The pandemic made the path for better China-U.S. ties harder
Updated 16:57, 14-May-2020
Josef Gregory Mahoney

Editor's note: Josef Gregory Mahoney is Professor of Politics at East China Normal University and executive director of the International Center for Advanced Political Studies. He frequently consults with policymakers in both Washington and Beijing, and is a regular contributor to South China Morning Post and Beijing Review, among others. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Today the U.S. is reeling from failed COVID-19 containment strategies and a collapsing economy, with more than 30 million having filed for unemployment and the real unemployment rate nearing or perhaps exceeding 20 percent. Understandably, many Americans are deeply frustrated with these developments, and like others around the world, are increasingly desperate to ease lockdowns that have pushed many past the breaking point, with economic pains accompanying reports of increases in failed marriages, physical abuse, sexual abuse of minors, a lost school year, and even hunger.

The problems that have exploded into view when the pandemic hit America were not simply new developments. Rather, as the virus has more strongly impacted those with chronic health problems, it has likewise done the same to countries already struggling with a myriad of preexisting conditions.

Before the outbreak, the Donald Trump Administration's slogan of "Make America Great Again" claimed a number of achievements. Economically, it boasted of a rising stock market, low unemployment rates, cutting taxes, and an aggressive foreign policy determined to create more equitable trade relations internationally.

And yet, before the pandemic, most economists agree that the stock market was vastly overinflated, driven substantially by dangerously low interest rates, and running in tandem with deeply irresponsible fiscal policies that cut revenues while increasing expenditures - to the tune of an annual budget deficit reaching a trillion U.S. dollars even before Trump's trillion-plus dollar virus relief package. Meanwhile, Trump's various trade wars abroad not only undermined economic performance at home, they contributed to global economic pressures that made the pandemic even more vicious; and still, have yet to be eased despite hampering both national and international efforts to confront the outbreak.

Unfortunately, Trump's "funny money" economy fueled by spendthrift fiscal and easy monetary policies, his penchant for tabloid politics and conspiracy theories that constantly identify enemies of America - among whom he includes the Democrats, a so-called "deep state" he alleges is lurking in his own government, a liberal bias in media he claims propagates "fake news" to unseat him, and so on - has resonated with both sides of the political spectrum, the whole of which is hurt and angry and stewing for someone to blame, even if half more or less blame him.

Trump constantly mentioned China in his initial campaign for office and, as I wrote in a leading editorial published in the South China Morning Post on August 1, 2018, his foreign policy has always had containing China as its central goal.

Although Trump argued at the start of his term that his primary objective was to create greater equity to resolve trade imbalances and what he considered to be unfair practices on China's part, in fact his former chief political advisor Steve Bannon stated unequivocally a desire to bring down the Chinese government. While Trump has never stated this as his goal, statements from Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have directly described the Chinese government as an evil communist conspiracy that aims to destroy the U.S. and establish itself as the sole global superpower. 

Residents line up for free face masks which the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation staff distribute at the Mauro playground, May 5, 2020. /AP

Residents line up for free face masks which the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation staff distribute at the Mauro playground, May 5, 2020. /AP

In fact, these comments of course represent Trump's own position, and his own rhetoric has sunk to lower levels recently with claims that China intentionally let the virus spread with the purpose of bringing down his presidency and weakening America, even claiming that this amounted to an attack on the U.S. that exceeded even Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. 

Given the dire circumstances facing many Americans today, given the longstanding problems that were already affecting many, given political polarization and identity politics amid tabloid tactics, fake news and hyper-emotionalism, it is not strange at all to find that many Americans today are easily seduced into believing China is a primary source of their problems. 

It's not just conservative talk shows that continue to traffic in outlandish claims about the dangers of Chinese technology while new histories of American spying are uncovered. It's not just Republicans targeting Confucius Institutes and Chinese students in American universities as Communist agents. It's not just right-wing media seizing on anything from China and recasting it negatively. Rather, the one thing that cuts across the political, economic and social divides in the U.S. today is anger towards China.

This anger is not sensible, it is not rational or reasonable, but given the reasons outlined above, especially when contrasted with China's rising position and push against U.S. hegemony, it is easy to understand how and why this anger has festered and been an easy scab to pick. It's not that everyone believes the conspiracy theories though many do and many more worry they might be true. Rather, it's that U.S. public opinion on China was already trending negatively, largely because of Trump's constant hammering and flipping the Republicans on China but also because of historical Democratic distrust of China. 

Above all, it's because many are convinced that whatever the actual initial cause of the outbreak, it began in China and that China is thus in some way responsible for it. Consequently, it's unsurprising that likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has announced recently that a key issue that he will run on is that Trump has been too soft on China, and to this end has already launched political ads with this as their central message.

While one might wave all of this off with the understanding that political theater is often a theater of the absurd, particularly in an election year like this one, but it seems increasingly likely that whoever wins the presidency this fall will be the candidate who convinces voters that he hates and will hurt China more.

These developments are already by themselves a tragedy, but one that likewise has made responses to the pandemic less effective and therefore more tragic, and that threatens even greater tragedies to come. This is in fact a difficult moment for the world, and especially the U.S., and indeed, China as well. It will be very difficult for China to craft intelligent, reciprocal responses that avoid further provoking a country that is facing a difficult decline but still dangerous and spoiling for a fight.

While many scholars and policymakers worldwide are deeply pessimistic presently, and rightfully so, it's still possible to pull back from edge and vital to do so. Likely, this will require above all highly adept and farsighted leadership in Beijing, capable of transcending in some way America's fractured and fracturing state. It will require above all mature political discipline that stands its ground and promotes Chinese interests without tipping into mutual destruction or becoming hostage to its own unhealthy nationalistic impulses. This was already a tricky path to navigate, and the pandemic has made things exponentially harder.

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