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The First Casualties of US Hardening Toward China

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The First Casualties of US Hardening Toward China

Chinese people who staked their livelihoods on cooperation with America have been the first to suffer from the increase in tensions.

The First Casualties of US Hardening Toward China
Credit: Depositphotos

When a businessperson shifts attention from financial reports to geopolitics, it is often not a good sign.

That’s why I was taken aback when Lv Qing sought my perspective on Zbigniew Brzezinski’s “The Grand Chessboard,” a classic delving into U.S. geopolitical strategy. The text might captivate a political analyst, but appeared rather incongruous for the proprietor of a bedding export company in China’s southern province of Fujian.

Since founding his company in the 1990s, Lv has built a successful business through overseas trade, with a primary focus on clients from the United States.

I first met Lv six years ago at a bustling trade show, where I witnessed him stiffly gesturing to communicate with an American client, as there was no translator present. Seeing him flushed and anxious, I intervened and assisted Lv in communicating with the customer. Since then, we have maintained regular contact.

Typically, our casual conversations revolve around mundane topics like English learning and children’s education. In all our exchanges, he had never shown much interest in international politics. So I was taken aback when he brought up Zbigniew Brzezinski’s classic.

Upon sensing my astonishment, Lv told me that nowadays, it’s not just him who wants to get a handle on the United States’ strategic stance on China.

Books that explore U.S. geopolitical strategies are flying off the shelves in the country, with classics like “The Grand Chessboard” already marked as out of stock on some online book-selling platforms.

Behind the rising interest in Washington’s geopolitical strategy, as Lv elucidated, lurks a mounting perception among the Chinese public of heightened hostility embedded in U.S. policy toward China.

Lv has borne the brunt of that hostility. Ever since the Biden administration implemented a ban on Xinjiang cotton in 2022, Lv has encountered escalating hurdles in exporting his bedding products to the United States.

Despite his attempts to use Brazilian cotton for his American clients to circumvent the ban’s impact, he consistently faces more stringent inspection procedures when shipping goods to the United States.

One after another, Lv’s American clients terminated their business partnerships, resulting in a nearly 50 percent plunge in his business. Now, Lv has no choice but to enforce a four-day workweek for his employees to reduce the expenditure on human resources. Even that can barely sustain the company’s operations.

Most Chinese like me simply want to live a peaceful life and do business with Americans like before, but there is a growing concern that the era where cooperation outweighed competition in China-U.S. relations may never be revived,” lamented Lv.

“As Americans’ understanding of China is getting more off the mark, I’m afraid that instead of a passing storm, we are facing a prolonged ordeal,” he said.

Lv is not alone in experiencing the ripple effect of deteriorating China-U.S. relations. Others were hit first – and hardest.

Following the end of the “honeymoon decades” between China and the United States in the 2010s, Washington’s China policy has been undergoing a discernible shift, characterized by growing vigilance and hostility.

In his first national security strategy in 2017, former President Donald Trump described China as a strategic “competitor,” accusing Beijing of pursuing economic aggression designed to weaken the United States. Subsequently, the Biden administration took it a step further by casting China as a greater threat to U.S. security than terrorism.

Before Lv started feeling the pinch, nearly 20,000 Chinese scientists who had begun their careers in the United States were already forced to leave the country between 2010 and 2021. Tens of thousands of Chinese citizens employed in the over 1,000 Chinese companies entangled in various U.S. sanction lists had lost their means of livelihood.

In addition to that, various congressional committees, brimming with China detractors, are tirelessly cooking up bills to put a damper on official and economic ties with China, under the guise of “de-risking,” slamming shut the doors of communication between the two nations that took decades of efforts from both sides to unlock.

Americans may have their reasons for de-risking such areas as technology and trade with China, but these impulsive actions are actually yielding bitter fruit that ultimately undermines the United States’ own interests.

Of the individuals impacted by U.S. policy shockwaves towards China, the majority are those who once reaped the rewards of the relatively close ties between the two nations, much like Mr. Lv.

For decades, they seized opportunities to either engage in business ventures with Americans or pursue their studies in the United States, amassing fortunes and knowledge that propelled them to become the influential and esteemed first generation of elites within Chinese society since the country’s reform and opening up.

For them, freedom and democracy are common values worth defending; Western cuisine and coffee have become part of their daily routines. Despite the prevailing chill in Sino-U.S. relations and historically low levels of mutual understanding between most people of both countries, they maintain a relatively open-minded and even favorable perception of the United States.

To generalize, they embody a segment of the Chinese population that holds the strongest affinity toward the United States.

However, precisely because of their closely intertwined associations with Uncle Sam, these individuals now are finding themselves in the frontline of China-U.S. tensions. When the United States decisively altered its policies toward China, they became the first casualties of the policy shift.

Should this group of individuals, who are currently immersed in reading “The Grand Chessboard,” decide that the United States is using them as mere pawns, if not sacrificial lambs, in its geopolitical maneuvers, their longstanding positive perception of the United States would undoubtedly crumble, potentially leading to a sense of betrayal.

In that scenario, they would shift from being part of China’s most pro-American group to becoming the staunchest opponents of the United States, armed with deep knowledge about the country.

One of Lv’s previous wishes was to send his daughter to Princeton University for her studies. However, he recently withdrew her from an international school that focuses on preparing students for the American SAT exam and is now making arrangements to enroll her in a public high school.

“The tuition fees in the United States are exorbitant, and considering the current state of our company’s operations, it is financially unfeasible,” he told me.

“Besides, even if my daughter were to pursue her studies there, her Chinese heritage runs deep in her veins. That’s an indelible emblem of her identity,” he said. 

“I don’t want her to be used as a pawn in America’s geopolitical game, just like those scientists of Chinese origin.”