THE CHINA THREAT AND AMERICAN POLITICAL ECONOMY OF FEAR

The political economy of fear has been a much-cherished ingredient in statecraft for millennia. ‘Let them hate as long as they fear’, the Roman emperor Caligula once proclaimed. ‘ [I]t is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both’, admonished Machiavelli in The Prince.8 Thus, Robert Higgs argues that fear is a foundation of every government’s power: ‘Without popular fear, no government could endure for more than twenty-four hours’.9 While the state has traditionally relied on such visible instruments of fear as the army, the police, the legal system, and the prison to maintain discipline in a society, it has also resorted to a less visible instrument: the discursive production of fear. One particularly fertile ground for such fear- related knowledge production has been the realm of international relations, where the objects of fear appear plentiful. The French political philosopher Jean Bodin observed that ‘the best way of preserving a state, and guaranteeing it against sedition, rebellion, and civil war is... to find an enemy against whom they can make common cause’.10 Similarly, Adam Smith examined in

The Wealth of Nations how a government could use the nation’s anxiety for security to induce its citizens to agree to a new tax which otherwise they would probably resent.11 Such is the political economic use of fear especially when it is disguised as scientific knowledge.

It is in this context that the fear of the China threat has been a recurring feature in American politics in general and during the presidential and congressional midterm elections in particular. During the 2010 midterm elections, for instance, New York Times reported that in a space of just one week, at least 29 candidates from both sides of politics unveiled advertisements accusing their opponents of being soft on China, with the undertone that China had been the chief villain for current American economic woes.12 The bipartisan interest in using China as a whetstone to attack political rivals— alive and well during the 2012 Presidential campaign—testifies to an enduring rare consensus on the importance of the China threat to the American politics of fear among a whole spectrum of American politicians.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, candidate Bill Clinton fiercely campaigned on a foreign policy platform of confronting ‘dictators from Baghdad to Beijing’. Reinforced by the appearance of two prominent Chinese student leaders of the Tiananmen protests at the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York, the ‘butchers of Beijing’ image served not only as a reminder of the danger posed by Communist China, but more importantly as a powerful symbolism of partisan politics to differentiate Clinton from the incumbent candidate George H. W. Bush.13 To boost his sagging re-election bid, Bush Snr. was not to be outdone by his Democrat challenger. He tapped into another popular danger code about China, namely, its military menace to Taiwan. Against the discursive backdrop of China as a threat to a fledgling democracy in Taiwan, Bush Snr. announced in a campaign appearance before General Dynamics workers in Fort Worth that America would sell 150 F-16 fighters to the island for an estimated US$6 billion. Selling F-16s to Taiwan to deter a China threat, as the then Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs James Lilley frankly stated, would help counter Bush’s ‘coddling Communist dictators’ image,14 in the hope that a tougher stance on the ‘China threat’ could mean more votes at the ballot-box.

For much of the 1990s after Clinton took the White House, the use of the spectre of China for partisan politics continued unabated, though this time it was mainly conservative Republicans’ turn to use the mantra of ‘being soft on China’ to attack Clinton and what they called ‘Panda huggers’ in Washington. William Triplett II, co-author of the sensational book The Year of the Rat: How Bill Clinton Compromised U.S. Security for Chinese Cash, serves as an instructive example here. This one-time chief Republican counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee never doubted the merit of using the

China threat in Washington’s power play. For him, ‘to expose wrongdoing by China and to frustrate and embarrass those who were trying to improve America’s ties with Beijing’ are simply the two sides of the same coin.15

While the political economy of fear shifted its focus to terrorism in the wake of ‘September 11’, the 2008 US presidential campaign saw the return of attention to the China menace. In the run up to the Ohio primary in April 2008, Hillary Clinton spoke at a trade forum in Pittsburgh: ‘Today, China’s steel comes here and our jobs go there. We play by the rules and they manipulate their currency. We get tainted fish and lead-laced toys and poisoned pet food in return’.16 There was little doubt that the ‘us/them’ dichotomy was carefully scripted in her speech to strike a responsive chord with her mainly blue-collar audience. Her political flirting with China-bashing was so blatant that one of her foreign policy advisers, Richard Baum, resigned in protest, citing that she ‘has chosen to take the low road in her effort to gain our party’s presidential nomination’.17 Yet on the so-called ‘low road’ she was far from a lone traveller. The other Democrat contender (and later President) Barack Obama resorted to essentially the same tactic. Though his campaign was allegedly all about ‘hope’, he nevertheless played the politics of fear when it came to China, accusing Beijing of ‘grossly undervaluing its currency’, unfairly ‘dumping goods into our market’, and violating intellectual property rights.18

It is not that such accusations are entirely false. Much rather, instead of helping find sensible solutions, those accusations, usually heard loudest on campaign trails, were framed specifically in a climate of fear for self-interests and instant political advantage. In this context, the American labour movement is in the same league as those political high-fliers. Within this powerful movement are a coalition of trade officials, workers, and left intellectuals who have long used China as a lightning rod to rally against big businesses that have threatened the foundation of unionised labour by shutting down production lines and moving them offshore (often to China). Accusing business interests of kowtowing to dictators in Beijing and sacrificing human rights and moral principles for big dollar, they aimed at seizing the high moral ground in the anti-globalisation labour movement. Commenting on the American labour movement’s campaign against the US granting permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status to China, Kent Wong and Elaine Bernard rightly argue that the China debate ‘emerged as a test of labour’s ability to influence Congress, and established a litmus test for politicians’. Its opposition to China’s WTO entry was used as ‘a symbol of labor’s opposition to the threat of globalization and unfair trade agreements’.19

On the other side of the battle line, big businesses also raise the spectre of Chinese competition to discipline their employees at home, pressure local governments to hand out more incentives, and win business deals. In 2005,

US oil giant Chevron and the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC) went head to head in their competing bids for the US oil company Unocal. A full team of Chevron lobbyists worked tirelessly to scuttle CNOOC’s chances, citing the inherently risky nature of a Chinese takeover, a message which, given its resonance with the China threat image, was never really a hard sell on Capitol Hill. Representing the California district where the headquarters of Chevron are located, the then House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo moved quickly to demand an immediate review of the Chinese bid, while co-authoring a House resolution stating that a CNOOC takeover ‘would threaten to impair the national security of the United States’.20 Running up against not only a commercial rival but also a sophisticated, highly charged atmosphere of fear politics, CNOOC soon backed down; one week later, Unocal became part of Chevron. Even though Chevron’s cash-and-stock offer was $700 million lower than the value of CNOOC’s all-cash bid, the former’s intimate knowledge about the operation of US politics more than made up for the difference in bid value. Over the three-year period from 2002-2005, Chevron had made over $100 000 in campaign contributions to Washington lawmakers. According to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, Pombo alone received $13 500.21

While Chevron and Pombo exploited the fear of China as an economic menace, Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania, formerly Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, viewed it as a military one. Either way, the fear of China served a similar function of advancing their political interests in their electoral district. In an effort to curry favour with local voters, Murtha had tried to boost the local economy by bringing in major defence contractors as well as numerous pet projects. With the help of defence investment, local businesses were gradually transformed from assembling circuit boards for PC monitors to becoming part of the supply chain of America’s vast defence industry network, landing lucrative orders from the likes of Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and L-3 Communications. As local industry was increasingly busy assembling missile electronics, bomb-spotting robots and navigation circuits for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and unmanned helicopter drones,22 Murtha’s political fortune also became deeply interwoven with the balance sheet of the US defence industry. One such telltale sign was revealed when on the programme of NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, he expressed dismay that ‘we only bought four or five ships this year’.23 Realising that fighting terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and low- intensity insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq could never sufficiently justify big-ticket defence purchases, the Democrat congressman did a famous about- face by abandoning his original support for the Iraq War and began to wonder whether China was the real threat ‘down the road’. He now claimed that Iraq threatened to drain resources from ‘procurement programs that ensure our military dominance’ globally,24 and instead saw the China threat as a more profitable source of fear that could allow the flow of resources to the kind of procurement programmes most beneficial to his own political fortune as well as his district.

Similarly, self-interests led Senator Joe Lieberman to cobble up the danger of ‘the proliferation of new trouble spots around the world’, which, of course, included China. At the Seapower Subcommittee Hearing for the Senate Committee on Armed Services in April 2006, he said that ‘If we do not move to produce two submarines a year as soon as possible, we are in serious danger of falling behind China’. On the surface, his reference to the China challenge was motivated by a concern with its implications for US ‘national security and economic stability’ and the prestige of New London as the world’s submarine capital. But upon a closer look, Lieberman’s anxiety turned out to be mainly about the fate of Virginia-class submarines, which, at $2.5 billion each, were built by General Dynamics’ Electric Boat Corporation in his home state, Connecticut. His worry was that if the building of new submarines did not keep pace, not only would many submarine designers and engineers be laid off, but also the welfare of his defence industry campaign contributors, not to mention his own seat, could be in trouble.25

 
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