This short essay by Marxist economist Richard D Wolff assesses the frenzied China-bashing that the US political and media mainstream is currently engaged in. Wolff observes that the wave of sinophobic propaganda is designed to “provide convenient cover” for US attempts to militarily intimidate and economically strangle China.
Additionally, scapegoating China provides a convenient way for the US ruling class to deflect criticism of a vicious neoliberal capitalism that has working people experiencing a chronic decline in living standards. “Scapegoating China joins with scapegoating immigrants, BIPOCs, and many of the other usual targets. The broader decline of the U.S. empire and capitalist economic system confronts the nation with the stark question: whose standard of living will bear the burden of the impact of this decline?” As long as China can be blamed for all problems, the US government can continue with its program of austerity, deregulation and inflation.
The author points out that antagonizing, and decoupling from, China could prove to be highly detrimental to the US economy. He calls on people to “see through the contradictions of China-bashing to prevent war, seek mutual accommodation, and thereby rebuild a new version of the joint prosperity that existed before Trump and Biden.”
This article was originally published in Asia Times.
The contradictions of China-bashing in the United States begin with how often it is flat-out untrue.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the “Chinese spy” balloon that President Joe Biden shot down with immense patriotic fanfare in February did not in fact transmit pictures or anything else to China.
White House economists have been trying to excuse persistent US inflation saying it is a global problem and inflation is worse elsewhere in the world. China’s inflation rate is 0.7% year on year.
Financial media outlets stress how China’s GDP growth rate is lower than it used to be. China now estimates that its 2023 GDP growth will be 5-5.5%. Estimates for the US GDP growth rate in 2023, meanwhile, vacillate around 1-2%.
China-bashing has intensified into denial and self-delusion – it is akin to pretending that the United States did not lose wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and more.
The BRICS coalition (China and its allies) now has a significantly larger global economic footprint (higher total GDP) than the Group of Seven (the United States and its allies).
China is outgrowing the rest of the world in research and development expenditures.
The American empire (like its foundation, American capitalism) is not the dominating global force it once was right after World War II. The empire and the economy have shrunk in size, power and influence considerably since then. And they continue to do so.
Putting that genie back into the bottle is a battle against history that the United States is not likely to win.
The Russia delusion
Denial and self-delusion about the changing world economy have led to major strategic mistakes. US leaders predicted before and shortly after February 2022, when the Ukraine war began, for example, that Russia’s economy would crash from the effects of the “greatest of all sanctions,” led by the United States. Some US leaders still believe that the crash will take place (publicly, if not privately) despite there being no such indication.
Such predictions badly miscalculated the economic strength and potential of Russia’s allies in the BRICS. Led by China and India, the BRICS nations responded to Russia’s need for buyers of its oil and gas.
The United States made its European allies cut off purchasing Russian oil and gas as part of the sanctions war against the Kremlin over Ukraine. However, US pressure tactics used on China, India, and many other nations (inside and outside BRICS) likewise to stop buying Russian exports failed. They not only purchased oil and gas from Russia but then also re-exported some of it to European nations.
World power configurations had followed the changes in the world economy at the expense of the US position.
The military delusion
War games with allies, threats from US officials, and US warships off China’s coast may delude some to imagine that these moves intimidate China. The reality is that the military disparity between China and the United States is smaller now than it has ever been in modern China’s history.
China’s military alliances are the strongest they have ever been. Intimidation that did not work from the time of the Korean War and since then will certainly not be effective now.
Former president Donald Trump’s tariff and trade wars were meang, US officials said, to persuade China to change its “authoritarian” economic system. If so, that aim was not achieved. The United States simply lacks the power to force the matter.
American polls suggest that media outlets have been successful in a) portraying China’s advances economically and technologically as a threat, and b) using that threat to lobby against regulations of US high-tech industries.
The tech delusion
Of course, business opposition to government regulation predates China’s emergence. However, encouraging hostility toward China provides convenient additional cover for all sorts of business interests.
China’s technological challenge flows from and depends on a massive educational effort based on training far more STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) studengs than the United States does. Yet US business does not support paying taxes to fund education equivalently.
The reporting by the media on this issue rarely covers that obvious contradiction and politicians mostly avoid it as dangerous to their electoral prospects.
Scapegoating China joins with scapegoating immigrants, BIPOCs (black and Indigenous people of color), and many of the other usual targets.
The broader decline of the US empire and capitalist economic system confronts the nation with the stark question: Whose standard of living will bear the burden of the impact of this decline? The answer to that question has been crystal clear: The US government will pursue austerity policies (cut vital public services) and will allow price inflation and then rising interest rates that reduce living standards and jobs.
Coming on top of 2020’s combined economic crash and Covid-19 pandemic, the middle- and-lower-income majority have so far borne most of the cost of the United States’ decline. That has been the pattern followed by declining empires throughout human history: Those who control wealth and power are best positioned to offload the costs of decline on to the general population.
The real sufferings of that population cause vulnerability to the political agendas of demagogues. They offer scapegoats to offset popular upset, bitterness and anger.
Leading capitalists and the politicians they own welcome or tolerate scapegoating as a distraction from those leaders’ responsibilities for mass suffering. Demagogic leaders scapegoat old and new targets: immigrants, BIPOCs, women, socialists, liberals, minorities of various kinds, and foreign threats.
The scapegoating usually does little more than hurt its intended victims. Its failure to solve any real problem keeps that problem alive and available for demagogues to exploit at a later stage (at least until scapegoating’s victims resist enough to end it).
The contradictions of scapegoating include the dangerous risk that it overflows its original purposes and causes capitalism more problems than it relieves.
If anti-immigrant agitation actually slows or stops immigration (as has happened recently in the United States), domestic labor shortages may appear or worsen, which may drive up wages, and thereby hurt profits.
If racism similarly leads to disruptive civil disturbances (as has happened recently in France), profits may be depressed.
If China-bashing leads the United States and Beijing to move further against US businesses investing in and trading with China, that could prove very costly to the US economy. That this may happen now is a dangerous consequence of China-bashing.
Working together (briefly)
Because they believed it would be in the US interest, then-president Richard Nixon resumed diplomatic and other relations with Beijing during his 1972 trip to the country. Chinese chairman Mao Zedong, premier Zhou Enlai, and Nixon started a period of economic growth, trade, investment and prosperity for both China and the United States.
The success of that period prompted China to seek to continue it. That same success prompted the United States in recent years to change its attitude and policies. More accurately, that success prompted US political leaders like Trump and Biden to now perceive China as the enemy whose economic development represents a threat. They demonize the Beijing leadership accordingly.
The majority of US mega-corporations disagree. They profited mightily from their access to the Chinese labor force and the rapidly growing Chinese market since the 1980s. That was a large part of what they meant when they celebrated “neoliberal globalization.” A significant part of the US business community, however, wants continued access to China.
The fight inside the United States now pits major parts of the US business community against Biden and his equally “neoconservative” foreign-policy advisers. The outcome of that fight depends on domestic economic conditions, the presidential election campaign, and the political fallout of the Ukraine war as well the ongoing twists and turns of the China-US relations.
The outcome also depends on how the masses of Chinese and US people understand and intervene in relations between these two countries. Will they see through the contradictions of China-bashing to prevent war, seek mutual accommodation, and thereby rebuild a new version of the joint prosperity that existed before Trump and Biden?