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  • Writer's pictureXiaodong Fang

Why Reagan improved relation but Trump kept tough on China: retrospective effect of China-bashing

During the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan threatened to end the diplomatic relation with the People's Republic of China, and voices support for stronger ties with Taiwan. When Reagan came into office, however, his China policy came a full circle. The Reagan administration worked to improve its relations with China, and even permitted the arms sales to Beijing.

Emerged also as an anti-mainstream candidate and portrait as the second coming of Reagan, Trump aggressively attacked China in his presidential campaigns. What makes Trump different from Reagan is that he keeps his tough stance on China after taking the Presidency and kept his campaign promise in labeling China as a currency manipulator.

So what contributed to their different approaches to China? There are several potential factors. The most intuitive factor is Russia. In the Cold War era, the Soviet Union is the major enemy of the U.S., so the Reagan administration works to improve Beijing-Washington relations at the height of U.S. concerns over Soviet expansionism. However, the Russian threats still exist today and Trump is also being tough on Russia.

Another explanation is on the China side. In the 1980s, China experienced positive trends in terms of economic and political development, and the Chinese public opinions on the U.S. were generally positive. A Pew survey shows that a majority (56%) of Chinese ages 18 to 34 gave the U.S. a positive rating in 1980. Therefore, President Reagan's policy followed the positive trends between the U.S. and China. While in Trump's term, the public opinions are deteriorating, a Gallup poll shows that the unfavorite rate of American opinion on China is 57% in 2019. Trump's tough stance on China has its public support, even if not being "the chosen one."

Perhaps the most distinct difference is on the candidate/president himself. Reagan’s rhetoric towards China was more positive than negative during the 1980 presidential campaign. A study found that 37 percent of Reagan's rhetoric towards China as reported by the news and features in three papers (Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post) were coded as positive towards China, while 28 percent were coded as negative. While my research shows that most of Trump's 2016 campaign rhetoric on China was negative. The more China-bashing in Trump's campaign than Reagan's has contributed to his tougher China policy than the Reagan administration.

Accordingly, the retrospective effect of China-bashing is powerful and influential. It would make the president-elect keep his or her campaign promises and tough stance on China. A good strategy to propose a change is to use China-bashing in campaign activities to raise certain issues relevant to China. It is highly probable that such China-bashing, once it receives enough media coverage and public attention, would result in a change of U.S. foreign policy, and in turn, change China's practices in those issues.


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