Where everyone is a hardliner

Turning Points
Bloomberg


As the White House abandoned efforts to send home tens of thousands of Chinese and other foreign students during a global pandemic, it floated an even more extreme proposal: a visa ban on all 90 million members of the Chinese Communist Party plus their families.

This trial balloon is most likely headed for the trash bin, too. For a start, it would mean President Donald Trump never again entertains his "good friend" President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago. Further trade talks would be off the table, along with diplomatic dialogue, academic exchanges and scientific collaboration. Since the ban would cover at least 20% of the Chinese population—including millions of the most educated, ambitious individuals who mainly join the party to get ahead—it would empty the business class cabins of flights across the Pacific, and cut a swath through the back rows usually filled with tourists.

Anyway, the party doesn't publish a list of its members, so the whole idea is an administrative non-starter. It does, however, raise a number of troubling questions. Chief among them is why isn't there a more serious public conversation in America about China? Unprecedented proposals like the visa ban have been arising in a potentially dangerous vacuum when it comes to politicians on either side of the Congressional aisle.

This week in the New Economy

A U.S. Coast Guard ship sails along South China Sea.

Photographer: Ted Aljibe/AFP

"To be in Washington is to sense a nation sliding into open-ended conflict against China with eerily little debate," writes Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh. He points out that on just about every issue facing America, the partisan to-and-fro is ferocious. Yet when it comes to China, there's hardly any disagreement at all. Everyone is a hardliner. Given this consensus, the only way the two U.S. presidential candidates can differentiate themselves is by their degree of hawkishness. Hence, the escalation from the White House on visas.

Soft-edged engagement may seem just as ill-advised. Perhaps, as Harvard University professor Graham Allison suggests, the U.S. and China are "destined for war."

It's certainly the case that Beijing has thrown down the gauntlet on everything from industrial policy to human rights, Hong Kong and the South China Sea. But if America really is headed toward a showdown with such a potent rival, its electorate likely deserves to know the enormous national cost and steep personal sacrifices such a conflict would entail.

Voters should also be aware that there are alternative approaches to crude threats that boost anti-American sentiment among Chinese citizens while bolstering domestic support for China's leaders.

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden 

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP

One of those alternatives is a focus on national renewal. 

Chinese officials likely dismissed Trump's visa scheme but paid close attention to former Vice President Joe Biden's $2 trillion plan to boost clean energy and rebuild infrastructure. Many in China are convinced America is in terminal decline, unable to muster the will to fight the coronavirus, let alone respond to the challenge of a rising superpower by strengthening its economic base and scientific research. Trump's pullback from America's global commitments has only cleared the stage for an emboldened China.

Biden's platform, meanwhile, echoes the "European Green Deal" and other ambitious initiatives, like the U.K.'s "Race to Zero" global campaign. He "gets it," Michael R. Bloomberg wrote of Biden in Bloomberg Opinion. The former New York City mayor praised the presumptive Democratic nominee's plan as a way to "ensure that the U.S. makes meaningful progress on climate protection and, in the process, provide the economic stimulus and jobs that Americans need to emerge from the Covid-19 recession and come out stronger."

Here's an alternative scenario to a Cold War confrontation with China: a successful green stimulus in the industrialized West that unleashes a wave of innovation in technology and finance while addressing the inequality and racism that is tearing apart democracies.

The West should engage China in a competition to create a new post-Covid-19 economy, one that's imbued with open values and guarded by liberal institutions, instead of fighting over the ruins of the old one. The planet would be the winner.

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