Cold War Rhetoric: China and the US Today

“We can’t allow China to rape our country anymore,” bellowed a fiery Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign for President of the United States. “We need to stop them [the Chinese] from taking our jobs,” Donald Trump often portrays China as a common enemy to US citizens, (CNBC, 2016). However, it isn’t only right-wing politicians like Donald Trump that promote anti-Chinese sentiments. Our media has continued to illustrate China as a cultural, military and economic threat for years. A simple google search including the words “China”, “threat” and “USA” bring up a variety of titles from media outlets including CNN, Fox News, the Atlantic, USA Today, the New York Times, and thousands of others that all portray China in a threatening light relative to the future of the United States. For example, the first sentence one of CNN Money’s articles on China by is, “If you are looking for a reason to be scared of stocks in 2016, look no further than China.” This rhetoric, which traces its origins back to the Cold War, continues to gain traction and terrify Americans.  America’s Cold War past coupled with China’s recent success thus gives American media and politicians the ammunition to paint China as a type of “threat” to the United States.

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Anti-Chinese sentiment in American media has existed since before the rise of Communism and the subsequent larger ideological tension between Chinese Communism and American democracy.  Institutional and social discrimination targeting Chinese individuals existed in the United States for nearly a hundred years under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, where Chinese people were barred from immigrating to the United States. This act was the first exclusionary immigration act in the United States that targeted a specific ethnic group. This was largely fueled by the concerns of American laborers, who were worried that Chinese workers would immigrate to the US and take their jobs for lower pay. Fears like these were echoed perpetuated in the media, which capitalized on these concerns to gain traction among American audiences. This places the beginning of the long history of tensions between China and the US long before the mid-twentieth century and Mao Zedong’s reign.

That said, anti-Chinese coverage in American media reached new heights when 1949 saw the victory of Mao’s Communist forces in the Civil War against Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist forces, effectively rendering Mao the new ruler and Communism the new system of rule. Up until that point, China had experimented with being a Republican state--only to watch it dissolve into the chaos of the Civil War--but was otherwise traditionally a dynastic empire. The success of the Communist Revolution represented an unprecedented and large-scale political upheaval. Largely guided by the iron-fisted hands of Mao, the nation was envisioned as an egalitarian society that would bring equal prosperity for all through the harnessing of the power of the population--specifically the peasant class. A significant step in the implementation of this vision in reality was the Great Leap Forward, which was essentially a series of rapid collectivization and industrialization measures meant to strengthen the country’s industrial sector and alter the nature of the economy from a predominantly agrarian one. Ultimately, however, this movement ended in failure, resulting in the Great Famine from 1958-61 and the deaths of tens of millions of people due to starvation. Another particularly brutal movement was the Cultural Revolution, which stretched through the ‘60s and ‘70s, during which the purging of “traditional” elements in Chinese society resulted in mass violence, in the manifestations of public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, forced labor, torture and sometimes execution, throughout the country.


Although the Cold War was primarily between the US and the Soviet Union, the consolidation of communism in China meant that, in a transitive fashion, China was a testament to the potentiality of the spread of Communism and thus a hostile entity. Although American mass media played an especially large role in peddling this particularly targeted brand of animosity and fear, another thing that must be noted is that this also seeped into academic curriculum. Children who grew up during the latter half of the 20th century were taught to be biased against communist style of governance, in a way that, ironically, resembled instituted indoctrination and forceful propaganda in communist regimes that was so criticized by Americans in the name of the democratic ideals of freedom of speech and thought. In light of this, a further fact worth noting is that, according to The Washington Post, the demographic of white males over the age of 45 still make up the largest plurality of American federal political representation—meaning that a significant portion of American voters today is made up of people who grew up amidst a pervasive sense of fear and loathing towards Communist regimes with a general mentality of us-versus-them wherein coexistence between the US and communism was a possibility that was dubious at best. It was from this era that the association between China’s success and America’s decline emerged; of course, depending on who you ask today, the degree to which this association remains prevalent and true varies.

Today, China’s economic and technological boom and the subsequent battle for influence in East Asia, Southeast Asia and beyond raises a red flag in the US—in the vein of Cold War-era containment policies, China’s efforts at being a dominant presence somehow triggered an existential crisis within the US regarding global standing. For example, even with North Korea still treated with enmity throughout much of the world, China maintains close relations with the renegade nation. With missile tests and nuclear expansion in North Korea, most Americans immediately associate these negative connotations with China as well, due to their close relationship. These actions remind many Americans of the power that China can exert over its region and have led these negative sentiments to resurge within the United States. The interpretation of Chinese actions as a play for hegemonic power over a region that has had close relations with the United States is even further compounded by the current sentiment that the Trump administration is pushing for a retreat of the United States from its former global standing—the Foreign Affairs March/April 2018 issue cover features “Letting Go—Trump, America and the World,” with a graphic of a globe being released from the clutches of an eagle’s claws. A retreat from the part of the United States would mean a power vacuum into which China could very easily step. Despite this move being instigated on the part of the Trump administration, there is still overwhelming lip service for the idea of the Chinese threat, the idea that China is planning to and is going to take over the world.

A major dimension of this culture of China as an antagonizing entity also has to do with the economy. Many have raised the point that there is a correlation between US economic decline and Chinese economic growth—again reinforcing the idea that China’s success is somehow detrimental to America. An article by U.S. News states that the rise of China has resulted in 3.2 million jobs being outsourced to China in the last fifteen years (Peralta, 2014). At the same time, the United States has seen a steady decline in manufacturing jobs in the same time period. As according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. manufacturing employment fell from 19.6 million in 1979 to 13.7 million in 2007 (Pierce & Schott, 2012). This has resulted in mass unemployment for people in the United States who have worked in manufacturing jobs for generations. There has been large political uproar as a result. People are unhappy with their unemployment and want answers as to why they can no longer put food on the table for their families (American Council on Health and Science, 2017). It is convenient for domestic politicians to blame China, an external actor, for the loss of these jobs. Because China has seen a rise in manufacturing jobs due to outsourcing, many politicians employ the rhetoric that China is, “stealing jobs away from hard working Americans”, as stated by none other than the current President of the United States (Washington Post, 2016). Without context, statistics like these and strong political rhetoric are terrifying for many Americans who vividly remember when the United States and China were in conflict with one another and the United States did not fully win out.

Donald Trump’s aggressive anti-China rhetoric during the presidential election, then, cleverly fits into this narrative of China as the enemy, stoking underlying ideological fires, returning an idea that has been somewhat dormant in mainstream media since the end of the Cold War to the nation’s consciousness. Capitalizing upon this, Trump is now taking a major stand in the form of a trade war—a trade war that may not be benefiting the United States at all. The anti-China rhetoric employed by Trump has several themes to it, but primary amongst them is what Trump perceives as a trade deficit between the two countries, which he maintains amounts to $500 billion. Rhetoric is one thing, but formulating policy from it is another. Trump has engaged in a trade war with China  (announcing, “Trade wars are good, and easy to win,”) one of the latest acts in which was the announcement that the US will adopt tariffs of 25% and 10% on steel and aluminum, respectively—with exemptions to some allies including the EU, Mexico, Australia, Argentina, Brazil and South Korea. Then a couple weeks ago, a more targeted action was announced, Trump’s administration declared the imposition of tariffs on as much as $60 billion worth of Chinese goods. This announcement was accompanied by a report released by a US trade representative on the issue of China’s predatory behavior in trade—including items related to intellectual property theft.

There are a number of things wrong with the move to engage in a trade war. First of all,, the move to slap tariffs on Chinese goods will definitely have a great economic impact on China. The South China Morning Post estimates the direct and first-order impact to be worth 0.1-0.2% of Chinese GDP—and the reverberations of this adverse effect will be felt by many of the US’s allies, including Japan—which is, notably, not one of the countries exempt from the steel/aluminum tariff—South Korea and Taiwan. Furthermore, other issues with Trump’s policies include the administration’s misguided view on China, which (correctly)identifies that the Chinese economy has deep-seated weaknesses that will be exposed through and highlighted by a trade war, yet fails to take into consideration that China’s economy has many shock absorbing mechanisms that will cushion the nation from the negative effects that Trump is wishing to cause—thus the adverse effects of this trade war may be more felt by countries caught in the cross-fire instead of by China. International reverberations aside, it doesn’t appear that Trump has fully considered the domestic impact of his trade war—the trade war will create losers at home, not just abroad. Just as an example, many state governors have reasons to be afraid of the escalating trade war with China with California having imported $159 billion worth of goods from China and Tennessee’s trade with China amounting to about 13% of the state’s economy.

What will happen next, how will China respond, and what are the long-term consequences of Trump’s current actions—which New York Time’s Paul Krugman has called “bumbling into a trade war,”—are all questions that cannot yet be answered. But with a recent survey performed by Pew Research Center showing that only 44% of Americans view China favorably, his policies and clear anti-China stance will clearly appeal to a majority of the public. We cannot forget that before Trump, American policy has been primarily to help China integrate peacefully into the political and economic framework built by the US and other Western powers after World War 2—there was a time when anti-Chinese rhetoric laid dormant and overtaken by the advantages reaped by American businesses from having China as a part of the global market economy. Trump has set the US on a vastly different path—one that harks back to a Cold-War era sentiment that China is an enemy, one whose success spells disaster for America. To be completely fair, China definitely has not been a model global community member with its history of disregarding intellectual property rights and subsidizing certain industries to the point where they contribute to the world’s excess capacity. A rhetoric-based policy without thorough understanding of implications and reverberations is, nonetheless, dangerous, a lesson that should’ve been learnt since the Cold War days during which ideological warfare hailed economic and physical destruction on a number of countries throughout the world.