The votes are cast. The results are in. Republicans rode a populist tidal wave to seize control of the House. Democrats held on to a (fragile) majority in the Senate. So what does it all mean for US-China relations? That’s the question I was asked today on BBC radio.
As many of you know from reading my bio, I worked as an aide to John Boehner, now expected to become Speaker of the House, during the last Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. And, of course, I’ve been living here in Beijing for several years, teaching US-China business relations at one of China’s top universities. So here’s my “American perspective from China” in the wake of the 2010 midterm elections:
China played an unusually prominent role in this year’s campaigns, on both sides of the political spectrum. On the right, one infamous ad sponsored by Citizens Against Government Waste featured a Chinese professor, sometime in the not-so-distant future, chuckling with his class over America’s demise due to profligate taxation and spending. On the left, Democrats hammered GOP Senate candidate Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania for once having worked in Hong Kong, while their Senate candidate in Illinois accused his Republican opponent, Mark Kirk, of “treason” for accepting campaign contributions from some of my American expat friends here in Beijing (both Toomey and Kirk ended up winning closely-fought races).
All the unflattering attention put China in an uncomfortable spot, coming hot on the heels of the House’s overwhelming passage of a bill to impose sanctions on China for keeping its currency artificially weak. The Senate is expected to vote on that bill, or one like it, soon after the election.
The Chinese, and China’s leaders in particular, like stability, both at home and in their relations with other countries. They find these kind of dramatic electoral swings — whether it’s Obamamania in 2008 or the Tea Party Revolution in 2010 — perplexing and a bit unnerving. The Chinese prefer dealing with known quantities, and then all of a sudden a new group of people are swept into power, who have to be figured out. Typically, the Chinese wait and see, hoping nothing fundamental will change.
The conventional line that’s often heard in China is that the Chinese quietly prefer dealing with Republicans. Part of this stems from history: Nixon came to China, Bush Sr. served as the first US Ambassador to the PRC. These Republicans had a track record with China, and were “known quantities.” Part of it comes from Mao’s famous tongue-in-cheek saying that he preferred dealing with rightists (rather than fellow leftists) because at least he knew where he stood. Part of it comes from Republicans’ pro-business stance, which makes them more inclined to focus on the benefits of business cooperation with China, as opposed to Democrats, whose labour union constituents are more likely to feel pressure from Chinese competition.
With Democrats, the Chinese feel like they’re on less certain ground. In fact, however, that’s rooted more in perception than reality. America’s China policy, from Bush Sr. to Clinton to W to Obama, has been remarkably consistent. Differences that do exist over China don’t split neatly along party lines — a broad range of views can be found in both parties. Republicans, when they are critical, tend to focus more on the potential national security threat posed by China. Democrats tend to focus more on the economic threat to American jobs. But even this distinction is far from absolute.
In fact, the real danger to China is that the bipartisan consensus that has lasted for nearly 40 years may be starting to break down. The factor that is driving this breakdown — and leading to all those anti-China campaign ads, from both sides – isn’t so much a political change in the U.S. (although the depressed state of the US economy isn’t helping any) but China’s own rising power and influence, and concern over what that means. In many ways, China is coming to occupy the same place in the American imagination that Japan did in the 1980s.
One reason Democrats seized on the “China issue” so heavily this year was because they had their backs up against the wall, and were looking for something that could give them traction with voters worried about jobs and the economy. Republicans, on the other hand, already had plenty of other things to talk about, such as Obama’s health care and stimulus spending. Heavily Democratic unions, particularly the United Steelworkers, have led the fight to impose sanctions on a broad range of Chinese imports, including tires and steel pipes. But it’s worth noting that, while Democrats sponsored and drove passage of the House bill on currency, and the few who voted against it were mainly Republicans, a majority of both parties voted in favour. Part of that may just be vulnerable Republicans running scared in an election season. Perhaps some of the immediate pressure to take a hard line on China may ease a bit, now that the campaign is over.
But I wouldn’t bet on it. There is, in fact, growing frustration and concern over China on both sides of the aisle — for both good reasons and bad. And this election, while dramatic, resolved nothing. Had Republicans won the Senate, perhaps unseating Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer in the process, this year would have qualified as a genuine political rout, much like 1994. The GOP would have controlled the agenda, and Obama (like Clinton) would have had to figure out a way to respond. Instead, political forces are now roughly in balance.
House Republicans have the energy and momentum, but have little power to directly overrule an entrenched Democratic President and Senate. Both sides will have to jockey for position with an eye towards 2012. If they’re smart (politically), they’ll try to force each other into a corner on issues that touch a popular nerve. In this respect, China stands as a ready and useful weapon with which each party can bludgeon the other. (Plus, consider the fact that Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, old-line manufacturing states where the Chinese competitive threat resonates most, are all key battleground states in the presidential contest).
Who can be tougher on China, Democrats or Republicans? I suspect, in the days ahead, we’re going to find out.
[UPDATE: My friend Evan Osnos has an excellent post on his blog at The New Yorker that complements and reinforces some of the points I’ve made from a slightly different perspective — in particular, the Chinese dislike of the more combative and tumultuous qualities of American electoral democracy. He also refers to the popular notion that China’s Communist leaders have always liked Republicans best — see, I’m not just making that up!].
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