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Donald Trump Is a Curveball in Long Arc of US China Ties

Post election, expect a nasty trade stand-off—though hardly a full rupture

WALL STREET JOURNAL 29-11-16 By Andrew Browne

Workers from China built bridges and railroads in the American West in the 19th century, until an economic downturn prompted a backlash. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese workers from the U.S.

Workers from China built bridges and railroads in the American West in the 19th century, until an economic downturn prompted a backlash. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese workers from the U.S. PHOTO: CPA MEDIA CO. LTD./NEWSCOM

SHANGHAI—American workers haven’t felt this threatened by job competition from China since the late 19th century.

At that time, writes the journalist John Pomfret in his sweeping new history of U.S.-China relations, “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom,” Chinese laborers had flocked to the American West. They were welcomed at first; the “men of iron” blasted railroad tunnels, dug mines and drained swamps. Some American thinkers talked about a merger of some kind between the U.S., which had too few workers, and China, which had a surplus.

But when an economic downturn hit, working-class Americans turned on the industrious Chinese. Lynch mobs hunted them down; Chinatowns went up in flames. Populists in the California Workingmen’s Party railed against the “heathen Chinese.”

In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which for the first time barred an entire ethnic group from the country.

Where will the fears of American blue-collar workers lead today?

The threat they feel this time lies on the other side of an ocean in China itself, the world’s factory floor.

Already, their anxiety tilted a presidential election, to Donald Trump. He’s threatened 45% tariffs on Chinese exports in an effort to bring back jobs lost to China. Some fear for the future of global free trade. “It is time to consider the possibility that a single politician could reverse decades of global trends,” write Laurence Chandy and Brina Seidel, scholars at the Brookings Institution.

The arc of history, though, suggests a somewhat less alarming outcome. A key theme in Mr. Pomfret’s epic narrative (it starts with the first Yankee traders carrying American ginseng and silver landing in Canton in the late 18th century,) is how the two countries really have entwined in ways that Americans once dimly imagined, so much so that a full rupture is now virtually unthinkable.

China and the U.S. are each other’s largest trading partners. American companies rely on the rising Chinese middle classes to deliver profits. China needs American technology to fuel its next stage of growth.

And these modern economic realities have deep cultural roots.

In spite of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which remained law until well into World War II, China left a deep imprint all over U.S. society. Its influence in American intellectual life is embedded in the language: Ezra Pound found inspiration for his new American poetry in Tang and Song dynasty verse. The sparse style rubbed off on Ernest Hemingway.

Similarly, America’s footprint turns up everywhere in China, sometimes in unexpected places. The reason cars in China drive on the right rather than the left is because an American general talked China’s wartime leader Chiang Kai-shek into making the switch. Of course, America’s open markets propelled China’s contemporary rise as an export juggernaut, but U.S. teachers, doctors and missionaries laid the groundwork in an earlier era—even if that goes largely unacknowledged in today’s China. They built modern colleges and hospitals, and inspired Chinese reformers like Kang Youwei, who led a crusade to end the practice of binding women’s feet.

All this is vital cushioning in what happens next—a nasty standoff over trade and investment, certainly, though likely not a full-blown trade war.

Mr. Trump has promised to take rapid aim at unfair Chinese trading practices. Expect more antidumping cases, intense scrutiny of investments in the U.S. by Chinese state-owned firms (Hollywood acquisitions have lately attracted sideways glances from some politicians) and blacklists of companies who’ve benefited from intellectual-property theft.

With his trade war threats, some analysts suggest that Mr. Trump is mimicking Nixon’s “madman theory” of foreign policy—a tactic designed to make Cold War adversaries doubt his sanity.

We might be surprised by China’s rational response: President Xi Jinping wants social stability at all costs as he maneuvers in the run-up to a Communist Party congress at the end of next year.

Pragmatic Chinese concessions are not out of the question. Faced with the threat of sanctions that would have derailed his summit with President Barack Obama last year, Mr. Xi took quick action on cybertheft. The problem hasn’t gone away, but it is more manageable.

None of this will fix the bread-and-butter issues of American workers whose lives have been upended by Chinese imports. There’s a danger that their anger at China may rise when they find out that manufacturing jobs aren’t returning, despite Mr. Trump’s promises. Low-end jobs that migrated to China are now headed to even cheaper destinations like Vietnam. In the U.S., as well as in China, the trend is toward automation.

In both countries, the popular mood is souring. Mr. Trump’s campaign rhetoric on China—it is “raping” America, he raged—is echoed in official denunciations of America in China.

But this has been the pattern since the beginning: bouts of enchantment followed by waves of despair, leaving feelings of betrayal all around. In the end, Mr. Pomfret concludes, the two nations “will successfully fox-trot, albeit clumsily” and the relationship will lurch ahead. It is too important to fail.

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