It’s Hard for Americans to Engage in China-Bashing Without Tripping on Contradictions

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Yves here. Richard Wolff provides a wide ranging yet comparatively compact tour of the incoherence of America’s official posture on China, using that as an example of late imperial disfunction. This would be a usefully provocative piece to send to China detractors.

By Richard D. Wolff, professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, in New York. Wolff’s weekly show, “Economic Update,” is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His three recent books with Democracy at Work are The Sickness Is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us From Pandemics or Itself, Understanding Socialism, and Understanding Marxism, the latter of which is now available in a newly released 2021 hardcover edition with a new introduction by the author. Originally published by Independent Media Institute

The contradictions of China-bashing in the United States begin with how often it is flat-out untrue. The Wall Street Journal reports that the “Chinese spy” balloon that President Joe Biden shot down with immense patriotic fanfare in February 2023 did not in fact transmit pictures or anything else to China. White House economists have been trying to excuse persistent U.S. inflation saying it is a global problem and inflation is worse elsewhere in the world. China’s inflation rate is 0.7 percent year-on-year. Financial media outlets stress how China’s GDP growth rate is lower than it used to be. China now estimates that its 2023 GDP growth will be 5 to 5.5 percent. Estimates for the U.S. GDP growth rate in 2023, meanwhile, vacillate around 1 to 2 percent.

China-bashing has intensified into denial and self-delusion—it is akin to pretending that the United States did not lose wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and more. The BRICS coalition (China and its allies) now has a significantly larger global economic footprint (higher total GDP) than the G7 (the United States and its allies). China is outgrowing the rest of the world in research and development expenditures. The American empire (like its foundation, American capitalism) is not the dominating global force it once was right after World War II. The empire and the economy have shrunk in size, power, and influence considerably since then. And they continue to do so. Putting that genie back into the bottle is a battle against history that the United States is not likely to win.

Denial and self-delusion about the changing world economy have led to major strategic mistakes. United States leaders predicted before and shortly after February 2022—when the Ukraine war began—for example, that Russia’s economy would crash from the effects of the “greatest of all sanctions,” led by the United States. Some U.S. leaders still believe that the crash will take place (publicly, if not privately) despite there being no such indication. Such predictions badly miscalculated the economic strength and potential of Russia’s allies in the BRICS. Led by China and India, the BRICS nations responded to Russia’s need for buyers of its oil and gas. The United States made its European allies cut off purchasing Russian oil and gas as part of the sanctions war against the Kremlin over Ukraine. However, U.S. pressure tactics used on China, India, and many other nations (inside and outside BRICS) to likewise stop buying Russian exports failed. They not only purchased oil and gas from Russia but then also reexported some of it to European nations. World power configurations had followed the changes in the world economy at the expense of the U.S. position.

War games with allies, threats from U.S. officials, and U.S. warships off China’s coast may delude some to imagine that these moves intimidate China. The reality is that the military disparity between China and the United States is smaller now than it has ever been in modern China’s history. China’s military alliances are the strongest they have ever been. Intimidation that did not work from the time of the Korean War and since then, will certainly not be effective now. Former President Donald Trump’s tariff and trade wars were aimed, U.S. officials said, to persuade China to change its “authoritarian” economic system. If so, that aim was not achieved. The United States simply lacks the power to force the matter.

American polls suggest that media outlets have been successful in a) portraying China’s advances economically and technologically as a threat, and b) using that threat to lobby against regulations of U.S. high-tech industries. Of course, business opposition to government regulation predates China’s emergence. However, encouraging hostility toward China provides convenient additional cover for all sorts of business interests. China’s technological challenge flows from and depends upon a massive educational effort based on training far more STEM scientists than the United States does. Yet, U.S. business does not support paying taxes to fund education equivalently. The reporting by the media on this issue rarely covers that obvious contradiction and politicians mostly avoid it as dangerous to their electoral prospects.

Scapegoating China joins with scapegoating immigrants, BIPOCs, and many of the other usual targets. The broader decline of the U.S. empire and capitalist economic system confronts the nation with the stark question: whose standard of living will bear the burden of the impact of this decline? The answer to that question has been crystal clear: the government will pursue austerity policies (cut vital public services) and will allow price inflation and then rising interest rates that reduce living standards and jobs.

Coming on top of 2020’s combined economic crash and pandemic, the middle- and-lower-income majority have so far borne most of the cost of the United States’s decline. That has been the pattern followed by declining empires throughout human history: those who control wealth and power are best positioned to offload the costs of decline onto the general population.

The real sufferings of that population cause vulnerability to the political agendas of demagogues. They offer scapegoats to offset popular upset, bitterness, and anger. Leading capitalists and the politicians they own welcome or tolerate scapegoating as a distraction from those leaders’ responsibilities for mass suffering. Demagogic leaders scapegoat old and new targets: immigrants, BIPOCs, women, socialists, liberals, minorities of various kinds, and foreign threats. The scapegoating usually does little more than hurt its intended victims. Its failure to solve any real problem keeps that problem alive and available for demagogues to exploit at a later stage (at least until scapegoating’s victims resist enough to end it).

The contradictions of scapegoating include the dangerous risk that it overflows its original purposes and causes capitalism more problems than it relieves. If anti-immigrant agitation actually slows or stops immigration (as has happened recently in the United States), domestic labor shortages may appear or worsen, which may drive up wages, and thereby hurt profits. If racism similarly leads to disruptive civil disturbances (as has happened recently in France), profits may be depressed. If China-bashing leads the United States and Beijing to move further against U.S. businesses investing in and trading with China, that could prove very costly to the U.S. economy. That this may happen now is a dangerous consequence of China-bashing.

Because they believed it would be in the U.S. interest, then-President Richard Nixon resumed diplomatic and other relations with Beijing during his 1972 trip to the country. Former Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong, former Premier Zhou Enlai, and Nixon started a period of economic growth, trade, investment, and prosperity for both China and the United States. The success of that period prompted China to seek to continue it. That same success prompted the United States in recent years to change its attitude and policies. More accurately, that success prompted U.S. political leaders like Trump and Biden to now perceive China as the enemy whose economic development represents a threat. They demonize the Beijing leadership accordingly.

The majority of U.S. megacorporations disagrees. They profited mightily from their access to the Chinese labor force and the rapidly growing Chinese market since the 1980s. That was a large part of what they meant when they celebrated “neoliberal globalization.” A significant part of the U.S. business community, however, wants continued access to China.

The fight inside the United States now pits major parts of the U.S. business community against Biden and his equally “neoconservative” foreign policy advisers. The outcome of that fight depends on domestic economic conditions, the presidential election campaign, and the political fallout of the Ukraine war as well the ongoing twists and turns of the China-U.S. relations. The outcome also depends on how the masses of Chinese and U.S. people understand and intervene in relations between these two countries. Will they see through the contradictions of China-bashing to prevent war, seek mutual accommodation, and thereby rebuild a new version of the joint prosperity that existed before Trump and Biden?

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  1. skippy

    I’m curious how the political donations from the business sector plays out as the sanctions bite back and no clear picture of what the future portends. Inflation in the G7 is epic whilst China’s low and stable, no amount of PR propaganda can change that.

    1. Stephen

      That is a good question.

      If I plagiarize the arguments of Professor Hudson then I can deduce an answer.

      Western economies are predominantly financialized. So that class likely is the biggest chunk of the donations, when it suits their interests to contribute. China has not allowed itself to go down the financial path. So western PE firms and hedge funds do not own and earn substantial rent from China. That implies that they have little interest in supporting China and might prefer regime change so that they can extract rent. Their donations will tend to be in support of conflict.

      Then we come to the military industrial complex. They are a state funded industry that has a direct interest in fomenting threats (not necessarily wars) to justify spending. All of their donations will support war.

      My suspicion is that the only remaining large donor group is the health complex and they have other priorities than worrying about China.

      Sure, there are then many other companies that lose out from conflict with China (eg as a supplier) but my sense is that they also have many other priorities so never really focus their efforts on “peace”.

      It seems to me the therefore that very few donations will be in the direction of peace with China and the net net will be for war. We have the classic problem in a “democracy” of sectional, minority groups that have power and a big incentive to push a specific agenda being able to dictate to the rest of us.

  2. John

    China has had the temerity to arise from the supine posture forced on it by the West taking advantage of a dynasty in decline. It is climbing back toward its accustomed position in the world, at or near the top. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of China’s history is unsurprised by this. The single and greatest difference that I can see is that this time China’s footprint is large not just in Asia but throughout the world. The US needs to accept this reality and stop its whining.

  3. Brooklin Bridge

    As I remember it, jobs went to China in the 80’s and 90’s. En mass. The USofA’s lost it’s position as the industrial center of the universe and more, it lost the knowledge base, the skill and the experience required to maintain that distinction. Without it, how are we going to produce enough bombs and war implements, and practical technology, to pound Russia, China and India back into the stone age where they belong, along with any other country that doesn’t bow to American Truth and status as God’s favorite of all favorites, not to mention our beloved past-time of installing dictators in our “friend” countries to maintain that good old USA specialized form of “obedient democracy” is a mystery only Biden and his cohorts seem to know. And it doesn’t help at all when security keeps finding and confiscating all those stashes of white powder left hither and yon in the White House that bring a little relief and glow from all the negativism and misinformation coming from every corner of the net.

    1. PelhamKS

      “The USofA’s lost it’s position as the industrial center of the universe and more …”

      Wouldn’t it be more informative to ascribe some factual agency here: “US corporate elites and their toadies throughout the thoroughly rotten federal government deliberately betrayed the American people by delivering to communist China (and other slave-labor countries) — free of charge — our most precious technologies, jobs and manufacturing know-how quite flagrantly in defiance of popular will …”

      There, that’s better.

      1. spud

        PelhamKS, 100%. if you lose your standard of living and technology, then free trade is a bust, and only works for a tiny elite. that is wolffs blind spot.

        we never got anything out of bill clintons free trade betrayals except poverty, debt and war.

        and industrial policy even in the beginning of 1993, would not have worked. japan uses it, and they are going down also.

        we must dump free trade, and we must work hard to buy what you have to, and sell what you can, and be as sovereign, self sufficient, democratically controlled, and innovative as possible.

  4. GramSci

    It’s a delightful irony of history — provided it doesn’t end in Global Thermonuclear War and but for the customary suffering of the poor — to watch the Brzezinski playbook backfire.

  5. ChrisFromGA

    Does anyone know what to make of this think-tank piece published in the Hill the other day?

    For goodness sake, almost a century old … I also heard the story mentioned on either CNBC or some other mainstream outlet.

    Could these clowns really be serious? Is this “narrative shaping” at work, i.e. more yellow peril, they cheated us a century ago, when practically no one currently alive walked the planet?

    Embarrassing to say the least. Also, note the timing, right before Aunt Janet’s trip to China.

    1. JonnyJames

      Great example, thanks for posting. In short, it is war propaganda. Excellent, we have Taiwan (a US vassal and protectorate) and now the old bond issues. What? China will not longer “kow-tow” to Anglo/US interests?

      Yellow Peril: the evil commie dictatorship is going to invade America! Be very afraid, we need an authoritarian “leader” to protect us from the “Asiatic Hordes” that are coming to enslave us! Only an obese orange speed freak, or senile octogenarian warmonger can save us from destruction. Let’s get hysterical!

      Here’s another piece of war propaganda by a foreign policy “expert”

    2. QuantumSoma

      Ha! If anything, shouldn’t this debt be held by Taiwan in any case? The US didn’t switch recognition until the 70s. The double standard is a astounding.

  6. Bruno

    This katheder-sozialistich professor of what he calls “Marxism” writes “Mao Zedong… and Nixon started a period of economic growth, trade, investment, and prosperity for both China and the United States. The success of that period prompted China to seek to continue it.” What is carefully avoided is any consciousness of the climatic catastrophe inevitably forced by such fossil-fueled “prosperity” for China and the United States on the entire planet, they themselves most emphatically included!

    1. jsn

      Nixon gave us the EPA and the 55mph speed limit because he understood what “The Limits to Growth” had documented in his tenure.

      Ironically, that was the last moment the US institutionally cared about climate, the environment and actual human wellbeing.

      It’s easy to look back and blame, but it was the Naz/Capitalist cabal in the background destabilizing humane governments around the world that took out Nixon for much the same reason, however “tricky” he was (I suggest Ross Baker’s “Family of Secrets”). This, embodied in the Reagan Bush Administration is what led since then to the abandonment of any real efforts to modify our course.

    2. itsaclasswar

      It’s the entire planet that generates demand for, among other things, the products by the U.S. companies, manufactured in China.

      If not in China, they would still have been manufactured somewhere, everywhere, likely in a less optimised way, both in terms of the financial costs and those on the environment.

    3. square coats

      I’ve seen more evidence of China taking the impending climate catastrophe seriously than the U.S., as evidenced in observable and meaningful actions, perhaps ironically typified in the U.S. crying about how far ahead of it China is in developing renewable energy systems, but ymmv.

      1. Bruno

        Is perpetrating half of the world’s coal combustion an example of “taking climate catastrophe seriously?” When was there an effort to organize a public demonstration against pollution that was not suppressed forcibly or strangled from the start by the Great Firewall?

        1. square coats

          I can’t think of a direct answer to your question off the top of my head but I can get at it indirectly in that I’ve seen a lot of people talking about how much air pollution has decreased in China over the last decade, like the image of Chinese cities covered in smog seems to be very much a thing of the past at this point. I agree that China still has major problems with the use of coal but it seems to me that they’re more seriously invested in developing renewable energy than the U.S. is. I will see if I can find examples of people organizing/demonstrating around environmental issues there, but I do think it’s something their government is interested in even in the absence of public protest.

        2. square coats

          Well, it was very easy to find this example (unfortunately it’s from wikipedia but it’s what I found right away) :

          It certainly doesn’t cast the government in a positive light in terms of police response, but it does say that the protest was successful, lasted several days, had 1000s of participants, and was “one of a growing number of large-scale environmental protests in China that achieved success.”

          I would offer the example of the Standing Rock protests in the U.S. for comparison.

          1. Bruno

            Smog is by definition local. CO2 pollution is planetary.
            Chinese people, by your own source, face brutal repression but still protest. Your source for “growing success” cites a 2012 exmple!
            Are the arrested protestors still in prison?

        3. itsaclasswar

          When was there an effort to organize a public demonstration against excessive, disproportionate consumption of resources on the other side of the world?

          Like in the US, where 4% of global population consume anywhere between 17 and 24% of global energy. And that’s after they moved most of their manufacturing to China.

            1. itsaclasswar

              And the dramatic impact her efforts have had on the overall levels of consumption/demand in the so called West certainly haven’t gone unnoticed in China and the rest of the world.

              You can keep confusing cause and effect, but you’ll just keep annoying the very people you need to convince to cooperate.

              If the Chinese suddenly decided to clean up their air and move the bulk of their manufacturing capacity to, say, Bangladesh, because of even cheaper labour etc., who would you blame for the ensuing drastic increase in pollution there? The Bangladeshi government, for embracing the opportunity to lift millions of their people from abject poverty and downright starvation, or the Chinese?

  7. JonnyJames

    I agree with Wolff on this, and I have been saying similar things since the escalation of anti-Asian violence in parts of the US. Trump blaming China, and making up all sorts of lies about all things China spurred on the hate.

    I have argued with many educated people who can’t or don’t want to make the connection with foreign policy and domestic hate crimes. The contradictions are clear, but psychological factors prevent folks from seeing it.

    Creating “the Other” is a classic tactic of political mobilization, it distracts the public and helps domestic mobilize political support. The D faction do this with Russia/Russians and the R faction do this with China. A couple of decades ago the Bogymen du jour were the “Islamic terrorists” (largely a CIA/MI6 creation)

    Red Scare, Yellow Peril… it’s an old tired trick, but it still works.

    This time though, the US is clamoring for war against large powerful countries with nuclear arms. This appears like some sort of suicide-death pact: if the Empire cannot maintain Full Spectrum Dominance, it will destroy the world.

  8. spud

    bill clinton said our manufacturing would stay where they are, here, and that free trade with china would be a win win. of course he said it with a straight face.

    i am sure when Deng was sitting across the table from bill clinton he had to have a straight face when he was thinking, Lenin was right, here is this clown more than willing to commit treason and sell out his country for the benefit of a few rich parasites.

    of course we know bill clinton democrats are racists, and never thought them colored people could ever be more than sweaty grunts.

    bill clinton handed over to the chinese 200 years of american skills, innovations, machinery, factories, patents, wealth that was never seen in this size in the history of the human race, to the chinese on a silver platter.

    i can’t blame the chinese, the chinese leadership must have a picture of bill clinton next to their beds, and wake up every morning to his face, and have a nice start of the day giggle!

    the absurdities and contradictions of blaming the chinese for what the bill clinton democrats did, is the heights of hypocrisy.

    1. JonnyJames

      The US oligarchy wanted to use China as a center for cheap labor, labor arbitrage. It is bipartisan. You really believe that we have a choice?

      1. spud


        it took a democrat to advance the repubican agenda. about 2/3rds of the democrats voted against nafta, bill clinton partnered with the republicans to gut america.

        remember before bill clinton, reagan and bush could not advance that agenda.

        1. Bruno

          I remember how Gore savaged Ross Perot in a Nafta TV debate for asserting that the President of Mexico was not only fraudulently elected but also a criminal–assertions that at the time were obviously correct.

          1. D

            Nafta was a product of George Bush senior, 3 years of negotiations, and Mexico plus Canada. It had nothing to do with China until Bill Clinton won, with Walmart Walton family help, and he used it as an excuse to force an invitation into the world trade organization for China. Proof is his speech at the signing ceremony, where he mentions China more than either of the NAFTA partners / neighbors

  9. Carolinian

    If you took away all the China made items in Walmart or for that matter on Amazon I wonder how much would be left. Those supercenters could be shrunk to the size of a Dollar General. True they’d still have groceries and some Pharma so maybe a little bigger.

    We out here in the hearland don’t get it–not at all.

  10. spud

    however, Wolff is correct, but here is his absurdity and contradictions, the business community, that is the parasites, did make out mightily under bill clitnons free trade, the rest of us took it in the rear end mightily. you would think a avowed marxists would understand that.

    Marx was only for free trade because he thought that free trade would speed up the destruction of the capitalist system, he was correct.

    1. Lambert Strether

      > Marx was only for free trade because he thought that free trade would speed up the destruction of the capitalist system, he was correct.

      Citation, please.

      1. spud

        “Understanding Karl Marx on Free Trade

        What do David Ricardo, Ben Shapiro, and Karl Marx have in common? They’re all free traders.

        No, this is not a tongue-in-cheek jab designed to smear Ricardo or Marx. I’m serious. Karl Marx—the father of communism, and intellectual progenitor of the horror-show that is postmodern relativism—was a free trader. Why?

        Marx believed that international free trade, or perhaps more accurately, Ricardian economic globalization, would pave the way for a glorious proletarian revolution. Specifically, Marx thought that free trade would increase wealth inequality and reduce wages for the majority of people, and that this tension would inevitably lead to conflict.

        While I hate to admit it, Marx is broadly right on this point. International free trade has indeed increased wealth inequality and reduced wages for the majority of Americans. In fact, the median American household was richer in the 1980s than today (better technology aside). Part of this is explained by the recent influx of low-wage immigrants and decreasing household sizes—but even so, globalization remains the single largest contributing factor.

        Likewise, Marx was correct that increasing inequality degrades social cohesion, setting the stage for violence and revolution. As it turns out, people are not hyper-rational automatons like economists assume: jealousy is real, and most people would rather lose money than see someone else get rich relative to them, even if they would themselves get (slightly) richer.”

        “Their most detailed treatment of the question was Marx”s Speech on the Question of Free Trade, delivered in Brussels in January 1848, just before the Communist Manifesto was published. (MECW 6, p450ff)

        The speech is imbued with scepticism about the “free trade sophisms” of the manufacturing class. Marx railed against the “sudden philanthropy of the factory owners”, who argued that free trade benefited the working class. He argued that the bosses’ opposition to a shorter working day revealed their hypocrisy.

        Marx believed that “all this cant will not be able to make cheap bread attractive to the workers”. He argued that free trade was about the British bourgeoisie dominating the world market: “England would form one huge factory town, with the whole of the rest of Europe for its agricultural districts.”

        Against arguments that free trade would provide cheap food and higher wages, Marx pointed to the destitution of the handloom weavers in Britain and India. He argued that by unleashing competition, free trade was likely to drive down workers’ wages. Marx also disputed the argument that free trade facilitated a natural division of labour between countries. The free traders failed to understand that “one country can grow rich at the expense of another”.

        To the question, “what is free trade under the present condition of society?”, Marx’s answer was: “It is the freedom which capital has to crush the worker.”

        Marx argued: “When you have overthrown the few national barriers which still restrict the progress of capital, you will merely have given it complete freedom of action. So long as you let the relation of wage labor to capital exist, it does not matter how favourable the conditions under which the exchange of commodities takes place, there will always be a class which will exploit and a class which will be exploited.”

        He added: “All the destructive phenomena which unlimited competition gives rise to within one country are reproduced in more gigantic proportions on the world market.””

        1. Mark Golding

          Very helpful to me too. To hear an argument from Marx’s ideas that is refreshingly different from the ‘Marx is an evil communist’ argument

    2. skippy

      Wipes tear from eye for the trope about lower prices for Con[ed]sumers [tm] and keeping inflation down … Lambert level rim shot …

  11. H. Alexander Ivey

    rebuild a new version of the joint prosperity that existed before Trump and Biden?

    The author must be a Gen X or Millennial (or a too-old Boomer like me) if he thinks the US had “prosperity” from the opening up to China Nixon nonsense. The middle and professional classes suffered shrinking wages, declining political power, and shorter lifespans as a result.

    Remember COLAs? I do, and they weren’t a soft drink, har har.

  12. chris

    I forget who said it on here, but at some point in time there was a comment which observed that the point of neoconservativism was to make the world safe for neoliberalism. It appears that isn’t true anymore. No amount of neoconservative bellicosity can make the world safe enough for neoliberal control anymore.

    I’m tired of how stupid our leaders are. They’re not even good villains. You can’t like Apple and hate China. You can’t support US business sending trillions of dollars to the middle kingdom and hate China. You can’t open the floodgates to foreign students and hate China. You can’t create the most energy intensive supply chain network in history and hate China. What our leaders hate are the consequences of policies they’ve supported for decades. And now they can’t even try to maneuver so that they don’t look like fools.

    Maybe we should stock pile pharmaceutical inputs and raw materials BEFORE we risk the Chinese rationing them? Maybe we apply pressure and reaffirm relationships BEFORE we make it clear what our real aims are with Taiwan? Maybe we reform higher education in the US BEFORE it collapses because foreign students don’t want to come here anymore? But no. Our leaders are so stupid, so thumbsuckingly oblivious, that their concept of diplomacy is to throw a tantrum when they don’t get exactly what they want. Its laughable but not funny. Because the thrashing about of the old world order and the neocons who are so committed to it is going to get even more people killed unless it stops.

    1. Mark Golding

      It is interesting that workers in a colony of ants never seem to gang up on other workers in the colony and try and destroy them because they walk and talk differently. They just cooperate because it is in their genes.
      We now have genes plus consciousness of the divine.

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