Last weekend at a rally in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney was confronted with a gripe rarely heard on the Republican campaign trail. Amid a sea of white faces, a Chinese-American woman accused the candidate of, well, if not racism, something close to it. “I’m Chinese and I’m American and I love this country. I heard all these degrading things about Chinese this, China that, and it just doesn’t make me feel good,” she said, before asking a question and then telling Romney, “Don't put any Asians down.”
In Campaign 2012, the Chinese Communist Party has become an unexpected factor in American politics. As candidates and voters struggle with how to respond to China’s soaring economic might, the Middle Kingdom is now the source of much debate in the race for the presidency, and it’s getting nasty.
Just look at the recent online video smearing former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman as a “Manchurian candidate” and questioning whether the billionaire Mormon Republican, who adopted a daughter from China, “shares our values.”
The video, which appears to have been the work of a Ron Paul supporter, juxtaposes stereotypical Chinese music and clips of Huntsman speaking Mandarin with ominous questions like “Weak on China? Wonder Why?” and “What exactly does Huntsman stand for?” before a portrait of the candidate Photoshopped onto an image of Chairman Mao flashes on screen.
Huntsman has chosen to leverage his China credentials in the debates, even breaking into Mandarin during a debate in New Hampshire last Saturday. But that strategy seems to have hurt his prospects with the conservative electorate—and especially among the Tea Party faithful. Or at least that’s what they’re saying on Fox News.
“I didn’t think the Mandarin thing worked at all,” said Donald Trump on the cable news channel earlier this week. “I thought it was ridiculous. And frankly, I think Huntsman’s stance toward China is—it’s almost like he’s an Obama plant.”
That kind of rhetoric—portraying China as the enemy and those who deal with the country and its government as being suspect—might play well with certain conservative demographics, but others in the U.S. see such talk as an attack on the Chinese character, not just on Chinese policy.
“This discourse strikes Chinese-Americans as a kind of ‘yellow peril’ thing with a hidden racist element,” says Andrew J. Nathan, an expert on Chinese politics and foreign policy at Columbia University.
On the campaign trail, Romney has criticized China for currency manipulation, rampant intellectual-property (IP) theft, and hacking of American companies and infrastructure and linked those practices to U.S. economic troubles. Chinese enterprises, often owned by the government, are “stealing the designs, patents, and technology of American and other companies and stealing it, reselling it, and making money off what we've created or just taking what we’ve created for free,” he said in August. China is “almost certainly the worst perpetrator of cyberattacks on our infrastructure, on our electric systems, on our military establishment. These guys are after us and looking for ways to harm us, economically at least.”
The U.S. government and the U.S. technology sector have accused China in many cases of IP theft, piracy, and hacking, though the Chinese government denied these claims. Last year, according to The New York Times, China became the world’s second-largest market for computer-hardware sales but only the eighth-largest for software sales, with Chinese government agencies guilty of using pirated software being a major indicator of official tolerance for the practice. Hollywood, meanwhile, continues to fume over rampant online and DVD movie piracy, an illegal trade that amounted to $6 billion last year, according to a report in China’s state media.
Google left China in 2010 after its servers were hacked in an operation led by the country’s top government body, according to a leaked diplomatic cable. China has also been blamed for repeated attacks on the Pentagon and U.S. companies.
In China these claims are dismissed as mere “China bashing,” a term that the country's media and government often use to deflect any criticism, whether on the torture and imprisonment of dissidents, complaints about corruption, or frustration with Chinese business practices that the U.S. sees as unjust or unfair.
An article on Tuesday in the China Daily newspaper, titled “China-Bashing in GOP Election Campaign ‘No Cause for Concern,’ ” quoted several analysts as saying that the current rhetoric is merely intended to stir up the Republican base and will disappear after Election Day. “The presidential candidates have no other choice but to criticize China in the election, as the U.S. is in a phase of relatively rapid decline,” said a Chinese professor of American studies in Shanghai.
Yet to many Chinese, the constant barrage of criticism, whether over human rights, hacking, military policy, or intellectual property, feeds a sense of paranoia that there is a broad American plan to undermine China.
“A conspiracy theory has taken root in China,” says Liu Yawei, director of the China program at the Carter Center in Atlanta. “Some very influential scholars see the whole currency manipulation as a ploy, along with the dollar devaluation and war with Iraq and Afghanistan, as all meant to make China disintegrate.”
And yet, according to Liu, if the Chinese government could vote in the American election, they would probably side with the red states. “The Chinese elite actually like the Republican Party more than the Democratic Party,” he says. “They believe the Republicans just want to make more money, while the Democrats are more concerned with human rights.”