China has been a central argument of the American electoral campaign, adding a delicate and complex element to the race for the White House. The China issue is able by itself to shift enough votes to conquer the office of the President, with both Republican and Democrat surveys showing that the voting public is either “concerned, or very concerned” about the loss of jobs to China. Both surveys agree that 63% of voters would like to see more decisive action taken against Beijing to protect national economic interests.
A voting bloc of this magnitude does not go unnoticed by campaign strategists. With unemployment hovering around 8% and a stuttering recovery, Obama needs to turn the economy around if he is to be reelected, and his campaign staff is hammering Mitt Romney for suggesting that production be moved to China during his time as a consultant with Bain & Company. According to Obama’s campaign, Romney’s attitudes toward China have led to the closure of factories and a process of impoverishment of America, benefitting only multinational corporations.
The discovery that American Olympic uniforms are made in China has only added fuel to the fire. Designed by Ralph Lauren, with the trademark polo player adorning the red white and blue, production was outsourced to a Chinese factory. Public outcry was so strong that the designer was forced to promise that the uniforms commissioned for the 2014 winter games would be Made in the USA.
Despite the fact that the election may end up being decided by a handful of votes, the debate on China seems out of focus, as if telling only one side of the story were enough to win the electorate. Obama held a firm stance against China at the outset of the economic crisis four years ago, pointing out the dangers and warning against its growth at the United States’ expense. Workers and labor unions – Obama’s electoral base – were fiercely opposed to the transfer of manufacturing overseas. Human rights activists, the intellectual elite, and the urban middle class added their voices to the mix in opposition to the lack of freedom, working standards, and political reform.
Obama neglected this range of Chinese issues after his election in 2008. The unavoidable circumstances called for a more pragmatic approach: the recovery, national security, and foreign policy requirements all made sure that China went from foe to friend in just a matter of weeks. Managing an objectively difficult situation called for a different tack. The rhetoric on the touchier subjects was toned down – Tibet, the South China Sea, appeals to the WTO, and manipulation of the Renminbi- but now that it is election season again, the issues are back in discussion.
The two parties vie for the toughest stance on China, setting aside their traditional ideological values. The Republicans are watching the Taiwanese lobby fade away, while the Democrats fight to keep giant corporations from controlling the relationship with China. The White House has long known that multinational corporations are China’s greatest allies. The irony is that the most liberal country in the world, bastion of freedom of enterprise, seeks to hinder the free movement of goods with tariffs and treaties.
Conversely, a formally communist country seeks the reduction of obstacles to trade and the full implementation of the philosophies of the WTO and World Bank. It would be best to analyze this bizarre situation, but the campaign ads are going in a much different direction. The campaign only lasts until November 6th, and then the President – whoever that may be – can stop worrying about Olympic uniforms.