Patrick Brown: Time to rein in the China bashing

In an election year, China makes a convenient whipping boy for U.S. presidential candidates. But emotion and old stereotypes are not the way to deal with an emerging superpower, Patrick Brown writes.

Despite the shrill polarization of American politics, there's been a remarkably consistent pattern on one issue in particular: that election time in the U.S. means open season on China.

Speeches and ads regularly hammer away at the need to get tough with Beijing.

But once the winner gets off the campaign bus and into the Oval Office, the simplistic China-bashing of the campaign often subsides under the weight and complexity of what is today Washington's most important international relationship.

President Bill Clinton, for example, quickly forgot candidate Clinton's aversion to the "Butchers of Beijing;" and Barack Obama who promised in 2008 to "go to the mat" with China has instead managed to have a reasonably constructive relationship with a country trying to regain what it sees as its rightful place in the world.

Should he win in November, Mitt Romney may, too, have to abandon his "day one" promise to designate China a currency manipulator, and therefore subject to punitive tariffs, if he wants to avoid a trade war.

Clearly these campaigns are based on a cynical reading of focus groups and opinion polls that reveal a high degree of suspicion about China among American voters, some of it clearly justified in the light of the country's secretive one-party rule and often aggressive state-sponsored capitalism.

But using China as an electoral scapegoat once every four years is to pander to century-old attitudes about "the yellow peril."

And it doesn't help when it comes to making rational and practical decisions about China and its economic reach.


In this U.S. election, a congressional committee, controlled by Republicans, has also given the candidates additional sticks to beat China with by publishing an inflammatory report on two Chinese telecommunications companies just as the campaign is reaching a climax.

The bigger of the two, Huawei, had sales of $32 billion in 140 countries last year. Its sister company, ZTE, is the world's fourth largest cellphone manufacturer.

A Beneton ad in Paris urging certain world leaders to get along better. (Charles Platia / Reuters)

"China has the means, opportunity, and motive to use telecommunications companies for malicious purposes," says the report, which claims that doing business with Huawei and ZTE risks both national security and the intellectual property of American companies.

The committee did not find a smoking microchip or any hard evidence of wrongdoing by Huawei and ZTE.

But its fraught warnings reached all the way to Parliament Hill.

The prime minister's spokesman, Andrew Macdougall, said that Canada had already decided to invoke a procedure known as "the security exception" to prevent the companies from bidding on the government's planned new secure communications network.

He didn't actually name names, but under persistent questioning by reporters said, "I'll leave it to you if you think that Huawei should be a part of [the] Canadian government security system."

Closed-door syndrome

If he is leaving that answer to me, I'd have to say No.

Huawei should be disqualified from bidding because of its long track record of intellectual property disputes; the strong suspicions of its involvement in 10 years of cyber-attacks against Nortel, once Canada's leading telecommunications company; its opaque ownership; and the fact that no big Chinese company in a strategic industry such as telecommunications could refuse to cooperate with military or intelligence requests.

But issues like these should be dealt with rationally, not with the periodic scaremongering seen in Washington or the awkward reticence displayed by Ottawa.

Canada's awkwardness is understandable in that the prime minister spent his first four years in office sounding like a China-bashing American presidential candidate.

But then he had a dramatic conversion on the road to Beijing in 2009, and these past years have now brought us to the eve of two critical government decisions destined to tie Canada's economic future ever closer to China.

One is whether to approve China National Offshore Oil Company's $15-billion offer to buy Calgary-based Nexen. The other is whether to adopt a proposed treaty that will govern investment between China and Canada for the next 15years.

There are serious pros and cons for both these deals. But the prime minister's aversion to parliamentary debate and public consultation is going to make it difficult for these decisions to get the airing they deserve.

It may also make it next to impossible for Canada to break the underlying pattern of China bashing and paranoia that can distort so much of how this relationship is to move forward.

The Fu Manchu factor

When I wrote about the proposed Nexen takeover in July, the column attracted more than 300 comments, the vast majority of which were overwhelmingly negative towards China.

Chinese President Hu Jintao and Stephen Harper at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Vladivostok in September 2012. A new economic cooperation deal was hatched. (Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters)

"Once they control our resources they will control our government," one commenter wrote.

"Why do we even trade with an evil country/government as China?" asked another.

Opinion polls suggest that fewer than 10 per cent of Canadians want to see Chinese companies take over some of our biggest industries.

Concern and opposition are certainly justified in particular cases and on particular issues, but these reflexive anxieties remind me of some of the attitudes towards China and the Chinese that were so prevalent in the West a hundred years ago.

Indeed, prompted by the dramatic rise in China's economic and military power, a British publishing house, Titan Press, has begun republishing the often-racist Dr. Fu Manchu novels that were immensely popular in the last century.

"Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan," wrote author Sax Rohmer in 1913, when the first of the novels was published.

"Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government — which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence.

"Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man."

What is happening in China, and with the appearance in our economy of giant companies with (in Rohmer's phrase) "all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government," are vital issues.

They are too important to be both blithely ignored, and also distorted by the Dr. Fu Manchu factors of fear and suspicion.