Wed, Sep 12, 2018 - Page 9 News List

How China went from a business opportunity to US enemy No. 1

Public opinion polls show that the number of Americans who see Beijing’s economic practices as a serious threat has risen, but the US business community is split on the matter of whether to stand up or cozy up to China

By Hal Brands  /  Bloomberg Opinion

As the Chinese regime undermines democratic rule in Taiwan and Hong Kong, undertakes horrific repression against Muslims in Xinjiang, supports autocrats in countries from Cambodia to Venezuela, and seeks to stifle free speech even in Europe and the US, it is earning itself a reputation as the leader of an authoritarian resurgence that is promoting repression and undermining democratic values around the world.

This might seem like an abstract issue, but for Americans it has traditionally been quite powerful.

As pointed out in an essay by Aaron Friedberg, a Princeton professor and former national security official in the administration of former US president George W. Bush, nearly every time the US has mobilized for a serious competition with a great-power rival — whether Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union — it has done so in part because that rival seemed to threaten the survival and spread of US political ideals.

Just two weeks ago, a bipartisan group of US senators and representatives urged Trump to slap sanctions on Chinese officials involved in creating Beijing’s “high-tech police state” in Xinjiang. Expect to see more of this in the future.

Then there is the third driver of rising US hostility to China: The threat to US economic competitiveness.

To be clear, organized labor was always skeptical of engagement with China, out of fears — justified, as it turned out — that increased trade with Beijing would accelerate the hollowing out of US manufacturing.

Yet that concern has become more politically salient, as Trump harnessed frustration with the dislocations of globalization in his 2016 campaign — with China as the poster child for all that had gone wrong. As Trump showed, there are votes in China-bashing.

More broadly, the past few years have produced growing evidence that China is not simply labor’s problem.

It now represents a larger economic threat, through practices such as forced technology transfer, deliberate efforts to weaken the US industrial and technological base, and its “Made in China 2025” project that aims to make Beijing dominant in numerous critical sectors.

Americans are becoming less likely to see China as a massive market for US goods and debt, and more as a predatory competitor.

Recent polls show that overwhelming majorities of Americans now see Chinese economic strength and Chinese economic practices as somewhat serious or very serious concerns.

Yet the economic realm is where the emerging consensus on China remains most tenuous, because a critical constituency — the US business community — is still of two minds on the matter. On the one hand, there are plenty of US firms — media outlets, tech companies and others — that have experienced rampant intellectual property theft, bullying and censorship, and other abusive Chinese practices. On the other hand, there are still gobs of money to be made in China, and the Chinese are experts at employing the divide-and-conquer tactics that prevent US firms from more effectively asserting their interests.

These factors are sometimes exacerbated by the mix of techno-utopianism and post-nationalism that prevails in key parts of the business community, namely Silicon Valley.

One can find examples of leading tech firms that now realize it is critical to partner with the US government to prevent China from dominating the future of artificial intelligence (AI) and other cutting-edge technologies.

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