The incoherence of the anti-China left

By Robert Wright, May 16 2020

Two people have recently made arguments for starting a new cold war with China—one of them a right-wing Trump supporter (Republican Senator Josh Hawley) and one of them a left-wing Trump opponent (journalist Matt Stoller). I’m not in the habit of complimenting Trump supporters, but I have to say that, of the two arguments, Hawley’s was more coherent. It was internally consistent in the sense that its logic meshed with Hawley’s Trumpist values.

Which was OK with me. I’m against a cold war with China, and I’m against Trumpism. Seeing the two fit naturally together somehow reaffirmed my faith in both positions.  

I was also happy to see that Stoller’s argument wasn’t so coherent. Though I’m not a true leftist, I’m left of center, and I share many of the values that inspire people further to the left, including Stoller. I would have felt some cognitive dissonance if he had managed to reconcile a position on China that I disdain with political aspirations I respect. 

Hawley’s argument came in a New York Times op-ed titled “Abolish the World Trade Organization,” and Stoller’s came in a conversation on the Glenn Greenwald podcast System Update. The two arguments have a lot in common.

For starters, both seem a bit overwrought. Hawley says that “Chinese imperialism” is “the single greatest threat to American security in the 21st century.” Stoller says China’s goal is “to subvert the current international global order.” (Exploit? Yes. But subvert? Why would you subvert something you’re successfully exploiting?) 

And both Hawley and Stoller want not just to “decouple” (as Stoller puts it) our economy from China’s but to bind our economy more tightly with the economies of kindred nations. Hawley says we should build a new trading network “in concert with other free nations,” and Stoller wants us to “move production to democracies” and “create some level of self-sufficiency among democracies.” Both men want to see global commerce divided along ideological lines, just like in the good old days that neither is old enough to remember.   

One difference between the two is in exactly how cold they want their wars to be. Hawley seems happy with something close to a complete rupture of relations with China, but Stoller wants to stop short of that.  


On the one hand, Stoller says, we would “decouple our economy from China to get rid of our dependencies on Chinese supply chains and move production back to the US” and to other democracies. We would “try as best as possible to get rid of the integrated globalized world order.”

On the other hand, we would “work with China where we need to on things like climate change or managing oceans or other common collective problems.”

Run that by me again? We launch all-out economic war against China—and try to get all the world’s democracies to join us—and then instruct China to cheerfully cooperate with us in all areas that we deem important? Sure, that oughta work.

It’s of course possible for two nations waging cold war to reach agreements in non-economic areas. The US and the Soviet Union repeatedly agreed to limit their nuclear arsenals. But none of those agreements happened within the first two decades of the Cold War—which were, as you would expect of a cold war’s formative years, consumed mainly by the symmetrical amassing of grievances and recriminations. 

And the arms control measures that finally did win mutual assent offered big near-term payoffs: they saved both sides money and also brought security benefits via stable deterrence. Agreements to mutually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in contrast, cost money in the short run and bring benefits only much later. So it’s not like Xi Jinping faces powerful short-term incentives to stay on the climate change bandwagon.   

Stoller’s hope of reconciling a brutal economic offensive against China with mellifluous Sino-American cooperation isn’t the only reason to wonder about his grasp of human psychology and of politics. His plan to bring out the best in China while gravely damaging it has a second part.

Namely: He hopes to see the forces of liberalization within China get stronger. 

Stoller is right to think that there’s raw material to work with here—that, though many Chinese are firmly supportive of the ruling regime, there’s a segment of the population that would like more freedom of speech. But here’s the problem: if you’re an authoritarian leader trying to keep the ratio of domestic opponents to domestic supporters from rising, your most powerful asset is nationalism—and nothing inflames nationalism quite like the perception of persecution by foreigners. So if I were assembling a Powerpoint presentation on how to liberalize China, my first slide wouldn’t feature Stoller’s plan to assemble a league of China persecutors.    

None of the internal contradictions that beset Stoller’s argument beset Hawley’s. Being a good Trumpist, Hawley loses no sleep over climate change. And he has no deep desire to build instruments of international cooperation that address other transnational problems: an arms race in space, the proliferation of bioweapons, whatever. Any thoroughgoing Trumpist hates global governance and so needn’t worry about preserving the foundation of economic interdependence on which institutionalized international cooperation is most easily built. So Hawley’s focus can be narrow: “resist Chinese economic imperialism.”   

And if that confrontation strengthens the hand of authoritarianism and weakens pro-democracy agitators, well, Hawley can live with that. He’s a Trumpist conservative, not a  neoconservative. “The quest to turn the world into a liberal order of democracies was always misguided,” he writes.

So a new cold war makes perfect sense if you’re a Trumpist—and all the more so, of course, because it’s partly designed to divert blame for America’s coronavirus epidemic from the Trump administration to the Chinese government.

I’m happy to report that most leftists seem not to share Stoller’s enthusiasm for joining the many Trump supporters who want to declare economic war on China. And I don’t think that’s just because China is run by the Communist Party—which, after all, isn’t communist in the traditional sense of the term anyway. 

I think it’s largely because leftists, being conversant in America’s long history of trying to undermine regimes that don’t fit into its geopolitical game plan, have developed a healthy aversion to the various tactics this involves: exaggerating the threat posed by the regime in question (wake me up when China’s “belt and road initiative” starts to imperil my freedom or security), exaggerating the magnitude of the regime’s various sins (the Covid “cover up,” for example), questioning the patriotism of Americans who question these exaggerations, and so on. 

Building support for a cold war with China—like building support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, or for such acts of aggression as strangling the economies of Iran and Venezuela—involves activating some of the worst parts of human psychology and stoking the American exceptionalism that has brought mainly trouble in the past. Any good leftist should recoil in response.

Any good leftist should also, of course, complain about the terms of trade that allowed so many American jobs to move so rapidly to Asia. There are various approaches to revising those terms (including my own hobby horse of using multilateral trade bodies to elevate working standards in China). But if you choose an approach that leads to the kind of world Josh Hawley dreams of, maybe the left* isn’t where you belong.


*Note:  Since I wrote this piece, a couple of people have questioned my characterization of Stoller's ideology. They note that, though he's well left of center, he's not a socialist. Though I didn't call Stoller a socialist in the piece, I can see how my description of him would have given readers the impression that he's somewhere in the vicinity of socialism on the ideological spectrum. I should have been more careful in my use of language (though, of course, my argument against his position on China stands independent of this question, as does my view that his position on China is inconsistent with values associated with his broader ideology).   

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