This week we learned, via the New York Times, that President Donald Trump has invested in a handful of small Chinese companies, has an account with a Chinese bank, and paid nearly $200,000 in taxes in China while pursuing licensing deals there from 2013 to 2015.
Trump’s political rivals were quick to exploit the report. “Can you imagine if I had a secret Chinese bank account when I was running for re-election?” asked Trump’s White House predecessor, Barack Obama, in mock horror. “They would’ve called me Beijing Barry!”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Trump’s newly disclosed account a “serious national security issue.“
It’s not hard to understand the gleeful tone of Obama’s taunt. Trump has excoriated American companies for doing business in China for years. And as Joe Biden emerged as front-runner in the Democratic primaries, Trump has sought to portray the former vice president as “soft on China,” and discredit his son Hunter as financially beholden to Beijing.
“China ate your lunch, Joe,” Trump sneered in the first presidential debate.
In the aftermath of that debate, Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin opined that, “for all its confusion and chaos,” one thing the encounter highlighted vividly is that our national policy debate on China is “fundamentally broken.”
Rogin’s right. Obama’s faux outrage over Trump’s “secret China bank account” underscores the point.
The Times reports that the bank account was held by Trump International Hotels, not Trump himself. Alan Garten, a lawyer for the Trump Organization, declined to identify the Chinese bank, but told the Times that the account had been opened with a U.S. branch of the lender in order to pay local taxes associated with efforts to do business in China. Garten said the company opened the account after establishing a business office in China “to explore the potential for hotel deals in Asia,” but that “no deals, transactions or other business activities ever materialized and, since 2015, the office has remained inactive.”
Does the Times‘ “revelation” that Trump opened an account with Chinese bank and chased licensing deals in China before he became president show the cynicism and hypocrisy of his anti-Chinese bombast since becoming a politician? Yes. Is there any reliable evidence to support Trump’s assertions about Hunter Biden’s business dealings in China? No. Should Trump have disclosed his own Chinese business dealings when he declared his candidacy in the last election? Of course.
But should we be shocked, appalled, outraged that, before he became a presidential candidate, Trump sought, as the Times puts it, “to join the myriad American firms that have long done business” in the world’s second-largest economy? Absolutely not.
At the risk of stating the obvious: Of itself, doing business in China is not a crime. It shouldn’t automatically be deplored as unpatriotic, a national security threat, or morally reprehensible.
And yet one would never guess that from the rhetoric on the U.S. campaign trail, where any association with China now is decried by leaders from both parties. As Rogin notes: “China has become so politicized that politicians can seemingly talk about it only as an attack line—even though both parties know their voters want substantive responses to China’s malign actions….”
This week brought more evidence (as if it were needed) that American businesses can’t afford to indiscriminately “decouple” from China. China’s third-quarter GDP numbers, announced Monday, showed China’s economy expanded by 4.9% compared to the same period last year—slower than the 6% pace of the second quarter but enough to make it the world’s only major growth engine. The International Monetary Fund upgraded its forecast for China’s full-year GDP to 1.9%; the Fund expects the U.S. to contract by 4.3% in 2020. Next year, the IMF predicts growth in China to rise to 8.2%, compared to a gain of 3.1% for the U.S.
Meanwhile, news of Trump’s Chinese bank account and tax payments has inspired much mirth on Chinese social media, where users joked that “Comrade Trump” was just paying his Communist Party membership dues.
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This edition of Eastworld was curated and produced by Grady McGregor. Reach him at [email protected].