California is trapped – between two authoritarian regimes that want to fight each other.
One is headquartered in Beijing; the other is taking power in Washington, D.C. But they have much in common.
Both are so nationalist and bellicose they are spooking neighbors. Both express open contempt for human rights, elections and a free press. Both promote hatred of minorities (anti-Tibetan and anti-Uighur in China; anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim in the U.S.). And both regimes are captained by swaggering men (President Xi Jinping in China; President-elect Donald Trump in U.S.) who tend their own cults of personality.
Frighteningly, both regimes see advantage in escalating conflict with the other. The incoming American administration is threatening to raise tariffs and label China a currency manipulator, actions that would likely start a trade war. The Chinese administration is provoking confrontations in the South China Sea while the new American strongman embraces Taiwan – actions that could start a real war.
A sustained conflict between China and the U.S. could produce new restrictions on the flow of money and people, with devastating results for California.
Our public universities rely on federal funds from D.C. and top-dollar, out-of-state tuition fees from Chinese students to subsidize the education of Californians. So any Trump restrictions on foreign visitors – or retaliatory Chinese limits on overseas study – could blow up the University of California’s business model. A trade war also would threaten our tourism, our housing market (with $9 billion annually from Chinese buyers), Hollywood (which depends on Chinese moviegoers) and Silicon Valley ventures on virtual reality and artificial intelligence.
So how should California fight in such a conflict? First, by protecting our people (especially Chinese nationals and Chinese Americans) and our exchanges with China. This will be a delicate business, given the hypersensitivity of the autocrats in Beijing and D.C. to slights; just as Trump lashes out at “Saturday Night Live” parodies, Xi sees the “Kung Fu Panda” films as American warfare.
And, second, by reminding both regimes that we are opposed to conflict because the U.S. and China need each other more than they appear willing to acknowledge.
Californians who doubt this should consult journalist John Pomfret’s new book, “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom,” which details the U.S.-China relationship back to our founding (that tea we threw in Boston Harbor was from Xiamen). “The two nations have feuded fiercely and frequently, yet, irresistibly and inevitably, they are drawn back to one another,” he writes.
California’s role in this difficult period should be to tell the story of its own deep ties to China and to seek out new areas of productive cooperation, argues Matt Sheehan, author of the forthcoming book “Chinafornia: Working with Chinese Investors, Immigrants and Ideas on U.S. Soil.” “I think of California as a living laboratory for a more practical, productive version of U.S.-China relations,” Sheehan says.
But not all collaborations with China would be helpful. Our technology companies shouldn’t be aiding the surveillance states in either country. And California labor interests should stop playing to anti-Chinese prejudice in opposing trade agreements and advancing union organizing. The hotel workers’ union, as part of an organizing campaign, recently claimed a possible sale of the Westin Long Beach to Chinese interests would threaten national security.
One model for California’s strategy might be Anson Burlingame, the U.S. representative to Beijing during the Civil War. Burlingame commiserated with the Chinese over our mutual craziness (we have our terrible rebellion with the South, you with the Taipings) so productively that he gave us the Burlingame Treaty, which opened the way for Chinese immigrants to become American citizens.
Today, Burlingame’s name belongs to a suburb in the Bay Area, a region boasting one of America’s most prosperous populations of Chinese Americans.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.