Romney’s Debate Criticism of Trade Practices Raises Hackles in China

Patrick Goodenough | October 18, 2012 | 5:19am EDT
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China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, opens an annual session in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. (AP Photo/File)

( – China reacted sharply Wednesday to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s repeated criticism of Chinese trade practices during Tuesday night’s debate, although some Chinese voiced skepticism that a President Romney would keep a campaign pledge to label China a “currency manipulator” on his first day in office.

News and opinion columns about “China-bashing” featured prominently in state media outlets following a debate in which “China” or “Chinese” was referenced two dozen times.

Romney accused Beijing of “cheating” by artificially undervaluing the yuan and stealing U.S. intellectual property, noting that “there’s even an Apple store in China that’s a counterfeit Apple store, selling counterfeit goods.”

He repeated an undertaking he has made frequently on the campaign trail: “On day one, I will label China a currency manipulator, which will allow me as president to be able to put in place – if necessary – tariffs where I believe that they are taking unfair advantage of our manufacturers.”

Romney said President Obama has had “a regular opportunity to label them as a currency manipulator, but refuses to do so.”

Critics say China has kept down the value of the yuan to give its exporters an unfair advantage in global markets. Formally declaring it to be a manipulator could lead to trade sanctions.

Since 1988 the U.S. Treasury Department has reported to Congress every six months on the foreign exchange practices of America’s major trading partners. The last time it cited China for manipulation was under the Clinton administration, in 1994.

The Bush administration declined to do so despite bipartisan congressional calls, and Romney during the debate, replying to a question on differences between himself and President George W. Bush, declared, “I will crack down on China. President Bush didn’t.”

During the 2008 presidential campaign, when the U.S. Treasury in its twice-yearly reports declined to cite China for currency manipulation, then Democratic hopeful Senator Obama said the decision raised “serious questions about the [Bush] administration’s commitment to protecting the interests of American businesses and American workers.”

Just days before his election victory, Obama in a letter to the National Council of Textile Organizations wrote that China’s large trade surplus with the U.S. was “directly related to its manipulation of its currency’s value.” He pledged as president to “use all diplomatic means at my disposal to induce China to make these [foreign exchange policy] changes.”

Since mid-2010 China has allowed a gradual appreciation of its currency’s value against the dollar, and Obama during Tuesday’s debate claimed credit for this.

“The currency has actually gone up 11 percent since I’ve been president because we have pushed them hard,” he said. “And we’ve put unprecedented trade pressure on China. That’s why exports have significantly increased under my presidency.”

‘U.S. decline’

At a press briefing Wednesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei denied that China has been manipulating the value of its currency.

Some of the official media reaction said the criticism of China was intended to cover for the “decline” of the United States.

“The presidential campaign reflects an alarming scenario in which China-bashing has become a ritual,” said the official Xinhua news agency. “This ritual, however, negatively impacts China-U.S. relations and leaves Americans with the impression that China is responsible for their country’s decline.”

The Communist Party-affiliated Global Times said scapegoating China was a play for votes.

While the U.S. remains powerful, it said in an editorial, it is “entering an era of political decline. Such new terms as ‘political paralysis’ and ‘financial cliff’ have been coined to describe the status quo in Washington politics.”

“History proves that the more mediocre a political system is, the more it relies on votes.”

Romney’s debate comments were not the only ones to draw fire in China.

Niu Xinchun, an expert in U.S. studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), described as baseless Obama’s claims about the yuan increasing in value because of pressure he has applied.

“The Chinese currency is adjusted according to the demand of China’s economic development and it will not be decided according to pressure from any other countries,” Niu told the Global Times.

“Both Obama and Romney want to score political points by attacking China,” he said. “But I don’t think they will really follow through on some of their campaign rhetoric if they are elected.”

Guo Xiangang, a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies, agreed. The state-run China Daily quoted him as saying that “neither Obama nor Romney will fulfill their campaign promises [relating to China] once elected, or there would be a trade war that would hurt both sides.”

In a recent analysis Wang Wenfeng, associate research professor at the CICIR’s Institute of American Studies, said he could not envisage a President Romney – a “shrewd and cautious” businessman – putting at risk as important a relationship as the one between the U.S. and China.

“After all, policy is different from politics, and a president is different from a candidate.”

Xinhua said in an editorial “U.S. politicians have a notorious record of rounding on China during election seasons and then quickly changing their course of action after taking office. However, these chameleonic politicians should not always expect that the wounds they have inflicted to the China-U.S. ties would heal automatically.”

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