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  • Writer's pictureXiaodong Fang

Why China-bashing is more influential than Japan-bashing and Soviet-bashing in the past

China-bashing in recent presidential elections is more influential than Japan-bashing and Soviet-bashing in 1980’s and 1990’s. I summarize three reasons:

  1. It arouses more public concern on a rising power that poses both economy and military threats to the U.S. leadership in the current international order.

  2. It raises prominent issues with China, including job outsourcing and unfair trade, that affected the recessional and/or recovering domestic economy and job market in U.S.

  3. It happens at a time when campaign finance is less limited, and media and interest groups play greater roles in shaping voter preference than before.


Photo by Lin Mei on Unsplash

Unlike China-bashing, the Japanese-bashing was focused on the economy while the Soviet-bashing was predominantly military-oriented. The economic contest with Japan in the 1980s and the 1990s, especially the American perception of Japan's unfair trade practices and trade imbalance with America, triggered japan-bashing in the presidential elections. Ornstein studied the 1992 presidential election and found that the growing Japan-bashing in 1992 was positively associated with the public opinion towards Japan. For example, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations found in 1991 a significant decline in "warm feelings" toward Japan among Americans; and 31 percent of American identified Japan as America's greatest security threat in 1992 compared to 8 percent in 1990. He also found that candidates who emphasized anti-Japanese stances did not fare well on the campaign trail. Although Japan-bashing provided early notoriety and an emotional boost, it led to few votes in primaries and caucuses. Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey briefly shot to national prominence with a television spot in New Hampshire, set in a hockey rink, where he warned that if Japan did not open its markets to American products, America reciprocally would close its markets. However, Kerrey dropped his hockey rink commercial after New Hampshire; when asked why during a debate, he responded: “Because it didn't work.” Republican challenger Patrick Buchanan even called for abrogation of the U.S. mutual security treaty with Japan but still threw his support to Bush at the Republican National Convention. Ornstein explained that even for those voters who feel threatened by Japan's economic power, it was not a high enough priority to supersede other worries, from the domestic economy to general concerns about leadership among the candidates.


Photo by Michael Parulava on Unsplash

Scholars studying the U.S.-Soviet policy during the Cold War era found a surge of Soviet-bashing assertiveness in the year of the election. In short, there was a tendency of presidential candidates to stress foreign policy issues in their campaigns. “If an incumbent is running for reelection, he will seek to disprove the challenger's claims by displaying examples of his own firmness; if non-incumbent challengers are competing against each other, they tend to demonstrate their toughness by promises of tough policies if elected (Nincic 1990).” In his analysis of U.S. Soviet policy and the electoral connection from 1952 to 1988, Nincic (1990) argued that domestic political rhythms in the presidential campaign substantially shaped American attitudes and policy toward the Soviet Union.


Since the end of the Cold War, China has undertaken dramatic military and economic growth that poses a threat to America’s leadership and interests in the current international arena, portending the possible decline of the American influence in East Asia. During the financial crisis that began in 2007 and continued through the 2008 presidential election, economic growth in the United States declined, while China's economy continued growing. The average annual change of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the U.S. was +0.8% from 2007 to 2012, while the average annual change in GDP in China was +10.1% during the same period. A Pew survey in 2009 found that 41 percent of the American public said the United States played a less important and powerful role as a world leader today than it did 10 years earlier; and 44 percent of the American public in 2009 said China was the world’s leading economic power, while just 27% named the United States. A 2008 report indicated that “with the economy in recession, America had fewer carrots and fewer sticks with which to influence the behavior of other states. Voters had to consider how each candidate would perform in a world that was increasingly dominated by Chinese interests and which candidate was best equipped to work constructively with China in order to pursue U.S. strategic interests."


According to the dataset of Wisconsin Advertising Project, campaign ads using China-bashing were aired about 16,000 times throughout the country during the 2008 presidential campaign, which built up to 1.4% of all campaign ads in quantity. Apart from campaign ads, China-bashing was used in speeches, debates and other public statements throughout the campaign period. The news and reports of the China-bashing in media coverage further increased its potential influence on voters’ choice and U.S. foreign policy towards China. Over the course of 2012 presidential campaign, 52 articles regarding China-bashing in the presidential campaign were published in the New York Times.[1]


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To continue reading, check the full text of my dissertation at Georgetown University Library.


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[1] The statistics are calculated based on the publication obtained from the New York Times. www.nytimes.com; The 2012 presidential campaign period indicates the period from Mar.1 to Nov. 6, 2012.

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