Bashing China is easy but not always helpful


Here’s one thing we can count on in the upcoming election year: American politicians will find ways to criticize China, even if they’re running for jobs that have little to do with U.S. foreign policy.

China-bashing is a tried-and-true way to appeal for votes. It’s politically safe: China has few defenders anywhere in the United States. Politicians can take shots at China without worrying that they will offend anyone or lose support. And, certainly, China often deserves criticism.

But there is a downside to reflexive anti-China rhetoric. With the world’s second-largest population and its second-largest economy, China is a force in world affairs. We need to push back when it threatens our interests, but we also need to engage with China when appropriate.

It’s understandable that China would be a target for attacks. We live in a bipolar world, with the U.S. and China competing for global influence. Under President Xi Jinping, China has positioned itself as our chief rival. And China’s actions often call for pushback. It engages in unfair trade practices, disregards intellectual property rules and tramples on human rights. It has been accused of genocide against the Uyghur population in its Xinjiang province. It threatens Taiwan and antagonizes its neighbors over the South China Sea.

To many Americans, China can seem foreign and far away. Its people look different and speak different languages. Its autocratic system of government is very different from our democratic system. A recent Pew Research Center survey found half of Americans consider China to be the biggest threat we face; that’s three times as many as view Russia as our biggest threat. In another survey, more than 80% of Americans had negative views of China.

Some of China’s actions do call for strong responses. We should expect candidates for relevant government offices to adopt clear positions toward China. But China-bashing can go too far. In Indiana, where I live, one candidate for governor has made “combating China” a centerpiece of his campaign. He and his rivals say they will confront China over fentanyl imports, online theft of personal information, and other matters. The next governor of Indiana will have a lot of important issues to address, but getting tough with China won’t be high on the list.

Demonizing China also has a long and sometimes ugly history in the United States. Chinese immigrants in the 1800s did hard and dangerous jobs, working in mines and building railroads, but faced discrimination in housing, employment and education. Anti-Chinese bias led Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, barring further Chinese immigration. Sensationalistic newspapers fanned fears of a “Yellow Peril” that threatened native-born Americans. A 1924 law further restricted Asian immigration.

Some of those old prejudices can resurface today. One recent poll found that voters linked politicians’ anti-Chinese rhetoric to a spike in violence against Asian Americans. With election campaigns getting underway, some experts predict a rise in hate incidents.

At the end of the day, U.S. officials will have to lay aside the rhetoric and engage with China. That means standing firm when China threatens our interests and those of our allies, but it also means finding ways to work together. We can, and should, cooperate on addressing climate change, combating terrorism, deterring drug smuggling, promoting free and fair trade, and other issues.


Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.