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  • Writer's pictureXiaodong Fang

Why do presidential candidates enjoy more freedom than presidents to change China's practices

The design, formation, and practice of American foreign policy towards China are complex processes. Scholars posit that presidential power is, to some extent, limited by domestic and international conditions in proposing foreign policy. China-bashing instead provides a novel approach for American (prospective) presidents to efficiently achieve their foreign policy objectives.

The White House. Photo from Unsplash by David Everett Strickler

Based on one of my research findings that China would positively respond to anti-China rhetoric from presidential candidates, the prospective American president could exploit the strategy of anti-China rhetoric to propose and realize certain policy outcomes during the presidential campaign period and beyond. Such strategy is free from the economy and political constraints.

Unlike the President, presidential candidates' rhetoric and issue positions on China are not necessarily catering to the general economic and political conditions of the nations, which grants them the freedom to take harsh stance on China. According to a Brookings study by presidential scholar Charles Jones, "The policy issues a president faces upon entering the White House predate him, because the national government has a continuous agenda and the president’s list of priorities is influenced by, and has to be fitted into, a larger set of ongoing issues."

One case study to demonstrate this comparison is the China-bashing of "Obama candidacy" vs. the China policy of "Obama presidency." The outbreak of the financial crisis in 2007~2008 had deteriorated the challenges that America faced during the last year of the Bush administration and the early Obama administration. Therefore, recovering from recession and rebalancing the economy became the major issues in the 2008 presidential election and the central tasks for the presidents. It is believed that creating a friendship with China, an influential and powerful country, is good for the U.S. and the global economy. As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama took the harsh stance towards China. He aired campaign ads to linked John McCain to job outsourcing to China and proposed tough policy towards China. However, after coming into office in January 2009, President Obama sought to cooperate with China to work out solutions to global economic problems together. For example, President Obama made his first official state visit to China on November 15-18, 2009. The main themes of the visit, as reflected in the U.S.-China Joint Statement, included both sides reiterating their strategic good intentions toward each other and pledging to cooperate on global challenges such as balanced economic growth, security issues, climate change, and energy. As the economy gradually recovered (or rebounded) during the course of this year, the major concern in the U.S.-China economic relationship correspondingly evolved from cooperation to rivalry. Accordingly, not until the end of 2009 the administration did President Obama start to announce a tougher line on trade and currency issues, and sought to change China's illegal practices in the international system.

Apparently, the "Obama candidacy" enjoyed more freedom than the "Obama presidency" to take the harsh stance on China and in turn, change China's practices. Both President Trump and the Democratic presidential candidates should take advantage of the "freedom" in 2020 presidential campaigns to bash and change China's wrongdoings on the economy, security, human rights and so on.


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