An op-ed in The Seattle Times has received heavy condemnation online for what readers saw as the author’s one-sided view that the U.S.-China trade conflict is recklessly hurting business in Washington state.
Robert Spitzer, co-leader of China Practice at Garvey Schubert Barer’s Seattle law office, introduced his Dec. 26 editorial, titled It’s in Washington’s best interests to engage China as a partner, not an adversary, by highlighting the city’s role between the world’s two biggest economies since the opening of U.S. relations with the communist state in 1979.
“Where did the first Chinese ship arrive in the United States? The Port of Seattle,” he wrote.
Spitzer briefly acknowledged concerns about intellectual property theft, trade imbalances, and other transgressions by Beijing that constituted “legitimate issues” informing broad imposition of tariffs on over US$200 billion worth of Chinese exports last year. But he believes that the Trump administration’s actions are ill-advised.
According to Spitzer, tariffs are impacting the local economy, given that apart from the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, several key industries that do business with China—such as the Boeing aircraft manufacturer — are based there. Spitzer also emphasized the various cultural and academic exchanges between China and Washington state.
“Our region has been directly injured by the tariffs. Washington is the third leading exporting state in the nation. According to the Office of U.S. Trade Representative, in 2016, Washington’s $79.6 billion worth of exports supported roughly 375,000 local jobs with 20 percent of Washington exports going to China,” Spitzer wrote.
He advocated more “constructive engagement” to encourage China’s authoritarian government to improve on trade issues and human rights, saying “we’ll build a better long-term future with China, primarily as a partner rather than as an adversary.”
The editorial was soon published in translation by the Chinese-language edition of Global Times, a state-run outlet, as a demonstration of the cooperation between China and the U.S., as well as popular opposition to the trade war.
Reactions among the scores of comments posted on the Seattle Times webpage in response to Spitzer’s op-ed were broadly negative, ranging from matter-of-fact criticism to mocking statements and accusations of misplaced loyalty on the author’s part.
One reader cast doubt on Spitzer’s calls for greater U.S.-China partnership: “Considering China’s pathetic human rights record, its current practice of ethnic cleansing/concentration camps in western China to ‘re-educate’ Uighur minorities, its constant cheating and prevarications regarding national security, cyber-spying, intellectual property theft, etc etc etc etc etc… the Chinese CANNOT be trusted to be an honorable ‘partner.’”
Others chided the article for putting the interests of Washington state ahead of the United States as a whole, and for naivety regarding the long-term behavior demonstrated by Chinese leaders and businesses.
“We’ve tried ‘engagement’ for over 40 years now pal and it has NOT gained us much,” one angry comment reads. “Make no mistake, anything they don’t eat gets taken apart and reverse engineered to steal the technology — that is the technology they didn’t already steal or force to be expatriated in exchange for access to their markets.”
A reader who introduced himself or herself as having “worked on projects in China and throughout Asia for 30 years” said that he or she had “observed first-hand the aggressive repression of religious minorities such as Muslims in Xinjiang, Buddhists in Tibet, and Christians elsewhere.”
The user also said he or she was involved with international trial research into Chinese culpability in the Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979 that left millions of the southeast Asian country’s population dead at the hands of the local Khmer Rouge regime. China, then aligned with the Khmer Rouge due to their shared communist ideology, has used its status in the United Nations to defend the former Cambodian leaders
“Chinese students who come here now are in-effect agents of the Chinese state, selected based on their Communist-based social credit standing with a view to procuring US technology. [Confucius] Institutes operate in US campuses to promote Chinese state interests and to monitor and recruit students,” the comment continued. “We are in-fact [sic] in a cold war with China.”
In 2018, the Chinese government updated its laws on national security to require that all Chinese citizens and entities present in foreign countries assist with the Chinese Communist Party’s overseas intelligence efforts.
“China will NEVER change their culture of theft, cheating, and unequal trade regulations until forced to do so — PERIOD,” wrote the author of the aforementioned comment criticizing the previous 40 years of Sino-U.S. relations. “I am not a Trump supporter but when it comes to China, I agree with taking the hard line.”’
Shifting China policy
With its economy slowing and social unrest on the rise after several decades of “reform and opening up,” Beijing has increasingly marched to the drumbeat of Party authority and communist ideological fervor while using new technology to keep its citizens in line.
Under the Trump administration, government and scholarly understandings of China and its rulers have begun to shift from prevailing views that strong, non-politically charged engagement with China would lead to political reform.
Last October, Vice President Mike Pence gave a 40-minute speech laying the progression of Sino-U.S. relations and the Communist Party’s role in poisoning cooperation between the two superpowers. Government think tanks and officials are paying more attention to the fundamental conflict between America’s founding principles of liberty and transparency, and the Chinese government’s Marxist atheism.
In December, Trump’s economic adviser Peter Navarro said that the U.S. government’s aim in trade negotiations and tariffs was not merely to pressure China to buy more American goods, but to effect structural change.
CCP spokespersons have unambiguously rebuffed this position. However, China’s president Xi Jinping, with whom Trump has long said he enjoys a good working relationship, has shown personal willingness to accommodate U.S. demands.
Still, many challenges remain at the political and social levels on both sides.
According to SinoInsider, a consultancy based in New York that analyzes U.S.-China relations, as well as factional intrigue in the CCP, says that while Xi may want to improve ties, he is hamstrung by internal rivals who use the Party’s political norms and unyielding ideology to obstruct his efforts.
Meanwhile, the SinoInsider analysts note that despite the emergence of an “America’s China policy revolution,” overseas business, academia, and even governments have been subject to infiltration by those aligned with the Chinese government and its interests. These factors add up to constitute a formidable “Red Matrix” that distorts perceptions as to the nature and intentions of the Chinese leadership, making foreign targets more susceptible to manipulation while frustrating the formulation of sound strategies to engage with Beijing.