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Identity Politics in U.S. China Policy Could Backfire

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Trans-Pacific View | Politics | East Asia

Identity Politics in U.S. China Policy Could Backfire

In their rhetoric, politicians may emphasize the distinction between the CCP and the people, but this serves to justify increasingly hawkish policies that don’t really consider that division.

Identity Politics in U.S. China Policy Could Backfire
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

Two weeks ago, I attended a talk on the geopolitics of technology, where the ongoing U.S.-China competition was a recurring theme. After the talk, I had the chance to have a brief conversation with the speaker, Democratic Senator Mark Warner. As a moderate China hawk who often sides with Republicans on various counter-China topics (at least based on my knowledge of his China policy), Warner exhibited no signs of awkwardness or tension as I expected a China hawk would do when I told him that I was from China. Instead, in addition to greeting me with a cordial smile and a firm handshake, he repeatedly told me that the U.S. government’s actions concerning China were primarily directed at the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), not the Chinese people. 

It may be hard to tell if the hospitality Warner showed me was the performative instinct of a seasoned politician or his true feelings toward a citizen from a country that he deemed as a threat to the United States. However, one thing I am certain about is that he meant it when he pointed out there was a difference between the CCP and the Chinese people. But whether he or any other politicians holding similar views are going to translate their convictions into meticulous actions is a horse of different color.

Contrary to China, where most people start to be inculcated with patriotism by fusing the CCP with the country and the people from a very young age, citizens in any functioning democratic country that provides basic civic education are more likely to understand the difference between a nation, its ruling party, and its people. One finding by political scientist Peter Gries in his 2014 The Politics of American Foreign Policy” shows that Americans, by and large, feel much cooler towards the Chinese government than toward the Chinese people. This finding demonstrates that even ordinary American citizens who do not have the same political resources or experiences as politicians can still distinguish the CCP from its people. 

Recently, this perceived party-people distinction has given rise to a new form of identity politics concerning U.S. China policy, with the Republican Party being one of the first to capitalize on this notion. When Donald Trump was exploiting the China issue during his 2020 reelection campaign, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo enunciated the distinction between the CCP and the Chinese people in a speech at the Nixon Library, rendering him the highest-ranking American official to do so in recent years. 

Pompeo’s remarks signaled a significant departure from the stance many U.S. government officials tended to avoid during the “U.S.-China honeymoon” in the first decade of the 21th century: questioning the legitimacy of the CCP as the ruling party in China. 

This shift unsurprisingly invited intense criticism from the CCP. Dubbing Pompeo’s speech “fact-distorting” and “driven by a Cold-War mentality,” Xinhua, China’s official state news agency, harshly repudiated the party-people difference almost verbatim. Asserting that the CCP “is deeply rooted in the Chinese people and closely linked to them,” Xinhua spilled a great deal of ink attempting to cement the inseparability between the party and its people by citing history evidence and relevant research. While it may remain unclear how convincing the CCP’s rebuttal was to both American and Chinese people, one thing became apparent – the CCP showed a heightened sensitivity to the identity politics strategy employed by U.S. politicians.

In most cases, politicians assess the effectiveness of their policies based on two key measurements: reactions from their opponents and responses from their (potential) supporters. The vehement opposition from the CCP to the party-people difference underscores the impact of the identity politics strategy. Consequently, following Pompeo’s speech, there has been a notable increase in the usage of terms like “Chinese Communist Party” and “Communist China” when referencing China, observed among both Republicans and Democrats.

A prominent example is the establishment of the House China committee, which is elaborately branded as the “Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party.” The main sponsor of the committee, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, deliberately chose to use “Chinese Communist Party” instead of “China” to separate out the party from the country and the people, marking a rhetorical shift from the “China Task Force” he had attempted to form earlier. The chairman of the panel, Republican Representative Mike Gallagher, also described the Chinese people as victims of the CCP. Additionally, as the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Warner has repeatedly mentioned the “Chinese Communist Party” when discussing cybersecurity threats posed by China.

The rise of a new form of identity politics inside U.S. China policy is evident as more Chinese Americans and Chinese individuals residing in the United States gain political influence, prompting both Democrats and Republicans to capitalize on this growing trend. China hawks within the Democratic Party use the party-people contrast to show they can be as tough as the GOP when dealing with China issues – an effort to score political points in the realm of foreign policy. On the Republican side, emphasizing the party-people difference allows GOP politicians to demonstrate that they are capable of engaging with identity politics as well as their Democrat counterparts.

Whereas some politicians may genuinely hope that stressing the party-people difference may help reduce the collateral damage of their tough China policy aims, the unbridled use of this form of identity politics could lead to a vicious circle: The more they emphasize the party-people contrast, the more they can justify their hawkish stance on China. That would in turn grant them greater leeway to churn out even tougher China policies, ultimately blurring the lines between the party and the people anyway. Regardless of how these bills may impact innocent individuals, they can always be justified using the rhetoric of identity politics. For example, over the past year, more states have jumped on the bandwagon of producing legislation to restrict people connected to China, labeled as a “foreign adversary” of the United States, from purchasing or leasing land within their borders. Proponents of these bills justify them as countermeasures to threats posed by the CCP, but they often fail to clarify the definition of their target: Who exactly is considered “connected to China”? Does this include second-generation Chinese immigrants or Chinese-born green card holders?

The embrace of identity politics within China policy is very likely to grow among U.S. politicians seeking to capitalize on anti-China sentiment, without offending the Chinese community. Nonetheless, blindly applying the party-people contrast in rhetoric about all anti-China policies could not only lead to backlash from the Chinese community, but hinder the development of effective strategies to counter China. Instead, U.S. politicians should – if they truly mean what they say about the party-people difference – adopt a more surgical approach, meticulously examining and adjusting China bills they propose based on potential beneficiaries and victims. Unfortunately, most politicians prioritize the short-term gains that can be reaped from hastily-written bills, rather than investing time and effort into carefully-crafted policies that yield long-term benefits.