Robert Reich: Distinguishing Between A Chinese Challenge And A Chinese Enemy – OpEd


Lawmakers from both parties this week sought to tie TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew personally to the Chinese Communist Party. Despite his pledge to keep safe the data of American users and shield TikTok from foreign manipulation, lawmakers repeatedly asserted that TikTok is a tool of China’s Communist government. Washington state’s Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Republican chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, claimed “TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you, manipulate what you see and exploit for future generations.” 

Confession: I’ve posted short videos on TikTok.

Hell, I’ve even danced on TikTok.

I don’t want to make light of the challenge China represents to the United States, but the greatest danger America faces today is not coming from China. It is our drift toward proto-fascism. We must take care not to demonize China so much that we generate paranoia that further distorts our priorities, fuels American nativism and xenophobia, and encourages authoritarianism at home. 

There’s a difference between seeing China as challenging American technological and economic dominance, on the one hand, and viewing China as potentially threatening America’s existence. The former is correct, and can be beneficial if it induces further investments in American education, basic research, and infrastructure — on which our future standard of living depends. The latter leads to zero-sum strategies and possible warfare.

In the 1980s, when the Soviet Union began to implode, America found its next foil in Japan. Japanese-made cars were taking market share away from the Big Three automakers. At the same time, Mitsubishi bought a substantial interest in Rockefeller Center, Sony purchased Columbia Pictures, and Nintendo considered buying the Seattle Mariners.

Hearings were held on the Japanese “threat.” Members of Congress proposed a tsunami of legislation to keep American technology out of the hands of the Japanese. Techno-nationalism became the rage.

Alarmist books demonized Japan. Pat Choate’s Agents of Influence claimed Tokyo’s alleged payoffs to influential Americans were designed to achieve “effective political domination over the United States.” Robert Zielinski and Nigel Holloway, in Unequal Equities, claimed that Japan rigged its capital markets to undermine American corporations. Daniel Burstein asserted in Yen! Japan’s New Financial Empire and Its Threat to America that Japan’s growing power put the United States at risk of falling prey to a “hostile Japanese … world order.” Clyde Prestowitz’s Trading Places argued that because of our failure to respond adequately to Japan, “the power of the United States and the quality of American life is diminishing rapidly in every respect.” William S. Dietrich’s In the Shadow of the Rising Sun claimed Japan “threatens our way of life and ultimately our freedoms as much as past dangers from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.”

And on it went: The Japanese Power GameThe Coming War with JapanZaibatsu America: How Japanese Firms are Colonizing Vital U.S. IndustriesThe Silent War, Trade Wars.

But there was no vicious plot. America failed to acknowledge that Japan had invested heavily in its own education, research, and infrastructure — which enabled it to make products that American consumers wanted to buy. We didn’t see that our own financial system was coming to resemble a casino, demanding immediate profits over long-term investment. We overlooked the fact that our educational system left almost 80 percent of our young people unable to comprehend a news magazine and many others unprepared for work. We didn’t notice that our infrastructure of unsafe bridges and potholed roads was draining our productivity.

The question for America — ever more diverse but more deeply divided than in generations — is whether it is possible to rediscover our identity and mutual responsibilities without creating another enemy.

Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and writes at Reich served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fifteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good," which is available in bookstores now. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism," which is streaming now.

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