The bilateral trade deal between China and the Unites States struck in 1979 was done at a time when China was a woeful economic force. It was done with the intent of luring China away from oppressive communist and inhumane policies with the shiny economic prizes attached western freedoms. It also contemplated the classic tradeoffs between wealthy and poor nations. Namely, the technology and financial industries of the wealthier nation would be allowed entry into the poorer nation’s market, in exchange for letting the poorer nation manufacture cheap products for the wealthy nations. Growth in cheap manufacturing is the first stepping stone upwards for any nation and is the primary method for building a healthy middle class. The United States hoped, at very least, to profit from having access to a low-cost supply chain to augment its higher value product manufacturing.
For the US, the deal has worked in parts, but failed in others. China grew its middle class and then some. The United States got its cheap supply chain. However, the introduction of capitalism has done little to soften China’s stance on personal freedoms. More importantly (from an economic perspective), China never allowed US finance or tech industries entry into its market. Even recently, China has found ways to regulate American tech firms such as Uber from competing with Chinese firms, in an effort to unfairly protect their companies from competition.
The 1979 trade deal is antiquated and no longer served its purpose, mainly because China is no longer the downtrodden little brother. It is a “big boy” now, and should have to compete with the other big boys without the preferential treatment granted in 1979. In many ways, Trump’s economic advisor had a legitimate qualm with this asymmetric deal.
However, Trump was either unable or unwilling to explain this nuanced position. As the master of the 5-second video clip, he truncated this complex analysis to “the trade deal with China is bad” and sprinkled in some thinly veiled demagoguery to rile up his far-right base. This abridged message coincided with his main message that foreigners were stealing American blue collar jobs (mostly omitting research by firms like Moody that show that the majority of those jobs were in fact stolen by automation.).
Had the original, more nuanced explanation been used, many of the higher educated voter in the middle and left could have been receptive to the idea. Had he emphasized China’s failure to reform its humanitarian policies rather than relying on xenophobia, it might have gained support from bleeding hearts. Had he offered to work within the established mechanisms used to reform trade deals, he would not have risked bilateral economic ruin or frightened economists.
However, he did not pursue a well-reasoned methodical explanation. In order to appeal to his base, he is forced to “tell it how it is” by oversimplifying his message to the extent that it loses its substance. All that is left is a conclusory statement bereft of the data, reasoning or evidence that more sophisticated voters use to differentiate bluster from well-reasoned proposals. This is part of what divides the parties even further than their ideologies. Even where there is an opportunity to come to an agreement, the “Communication gap” between them stymies the discourse. How one states a message appeals to once base but renders the other skeptical.