In a particularly divided and hostile mid-term election, China-bashing is one of the only political issues that has enjoyed genuine bi-partisan support.

According to the New York Times:

“China is emerging as a bogeyman… with candidates across the American political spectrum seizing on anxieties about the country’s growing economic might to pummel each other on trade, outsourcing and the deficit.”

And the Washington Post:

“With many Americans seized by anxiety about the country’s economic decline, candidates from both political parties have suddenly found a new villain to run against: China.”

The same Times article quotes an astonishing statistic: “at least 29 candidates have unveiled advertisements suggesting that their opponents have been too sympathetic to China and, as a result, Americans have suffered.”

In the current political landscape where there are very few bipartisan life-rafts, politicians may increasingly cling to the one issue where everyone seems to get along. China-bashing could have a snow-ball effect – becoming bigger and stronger as it passes through the campaign and election cycles. A China Threat, already exaggerated and inflated by a gossipy and sensationalist media that rewards extremism would once more be compounded by the effects of a population that doesn’t seem to know a lot about China.

Just look at the inaccuracy of common China-related predictions from the last 30 years. In the 1980s after Deng Xiaoping came to power and initiated economic liberalization, foreign investment and the great to-get-rich-is-glorious reforms, many believed political reform was inevitable and so too would be the fall of the Communist Party in China. But that didn’t happen.

In 1990, after the global collapse of communism and the crackdown in Tiananmen Square, Communist China was the most politically isolated it had ever been in its short history. Many predicted it was only months before the Communist regime would crumble, which would cause China to break apart at its ethnically-drawn fault lines resulting in an independent Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Macau and perhaps other regions that are now considered semi-autonomous.  Again, this never happened.

In the early 90s China’s economic growth rate skyrocketed but few people predicted it would last longer than a couple years. Yet, the growth spurt turned out to be a sustainable trend, and has plateaued at 7%-10% for the last 20 years.

During the financial crisis in 2008, China-watchers predicted again that China’s growth rate would slow. Again, predictions were wrong.

In other words, China predictions from this side of the Pacific have been more wrong than right.

Another key point is that China bashing in American history has a consistently short-term quality about it, suggesting that it is used more for political gains than for long-term strategic or real economic gain. Presidential policy on China is like the month of March – it comes in like a lion and out like a lamb.

For example, when Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, he promised he would remain steadfast in his punitive policies toward the “butchers of Beijing.” Eight years later, he had established himself as one of the most China-friendly presidents in recent history making frequent visits to Beijing, establishing Most-Favored Nation trade status, supporting China’s acquisition to the WTO. When questioned by disapproving human rights advocates about the reason for warm relation with Beijing, he replied there were “one billion reasons” citing the economic pull of China’s vast labor market.

George W. Bush followed a similar pattern. He came to office pledging he would do “whatever it took” to defend Beijing’s rival government in Taiwan. He talked tough during the stand-off with China when a US naval spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet over Hainnan island in southern China in April 2001. However, by the end of his administration he had established a warm personal relationship with Chinese president Hu Jintao, negotiated many economic and strategic deals with Beijing and strongly supported the Beijing Olympic games.

So what is the point of the China bashing routine in American politics? Well, there is no point other than the game of posturing. Politicians on both sides of the aisle want to appear as if they will be tough on China. But none succeed. The lure of China’s labor market and its benefit for American businesses that invest there is just too strong.

Instead of lamenting the loss of jobs to China, (do we really want those low-end manufacturing jobs and all the pollution from the dirty factories back? We would have a much more severe environmental problem if we did…), candidates in this mid-term election should be talking about the role that American can still play – that is the role of innovation. We will never beat China in manufacturing. Being tough on China isn’t going to change that basic fact. But we can focus on rebuilding American infrastructure, creating high-tech jobs and innovating new technologies for the new green economy.  These are all issues that should feature prominently on the agenda of any politician. China-bashing  is scapegoating – a way of shifting the blame from America’s inability to create jobs at home.