We now find ourselves in the middle of a so-called trade war with China. The Washington Post and New York Times portray it as President Donald Trump’s war, as if he is the unprovoked aggressor. Most of their stories are about merchandizers and farmers who arranged for their products to be made in China or sold to China, and who now have to make adjustments. The Post and Times are particularly anxious to let us know when such adjustments affect the people they judge to be likely Trump supporters, implying that Trump has betrayed them or that they are dolts. Some more conservative analysts attempt to justify the tariffs by pointing out China’s theft of intellectual property and asymmetric trade rules that put United States businesses at a disadvantage.
But what if this whole narrative is beside the point? What if the real story isn’t about the theft of intellectual property or the effects of tariffs on U.S. businesses? What if the real story is about you and me? Let’s review.
According to the five former French Communists who authored “The Black Book of Communism,” the Chinese government’s Great Leap Forward, beginning the late 1950s, resulted in the death of 65 million Chinese citizens. In 1989, Chinese students who were fed up with their iron-fisted government, launched a demonstration in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. What they asked for was more democracy, freedom of the press and freedom of speech. What they got in return was the massacre of at least hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students and thousands of injuries. The photograph of one man, his shopping bags in hand, staring down the government tanks in the square is one of the most memorable images of the 20th century.
So we might ask ourselves, “How could any American with a smidgen of moral backbone continue to purchase products made in a country ruled by a government like that?” But I did. And you did. Not only that, we decided that we would rather have products made in a country ruled by a government like that than to have the same products made by Joe and Jane down the street, even if it meant that Joe and Jane lost their jobs and the products were made with no constraints on harm to the environment. Why did we do that? To save a couple of bucks.
Then came the economists of all political stripes, assuring us that it was a wonderful thing that Joe and Jane lost their jobs and we all would be better off. Economists value things they can measure, and the easiest thing to measure is money. (Full disclosure — I am an economist.) Labor should flow to places where labor is cheap, and anything that impedes that flow, like moral backbone, is inefficient. I think economists would say the same thing if we were talking about North Korea rather than China.
What has happened since 1989? There was some hope that as the Chinese got richer, the government would reform. After all, isn’t that the story behind the rise of the mercantile class vs. the monarchies in Europe?
Perhaps we should ask today’s students in Hong Kong how that “economic development leads to greater freedom” thing is working for them. Or we could ask the Uighur Muslims. Or the Christians whose homes are raided and whose churches are destroyed. Sadly, we can’t ask the executed prisoners of conscience whose organs were sold at market prices to transplant tourists from countries with greater freedoms. (See the recent Independent Tribunal into Forced Organ Harvesting from Prisoners of Conscience in China: chinatribunal.com.)
The people who don’t like the U.S., be they foreign or domestic, fear one thing above all else — a united United States of America. They saw it in action in my parent’s generation, and their fear is well-founded. That’s why they work so hard to divide us.
If you want to get the Chinese government’s attention, then let it watch demand for the country’s goods and services go off the edge of a cliff whether Trump does something or nothing, simply because you and I have had enough. The Chinese government will find it much harder to cut a sweetheart deal with 327 million Americans than with Trump or any other politician.
A recent news story enthusiastically reported that the tariffs were now affecting the average American and might cost each of us as much as $1,000 a year. That would be a hardship for some people, but for many others, it’s coffee money. We spend more than that on our dogs.
The Hong Kong students have expressed clearly their hope that the West will come to their aid. If we have any moral backbone left in us, and I’m betting against it, it’s time for an end run. Forget Trump. Forget the Democrats and Republicans. Forget the economists. Just say, “That’s it. I’ve had enough.”
Bryan Dowd is a professor in the Division of Health Policy and Management at the University of Minnesota. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.