The events of the last few months demand we revisit our relationship with China

I was young in 1972 when Nixon went to China, but I still remember the excitement attendant on that visit. For most of us, it was our first look into a formerly hermetically sealed country. Seeing China on the television was almost as exotic as seeing the surface of the moon in 1969 after the Apollo landing. For the Chinese, Westerners were equally exotic. Even as late as 1982, outside of Shanghai or Beijing, Chinese people had often never seen a blonde woman, something a British friend regularly experienced.

While the countryside may have been insular, by the late 1970s, China was opening up to the West and beginning to see opportunities to use its vast human and natural resources to bring money into a country that (like all communist countries) was cash poor. For the West, China’s availability as a manufacturer looked like a boon. Products could be made cheaply there and sold at a good profit in America.

For American consumers, having China make products cheaply also looked like a good deal. Although a lot of factory workers found themselves unemployed as more manufacturing shifted to China, for most people, cheap Chinese production meant that consumer goods that had once been out of their reach were now affordable. It’s thanks to China undercutting American prices that most of us have houses filled with merchandise, from furniture to electronics to cookware to foodstuff.

Many people assumed that, with money flooding in, China would eventually become a free-market economy, but that’s not what happened. Instead, China, while still calling itself communist, actually become a totalitarian mercantilist nation. And if you’ve forgotten your high school economics class, mercantilism is an economic policy that maximizes exports and minimizes imports.

China was able to maximize its exports by using slave/prison labor and non-existent worker protection, taking advantage of postage rates so low they drained money from the U.S. Postal Service, skimping on quality, engaging in intellectual property theft, and spying. Meanwhile, China imposed massive tariffs on products coming into China. Bill Clinton gave China a leg up with these activities, and the Obama administration, with a push from Joe Biden, accelerated China’s depredations.

The bit about skimping on quality made Chinese products famous, but not in a good way. Everyone understood that buying something made in China meant that it would have a minimal lifespan. However, even if it’s cheaper in the long run to buy a better-made American product, many people lacked the money to make that investment. They just piddled money away on the cheap stuff, all to China’s benefit. A lot of dog owners came to regret that decision when, in 2007, China sold poisoned dog food, having used Melamine as a filler to boost profits.

It wasn’t just dogs and their owners who suffered. When California was retrofitting the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge after it suffered significant damage during 1989’s Loma Prieta Earthquake, it decided to economize by hiring a Chinese firm to build essential component parts. That proved to be a disaster, for the parts were structurally unsound and cost taxpayers billions of dollars in retrofits.

Meanwhile, we watched as China used the money it vacuumed up from the West to expand its military, build artificial islands to lay claim to the South China Sea, and put poor countries around the world in its debt. Less than a year ago, Italy signed on to the Silk Road Project, a major trade agreement with China, something it probably regrets deeply now.

When Trump came into office, he pushed back against all of this: the unfair mercantilism, the intellectual property theft, the spying, and the territorial ambitions. While his political opponents scoffed, Trump has proven to be right about everything. It’s unnerving to think where America would be now if, three years ago, Trump hadn't begun the process of disengaging from China.

Now, in this time of coronavirus, it’s time to think about even more serious disengagement. The world is in disarray because China, despite being warned long ago, refused to clamp down on its infamous wet markets, which were perfect vectors for zoonotic disease transfers. China then compounded the problem by destroying evidence and hiding the disease. Of late, it’s been successfully using the anti-Trump media in America as a mouthpiece for propaganda absolving itself of blame.

And just recently, in a perfect fusion of lousy Chinese products and China’s efforts to make itself the “good guy” regarding coronavirus, word has emerged that the 150,000 test kits China self-righteously shipped to the Czechia are so defective they have an 80% failure rate.

If the coronavirus has shown us one thing, it’s that the world needs to disengage from China and that China needs a reset if it wants once again to join in the community of nations. As matters stand now, even though it will mean higher prices on consumer goods, China is too expensive for the world’s good.

I was young in 1972 when Nixon went to China, but I still remember the excitement attendant on that visit. For most of us, it was our first look into a formerly hermetically sealed country. Seeing China on the television was almost as exotic as seeing the surface of the moon in 1969 after the Apollo landing. For the Chinese, Westerners were equally exotic. Even as late as 1982, outside of Shanghai or Beijing, Chinese people had often never seen a blonde woman, something a British friend regularly experienced.

While the countryside may have been insular, by the late 1970s, China was opening up to the West and beginning to see opportunities to use its vast human and natural resources to bring money into a country that (like all communist countries) was cash poor. For the West, China’s availability as a manufacturer looked like a boon. Products could be made cheaply there and sold at a good profit in America.

For American consumers, having China make products cheaply also looked like a good deal. Although a lot of factory workers found themselves unemployed as more manufacturing shifted to China, for most people, cheap Chinese production meant that consumer goods that had once been out of their reach were now affordable. It’s thanks to China undercutting American prices that most of us have houses filled with merchandise, from furniture to electronics to cookware to foodstuff.

Many people assumed that, with money flooding in, China would eventually become a free-market economy, but that’s not what happened. Instead, China, while still calling itself communist, actually become a totalitarian mercantilist nation. And if you’ve forgotten your high school economics class, mercantilism is an economic policy that maximizes exports and minimizes imports.

China was able to maximize its exports by using slave/prison labor and non-existent worker protection, taking advantage of postage rates so low they drained money from the U.S. Postal Service, skimping on quality, engaging in intellectual property theft, and spying. Meanwhile, China imposed massive tariffs on products coming into China. Bill Clinton gave China a leg up with these activities, and the Obama administration, with a push from Joe Biden, accelerated China’s depredations.

The bit about skimping on quality made Chinese products famous, but not in a good way. Everyone understood that buying something made in China meant that it would have a minimal lifespan. However, even if it’s cheaper in the long run to buy a better-made American product, many people lacked the money to make that investment. They just piddled money away on the cheap stuff, all to China’s benefit. A lot of dog owners came to regret that decision when, in 2007, China sold poisoned dog food, having used Melamine as a filler to boost profits.

It wasn’t just dogs and their owners who suffered. When California was retrofitting the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge after it suffered significant damage during 1989’s Loma Prieta Earthquake, it decided to economize by hiring a Chinese firm to build essential component parts. That proved to be a disaster, for the parts were structurally unsound and cost taxpayers billions of dollars in retrofits.

Meanwhile, we watched as China used the money it vacuumed up from the West to expand its military, build artificial islands to lay claim to the South China Sea, and put poor countries around the world in its debt. Less than a year ago, Italy signed on to the Silk Road Project, a major trade agreement with China, something it probably regrets deeply now.

When Trump came into office, he pushed back against all of this: the unfair mercantilism, the intellectual property theft, the spying, and the territorial ambitions. While his political opponents scoffed, Trump has proven to be right about everything. It’s unnerving to think where America would be now if, three years ago, Trump hadn't begun the process of disengaging from China.

Now, in this time of coronavirus, it’s time to think about even more serious disengagement. The world is in disarray because China, despite being warned long ago, refused to clamp down on its infamous wet markets, which were perfect vectors for zoonotic disease transfers. China then compounded the problem by destroying evidence and hiding the disease. Of late, it’s been successfully using the anti-Trump media in America as a mouthpiece for propaganda absolving itself of blame.

And just recently, in a perfect fusion of lousy Chinese products and China’s efforts to make itself the “good guy” regarding coronavirus, word has emerged that the 150,000 test kits China self-righteously shipped to the Czechia are so defective they have an 80% failure rate.

If the coronavirus has shown us one thing, it’s that the world needs to disengage from China and that China needs a reset if it wants once again to join in the community of nations. As matters stand now, even though it will mean higher prices on consumer goods, China is too expensive for the world’s good.