While the November 6 U.S. midterm elections saw the Republican Party lose control of the House of Representatives, the upheaval is unlikely to derail America’s evolving policies on China and its communist regime.
In the spring, the U.S. government began imposing heavy tariffs on Chinese exported goods, largely in retaliation for China’s long-standing protectionism and sanctioning of industrial espionage. By September, tariffs introduced by Washington applied to half of the goods in Beijing’s US$400 billion-plus trade surplus. China has responded with its own tariffs, mainly targeting the U.S. agricultural industry.
Ahead of the U.S. midterms, observers warned that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was trying to influence the outcome in hopes that the Trump administration would put the brakes on the Sino-U.S. trade war. China mobilized its overseas propaganda outlets, attempting to sway public opinion against Washington’s trade policies.
A November 7 report by the CCP-controlled China Daily characterized the midterms as a “bitter setback” for the Republicans and President Donald Trump. It said that losing control of the House would “block Trump’s agenda and open his administration to intense scrutiny.”
Inkstone, a daily digest covering developments in and concerning China, noted that in August, the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily ran a commentary suggesting that after the midterms, Republicans in support of free trade could work with Democrats in a push against Trump’s policies.
China becoming a bipartisan issue
While Democrat control of the House may mean more legislative deadlock for Trump’s domestic initiatives in coming years, it could actually compel him to double down on China — oppositional forces in the legislature would put pressure on the Trump administration to make good on his foreign policy promises.
“I hear from too many Chinese that things will change after the midterms. That’s probably misinformed,” said Christopher Johnson, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, prior to the elections, as reported by Inkstone.
Prominent Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, have expressed support for taking a tougher stance on China. Speaking about an investigation into Chinese theft of American intellectual property, Pelosi said that far more was needed to “confront the full range of China’s bad behavior.”
“Beijing’s regulatory barriers, localization requirements, labor abuses, anticompetitive ‘Made in China 2025’ policy, and many other unfair trade practices require a full and comprehensive response,” Pelosi said in a March 22 press release. “The tariffs announced today should be used as a leverage point to negotiate more fair and open trade for U.S. products in China.”
Sherrod Brown, senior U.S. Senator from Ohio who was reelected in the midterms, stated his support for tariffs, saying that a “comprehensive and long-term strategy” was needed to confront the Chinese regime and its ambitions. The state of Ohio is a major steel producer affected by cheap Chinese manufacturing.
Elizabeth Warren, the U.S. Senator from Massachusetts and a critic of President Trump, lambasted Chinese trade practices and human rights violations when she visited Beijing in March.
In October, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators released a resolution condemning the persecution of religious minorities in China.
Even in the Midwest, where rural economies are feeling pressure under Chinese counter-tariffs, Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, who retained her U.S. Senate seat in the midterms, said in late October that China’s trade practices and the economic hardship they wrought on Americans were the “biggest concern to us.”
In September, a bill was introduced to propose a crippling ban on China’s state-run tech company ZTE if it were to violate the terms of a deal reached earlier this year with the U.S. government. The bill received widespread bipartisan support.
The Trump administration had threatened a long-term ban on ZTE after the firm was found to be violating sanctions by exporting U.S.-built hardware to Iran and North Korea, but ended up just imposing a large fine instead. Some saw this as a personal favor to Chinese President Xi Jinping, with whom President Trump has a good personal relationship. Presidents Xi and Trump are expected to meet at the upcoming G20 summit to be held in Argentina.
Liu Weidong, who works for the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that Americans were widely concerned about China’s rise and that the two parties could even try to one-up each other on sensitive issues, such as Chinese militarization in the South China Sea or Beijing’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims.
“The Chinese government should now drop the hope that it can benefit from the competition between the two parties,” Liu said in remarks reported by Inkstone. “The U.S. pressure on China will only increase over time.”
The United States is making an important shift in the way it deals with China. On October 4, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech at the Hudson Institute in Washington, condemning the CCP for its practices.
He said that over the last few decades, U.S. leaders had tried to engage China in hopes that economic growth would lead to political reform. But instead, he noted, the CCP used its closer relations with the United States to bolster its authoritarian rule and has attempted to meddle in U.S. domestic affairs.
Aside from tariffs, Washington has begun taking China to task for its massive infringement of intellectual property rights. The Wall Street Journal reported on November 12 that Washington was preparing to go beyond tariffs and “use export controls, indictments, and other tools” to put pressure on Beijing.
According to the IP Commission 2017 report by the National Bureau of Asian Research, China is the world’s biggest violator of intellectual property rights, and theft of intellectual property could account for American losses of up to US$600 billion.
On November 1, the Justice Department issued indictments against Chinese company Fujian Jinhua Integrated Circuit, as well as a Taiwan-based partner, United Microelectronics Corp, for conspiring to commit industrial espionage and other crimes. The indictments also targeted the firms’ employees, including Jinhua’s president.
In September, the U.S. government slapped sanctions on a major Chinese military company for procuring aircraft and missiles from Russia, purchases that went against U.S. sanctions punishing Moscow for its attempts to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. The company’s director had his U.S.-based assets and entry visa revoked.
SinoInsider, a New York-based consultancy group, says that the U.S. government’s recent actions comprise a broader “policy revolution” that the CCP has been slow to pick up on.
In an August 17 analysis piece entitled The CCP Misreads America’s China Policy Revolution, SinoInsider said that the Chinese regime approach “to the rapidly shifting mood in the U.S. and abroad” has been to merely double down on nationalist propaganda that blames the United States, as this approach has served it well in the past.
SinoInsider noted that “the CCP might be rehashing the strategy of rallying the nation around its leadership to deal with an external enemy if it is feeling confident in its domestic and external propaganda capabilities, and its ability to infiltrate and control democracies.”
“However, the CCP is making a serious blunder if it believes that it can leverage its traditional ‘strengths’ to escape U.S. pressure,” the authors wrote, noting that China faces severe internal social and economic instability as unemployment rises and as authorities are unable to pay off their debts.
The U.S. government has also begun emphasizing an ideological component in its China policy. Last year, the Trump administration made November 7, 2017 — the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia — and all following years a national memorial day for the victims of communist regimes around the world.
In late August, a report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission noted that efforts to combat Chinese interference in American domestic affairs were hampered by the CCP’s largely successful “insistence that the CCP is inseparable from China.”
The report urges policymakers to draw a distinction between the Communist Party and China, warning against conflating “the positive influence that Chinese culture and people have with the targeted subversive influence of a foreign power designed to shape U.S. policy in ways that may be against the United States’ own interests.”
According to SinoInsider, were the U.S. government to focus more on the ideological dissonance between the United States and the CCP, it could prove disastrous for the Chinese regime:
“The CCP is mortally afraid of ideological confrontation with the U.S. because such confrontation could lead to its collapse. Party elites are acutely aware that the Cold War was fought over ideology, and that the ideological conflict ended with the Soviet Union’s collapse.”
In his October 4 speech, Vice President Pence noted that while Washington was committed to the One China Policy recognizing Taiwan (officially known as the Republic of China) and mainland China as being part of the same country: “America will always believe Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people.”