Joe Biden’s effort to outflank President Donald Trump on China is leading to blowback from within his own political base.
Some worry the rhetoric in a new Biden campaign ad could spur anti-Asian bias already on the rise due to the coronavirus pandemic. Others argue that Biden’s effort to sound tougher on China than Trump could backfire diplomatically in the long run.
The rifts on the left are far from a serious fracture, but they nonetheless illustrate the challenge the former vice president faces in trying to lay out a U.S.-China policy that has become even more complicated thanks to the might of a tiny virus.
The criticism on the left emerged after the Biden team released a digital ad that ripped the president as too willing to accept Chinese government explanations in the early days of the virus. Trump “rolled over for the Chinese,” the ad says, while Biden takes a tougher line, all over footage that includes what appear to be Chinese security forces.
“I would be on the phone with China and making it clear: ‘We are going to need to be in your country. You have to be open. You have to be clear. We have to know what’s going on,’” Biden says in the ad.
assertions that the former vice president is soft on the Chinese government, an effort to capitalize on widespread public anger over the virus and deflect blame away from Trump’s actions.
Democrats have criticized the Trump team’s efforts as xenophobic. One Trump ad, for instance, implies Biden is cozy with Chinese leaders by picturing him alongside former U.S. ambassador to China Gary Locke, an American of Asian descent. But Trump himself has piled on. In a recent tweet, Trump claimed: “China wants Sleepy Joe sooo badly…. Joe is an easy mark, their DREAM CANDIDATE!”
Trump repeatedly praised Chinese leader Xi Jinping as the virus spread across the world, though his aides have more recently stepped up criticism of the Chinese government’s lack of transparency about the outbreak. Trump also cites his late January decision to restrict entry to people traveling from China as proof of his prescience about the deadly pandemic striking the U.S., despite his copious comments dismissing the possibility. (The Biden ad says the ban wasn’t as airtight as Trump claims.)
Asian-American activists were among those most appalled by the Biden ad’s language, tone and visuals, and some have called him out for it.
“Wow @JoeBiden. Already trying to out-Trump Trump,” tweeted Cecillia Wang, a deputy legal director at the national ACLU. “This kind of fearmongering is causing violent attacks on Asian Americans.”
The frustration is especially keen because of the increased hostility Asian-Americans are facing over their perceived links to the virus.
One group tracking the situation says it has received more than 1,100 reports of such “hate incidents” in recent weeks. Some Asian-Americans report having been told to “go back to China,” being intentionally coughed upon or being sprayed with Lysol.
In a statement, the Biden campaign pointed out that Biden has “blasted” the hateful acts against Asian-Americans and that he’s condemned Trump for using terms like “Chinese virus” to describe the pandemic. But it defended the recent ad.
“Our ad levels substantive and deserved criticisms at Donald Trump for believing discredited Chinese government propaganda about containment of the virus – something Joe Biden publicly warned him not to fall for,” the Biden campaign said. “That misjudgment has had devastating consequences for the American people.”
In interviews, the activists noted that they don’t believe that Biden’s ad-makers intended to be insensitive to people of Asian descent. They also agreed that China’s government is in many ways opaque and oppressive. But Biden’s ad simply wasn’t nuanced enough to avoid fallout for Asian-American communities, they said.
Some, for instance, objected to the ad’s use of phrases like “the Chinese” or simply even “China.” Although such shorthand is common in Washington and usually understood to refer to a country’s government, the activists argued that, in today’s climate, the terms are overly broad, painting an entire population with the same brush.
“You can simply use more specific terminology and be clear,” said Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council. “People would find it very upsetting if we were to … say ‘Oh my God, the Italians have done this and the Italians have done that.’”
Some activists warned that Biden’s team risked upsetting Asian-Americans enough that many may choose not to vote in November. While Asian-Americans – a term that covers a plethora of groups – make up a small slice of the electorate, and many live in solidly Democratic states such as California, in a close race, they could make a big difference.
“I acknowledge and understand the need and desire to defeat and beat Trump, however, my question is ‘Who is the Biden campaign willing to sacrifice along that way?’” said Timmy Lu, executive director of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for Civic Empowerment.
As the Chinese government has taken a more authoritarian turn under Xi, attitudes toward Beijing have hardened across the U.S. political spectrum. The emergence of the coronavirus, and China’s initial unwillingness to share information about the illness with the rest of the world, has only deepened Republican and Democratic unhappiness with the communist government in Beijing.
The Trump administration has in many ways taken a hard line toward China, from imposing tariffs to limiting access to China’s state-controlled journalists to calling out Chinese leaders for their human rights violations against Muslims and in Hong Kong.
Trump himself repeatedly blasts the Chinese government, but he generally avoids criticizing Xi, likely because of his desire to protect a first-phase trade deal the two recently reached. Trump’s early praise of Xi’s handling of the coronavirus, which Biden highlights in his ad, may have stemmed from that same concern about trade talks.
Biden’s team has long known that U.S.-Chinese relations will be a point of contention in 2020. Their argument boils down to this: Biden, with his decades in government and long-standing relations with Chinese officials, will be clear-eyed on the challenge posed by Beijing. Unlike Trump, Biden will be “tough but smart,” his aides have said.
But Biden’s many years in the public eye give Trump’s side lots of material work with, even if out of context. A recent super PAC ad running in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin highlights comments Biden made saying “they’re not bad folks” and that the Chinese don’t pose a serious competitive threat to the U.S.The Biden camp also is bracing for a coming onslaught seeking to tar the presumptive Democratic nominee with questions about his son Hunter’s business activities in China, as Republicans have tried to do with the younger Biden’s role with an energy company in Ukraine.