President Donald Trump started a trade war with China, and Minnesotans are now paying their share of its costs.
The Trade Partnership in Washington, D.C., estimates that Minnesota families will pay an additional $767 a year for everyday items as a result of Trump’s tariffs on imports from China.
Creative Lighting in St. Paul will be passing on to its customers the new higher costs of fixtures imported from China. Minnesotans will face other price hikes: on clothing, furniture, electronics, flooring, auto parts and medical devices.
Prices on many goods sold at Target and Best Buy will go up. China is the largest supplier of goods sold by Target to Minnesota consumers. Walmart will raise some prices to pay the tariffs on Chinese imports.
Jamie Beyer of Wheaton says her farm has lost $230,000 in the China trade war to lower soybean sales. With China buying elsewhere, U.S. soybean prices are at a 10-year low. The Trump administration pledges to pay American farmers $27 billion to make up for their lost sales — a transfer of money from Americans taxpayers to American farmers.
In last Wednesday’s trade negotiations in Shanghai, China took command. It started slow-walking the talks to let the costs of the trade war mount up and up for President Trump. As is his wont, Trump responded with escalation, imposing a new tariff on more imports from China.
Why do we need a trade war with China?
In short, China doesn’t play fair. The most serious harm to Americans has come through the theft of intellectual property — not paying Americans for their ideas, inventions, skills and quality, and making cheaper knockoff goods to take market share away from American companies everywhere around the world.
China runs a highly managed economy in which all companies — Chinese and foreign — need government authority to open businesses. Chinese officials favor Chinese companies over foreign firms, limiting American access to the world’s second-largest economy. Favored Chinese companies get nearly unlimited credit from state-supervised banks.
With an impressive foreign investment program called “One Belt One Road,” China is using its new wealth to buy favored status for Chinese companies abroad. This program is designed to place China ahead of the U.S. as a paramount economic power.
And trade is not the only arena where China seeks advantage.
Growth in China’s military power projection, also funded by the nation’s new wealth, complements its economic strategy to overtake the U.S. as the world’s leading nation.
Stealing islands from Vietnam in the South China Sea and turning them into strategic military bases puts China in charge of a waterway on which Taiwan, Japan and South Korea depend for their survival.
In the event of war, China could cripple those economies overnight with a blockade of the South China Sea shipping lanes.
China recently sought to pull Hong Kong fully into its internal security system of thought and behavior control, just as it has subjected the Tibetan and Uighur peoples to Han ethnic supervision. But surprisingly persistent and massive demonstrations in Hong Kong forced the Beijing government to back down from asserting its police authority there. It likely will try again.
So, why is China so ambitious? Should we worry?
Chinese leader Xi Jinping speaks to his people and to the world about the “Great China Dream,” a vision appropriate for a great people striding the stage of world history once again.
But Xi’s “Great China Dream” has its dark side.
From military expansion into the South China Sea, to the Belt and Road infrastructure investment program, to deployment of 200 million facial-recognition cameras documenting good and bad deeds for a personal social credit score to reward obedient people and punish the recalcitrant, to repression of minority people like the Tibetans and the Uighur Turks, to stealing intellectual property and military know-how from American companies — in all this we see raw ambition at work to impose China’s norms on others and seize ever more power for itself.
Is this what the Chinese people really want?
We don’t know, as there is little free expression in today’s China.
Xi is very openly shifting the justification of one-party rule from the ideology of Marxism/Maoism to one of Chinese ethnic exceptionalism. He claims legitimacy for his Communist Party because it can deliver the “Great China Dream” of wealth and power which the Chinese people are said to deserve.
At the core of his “Great China Dream” is a parochial self-aggrandizing fiction coming down from the Bronze Age. Xi adheres to the ancient imperial ideology suggested by the social activist Mozi, who lived from 470 to 391 BCE. Mozi argued that above there is Heaven, and on Earth only one “Son of Heaven.” The son of heaven is to rule “all under heaven.”
Heaven is tian; the one man ruling all below is the tianzi; and the everything he rules is the tianxia.
The task of the son of heaven, according to Mozi, is to bring order to the world and forestall all individualism and the anarchy egoistic humans bring forth within the four seas.
The implication of Xi’s “Great China Dream” today is that China is destined to provide order to the tianxia, even including, in time, to the United States of America.
To feel the emotional power of this mythology, watch the movie “Hero.”
There is a commonality among ethnic elites that have professed origin myths of exceptionalism for their people and their empires.
Hitler promoted the notion of Aryan superiority for his Germans.
Generations of czars told the Russians that God had chosen them to be the “Third Rome.”
Napoleon told the French they were to bring Enlightenment rationality to all of Europe.
The British embraced a Kiplingesque notion of being born-to-rule-well in building out their global empire.
Japanese militarists following Shinto beliefs proclaimed national decent from the goddess Amaterasu.
Muslim jihadists assert rights to conquest and violence as their divine calling.
Even we Americans think of ourselves living in a Godly City Upon a Hill, to which the eyes of the world turn out of respect.
What should we Americans do now, in response to Chinese ambitions fueled by their conviction that they have a right to order the tianxia as they see fit?
Start a new Cold War to contain Chinese expansion? Go along to get along?
What about appealing to the Chinese people, over the heads of the party and the government, asking them to choose which Chinese identity better fulfills their hopes and desires?
We can go over the head of Xi Jinping and assert directly to the Chinese people that, in reality, there is no tianxia. We should be open with the Chinese about this: Tianxia does not exist; there is nothing outside territorial China for Chinese leaders to rule.
And inside China, we can suggest that being ruled by one man — the tianzi — and his mandarins doesn’t befit a great people anymore, either.
We can affirm that true Confucianism makes great sense; that Taoist alignment with the flow of life also contains deep truth; and that Buddhist meditation and self-circumspection can enlighten anyone feeling estranged from life in this world.
But we can and should reject the ethnocentric ideology of tianxia.
First, diplomatically, we should issue a white paper refuting the Chinese claim to ownership of the South China Sea. The Vietnamese have all the evidence we need to make this case.
Second, we must engage with opinion leaders in every county where China seeks influence, educating them on the Chinese imperial order from the perspective of equality among nations.
We can hold conferences to discuss the theory of tianxia, inviting Chinese government and party officials to attend and fully defend their assertions of hegemonic power.
Third, economically, we ought not fight a trade war with tariffs, which hurt our consumers and companies, but with tit-for-tat responses on a case-by-case basis when an American company suffers from discrimination.
Fourth, to reach the Chinese people directly, we need people-to-people diplomacy and must elevate our skills in cultural dialogue. We must study Chinese history and legends so that what we say to them is respectful and easy for them to accept. We need to speak to them from within their tradition and not seek to impose our own dispositions and beliefs on them.
We therefore must lead our outreach with those ancient Chinese thinkers who denied the claims of Mozi, such as Mencius and Laozi.
Our central argument would be that the Chinese people and the American people each can be a great force for good in the world and can readily work together as partners.
We can access Chinese when they leave China to visit the rest of the world. Books published outside of China can be bought and read by Chinese while they are away from home.
We can invite Chinese intellectuals from universities and with Communist Party affiliation to debate the credibility of the tianxia myth.
We can put ideas on the internet persistently to slide them past Chinese government firewalls and censors.
All these efforts will take time, but time is on our side, because the Bronze Age tianxia conceit rests on no truth, and truth always prevails in the end.
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an organization dedicated to promoting ethical capitalism.