.

Presidential candidates’ China-bashing, together with the echo effect including the media coverage on China-bashing, contributed to the negative opinion of China. Therefore, we can foresee that the American favorable opinion of China will decline in 2020 and then rebound when the election is over.

Bottom Line

Strategy of China-bashing depends on many political, environmental, and personal factors. The good news now is that with 20 presidential candidates delivering diversified opinions and rhetoric on China, it will raise more attention of the White House, perhaps more influential than the scholars’ open letter, to revise the U.S. approach towards China, and also urge the Chinese government to improve its practice on trade, human rights, and security issues.


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