Mitt Romney's blast at President Obama's handling of dissident Chen Guangcheng's case in China was considered premature and excessive even by some conservatives. But the Republican challenger's overblown rhetoric — lamenting a "dark day for freedom and ... a day of shame for the Obama administration" — didn't surprise China experts. They've seen it before, most recently from Obama in 2008, when he was, like Romney is today, just another presidential candidate who couldn't pass up a chance to bash the incumbent as being weak on China.
In that campaign, then-Sen. Barack Obama called President Bush, and, by implication, Republican nominee John McCain, a "patsy" for not being tougher with China on trade. Obama told the Alliance for American Manufacturing that he was ready to tell Beijing, "You guys keep on manipulating your currency, we are going to start shutting off access to some of our markets." Michael Swaine, a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recalled Obama's comment as "the campaign-silly-season kind of thing," and said that both Obama's and Romney's remarks are part of "a grand tradition."
Indeed, it has been one of the hardiest staples of American presidential campaigns ever since the "who-lost-China" debate erupted after the Communists' 1949 victory in the Chinese civil war. "Clinton did it to Bush I. Bush II did it to Gore. Obama did it to Bush. And now Romney is doing it," said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council. "It's like a rule. You have to accuse the incumbent of being soft on China."
The GOP debates were full of such talk this year, with China emerging as the leading scapegoat for American manufacturing woes. In his 59-point economic program unveiled in September, Romney led the charge, pledging to "clamp down on the cheaters" and vowing to "go after them." Then in February, while Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping was at the White House, Romney wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal dismissing Obama as "a near supplicant to Beijing" and memorably pledging, "on Day One of my presidency," to designate China as a currency manipulator "and take appropriate counteraction."
He acknowledged that the move could trigger a trade war with the world's second-largest economy. Jon Huntsman, who was ambassador to China before running against Romney, called the threat "wrongheaded" and said that Romney's promise "pushes aside the reality, the complexity of the relationship."
Little surprises the Chinese, who, Reinsch noted, "have been doing this for 5,000 years." But Beijing was clearly annoyed with Romney. A commentary in the state news agency Xinhua ripped his September remarks as "old-fashioned and ill-advised," adding that "bashing Beijing is no cure for Washington's woes." The critique continued: "Crafty politicians tend to cater to and even ratchet up the antagonistic sentiment of some poorly informed voters toward China, dreaming that they could ride the anti-China waves to higher political echelons and even the White House."
The reaction was so pointed partly because the Chinese expect more sophistication from GOP candidates. "They are a bit confused about the fact that a Republican is doing this," says Bonnie Glaser, a former consultant on China to the State Department and the Pentagon who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's not usually Republicans who talk about protectionism.... This is not the Republican Party they came to know and love."
Many in the American business community are also perplexed. And you can expect them to weigh in with Romney if he is elected, just as they did swiftly and effectively with President Clinton. As a candidate, Clinton pledged to block the renewal of China's most-favored-nation trading status. But after several conversations with former President Nixon and much discussion with business leaders, he flipped. Clinton admitted that he had changed his mind and delinked human rights from trade. "We have reached the end of the usefulness of that policy," he said.
Two decades later, a President Romney would likely face immediate pressure from his corporate allies to adopt a more realistic policy, one that recognizes the currency issue as pretty low on the list of concerns. That pressure is one of the reasons no one expects Romney to actually trigger a trade war over currency on Day One. "I can't believe he doesn't have something more important to do on Day One than this," says Reinsch, who guaranteed that the Chinese would retaliate quickly.
But both Reinsch and Swaine say that the pressure from U.S. corporate interests wouldn't be as intense as what Clinton encountered. "The American business community has lost a little bit of its love affair with the Chinese," Reinsch says. He notes that companies doing business in China today are both "more realistic" and "more frustrated" at Chinese efforts to steal their technology and intellectual property.
Additionally, both parties surely recognize that China is not a clear-cut political issue. Gallup last month showed the country split down the middle on the question of whether the growth of China's economy is a good (45 percent) or bad (48 percent) thing for the United States.
And voters in almost all the battleground states are increasingly torn between blaming China for the decline of U.S. manufacturing jobs and watching jobs created by the explosive growth of exports from their states to China. Nationally, exports to China rose 542 percent from 2000 to 2011, from $16.2 billion to $103.9 billion. And the quintessential battleground state, Ohio, increased its exports to China from $292 million to $2.7 billion in that span; the state sends machinery products, electronics, transportation equipment, chemicals, waste paper, and scrap metal to the Asian nation.
That changing economic picture makes the political calculations on China much tougher for Obama and Romney. And it leaves the overblown campaign rhetoric, although traditional, even more disconnected from voters' real concerns.