I imagine that older policymakers in Beijing have seen many battles between old-left, new-left, reformers and hardliners within their Communist Party of China. So they may be at the very best just mildly amused by the leftist insurrection within the Democratic Party of the United States.

There is no doubt that some of them were forced to watch the debates, so as to advise those above them about trade negotiations after the 2020 US presidential election. If President Trump loses his re-election bid, there is little for them to be hopeful about.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (right). File photo: EU.

The Democrats agreed that Trump was “bad on trade,” but no leading candidate offered Beijing any hope of a quick reset back to normal.

In the summer of 2015, when the Democratic party was feeling the Bern—Bernie Sanders— your columnist was struck by the similarities between the trade policy campaign promises of the independent senator from Vermont, and that of the equally angry rebel in the other party, one Donald Trump.

Sanders has never seen a trade agreement that he liked and has blamed free trade for all of his beloved workers’ woes—conveniently ignoring the fact that their dollars go further in the many superstores that he hates thanks to the free market that he hates.

The Democratic establishment held strong against the Sanders insurrection, but the party bigwigs in the GOP [the Republican Party] could not stop the Trump phenomenon. Since then, Bernie has lost some of his rebellious appeal and his comrade-in-all-but-name, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, is rising in the polls.

Conservative pundit and Trump fan Tucker Carlson at Fox News has praised her trade policy, which she herself describes as “patriotic.” I guess that’s just one rhetorical step removed from America First.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. File photo: Flickr/Gage Skidmore.

On September 12, 10 hopeful Democrats took to the debate stage and both Warren and Sanders were there. The latter used the opportunity to shout at another old white guy, former Vice-President Joe Biden, attacking the frontrunner for votes in the Senate in an era when common sense was more common—that is, in favour of free trade agreements.

Biden tried to walk the tightrope, knowing that he needs the backing of powerful trade unions—with many members who voted for Trump and his protectionist short-term measures.

Biden rightly dismissed concerns about a trade deficit with China, something Trump has been obsessing about like a modern Jean-Baptiste Colbert, and he tried to focus on China’s “corrupt practices,” which for the Vice-President included theft of intellectual property and subsidising state-owned enterprises (SOEs). These remarks failed to energise the crowd.

Senator Warren then vowed to implement a much more muscular trade agenda than the free-trade-friendly centrist consensus of the last few decades. Nobody asked her how that was any different from how President Trump has acted on trade.

Senator Kamala Harris, a rather distant fourth in the polls, seemed to come to Biden’s aid, or at least defend the lacklustre support that President Obama had given to free trade. She reminded the other candidates and the people watching that “we’ve got to sell our stuff.”

Being against free trade in primaries is nothing new for the Democrats. The unions are a powerful constituency unequal to their actual membership. The candidate best positioned to get the unions onboard is Sanders.

His voting record is the loud and consistent “nyet” that he learned when honeymooning in the Soviet Union of old, voicing admiration for their health care system. While other Democrats have been forced to apologise for the most innocuous faux pas of their past, Sanders has never apologised for this or other ridiculous remarks, such as praising breadlines in Socialist countries as signs that they “care about the people” or that mass nationalisation of American industries was “a necessity.”

It is clear that a Sanders administration would be a disaster for both America and China, the first would be on the road to serfdom and the latter would be stuck in a Trade War 2.0.

Kamala Harris and Joe Biden. File photo: Flickr/Marc Nozell and Gage Skidmore.

The irony would be funny if it weren’t so sad, but Sanders went on to say that “Trump, obviously, hasn’t a clue. Trump thinks that trade policy is a tweet at 3:00 in the morning. What we have got to do is develop a trade policy that represents workers, represents the farmers in the Midwest and elsewhere who are losing billions right now because of Trump’s policy.”

It is true that President Trump has been bad on trade and Sanders’ fellow Marxists in Beijing would be the first to agree. Perhaps Senator Warren, who allegedly has a plan for everything, would offer Beijing some solace from either Trump’s protectionism from the right or Sanders’ protectionism from the left.

“Our trade policy in America has been broken and it has been broken because it works for giant multinational corporations and not for much of anyone else,” she said, proving that a stuffy Harvard professor can beat the populist drum as well as anyone out there.

She argued trade policy could be used as a critical tool for pursuing progressive interests on issues like workers’ rights and climate change.

Essentially, Warren is trying to convey to Democratic voters that she is a less ideologically strident Sanders and more competent Trump. This would probably be the worst prospect for China and for world trade.

Warren’s plan calls for  “establishinga set of standards countries must meet as a precondition for any trade agreement with America.” Those standards include enforcement of collective bargaining, elimination of domestic fossil fuel subsidies, and a long-term plan to reduce carbon emissions—rules so strict that they effectively disqualify any developing country from reaching a trade deal with the United States.

Donald Trump. File photo: Flickr/Gage Skidmore.

Sara Eisen of CNBC was quick to point out that a Warren trade policy would block countries such as Japan, South-Korea, the Netherlands and Germany from selling to the States; all these countries uphold pretty decent standards of their own but happen to fall foul of one or more of the many Warren standards. Suffice it to say that China clearly would not meet any of the Warren standards.

“Everybody wants access to the American market,” Senator Warren said. “That means that we have the capacity to say right here in America, you want to come sell goods to American consumers? Then you got to raise your standards. You’ve got to raise your labour standards. You’ve got to raise your environmental standards.”

It quickly becomes clear why Tucker Carlson praised Ms Warren, he is as much in love with 19th century autarky as she, Sanders, and Trump are.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris did their best to defend the trade consensus of old. Some candidates bravely described the benefits of free trade agreements and how not only American workers, but also immigrants benefited from it.

But on actual policy they remained vague and most of them have as much chance of getting the nomination as Bo Xilai has of succeeding Xi Jinping. For those who came to this column looking for only navel-gazing American political insights, look that up!

In the end most Democratic hopefuls simply implied that they would work out better trade deals than the current President. And that’s exactly what Trump actually campaigned on himself in 2016. If Xi Jinping took to Twitter like his American counterpart, he could type “shangxin!”. Sad!


Alexander Zwagerman

Alexander is a lecturer at the Arnhem Business School in the Netherlands and a fellow of the Sima Qian Foundation, advising governments and businesses about how the rise of China affects the global economy. With over ten years of work experience in China, he has written extensively about Chinese business and how free market solutions would solve many of China's problems. He has published books and articles in Dutch and English. On Press Freedom Day 2016 a Dutch collection of his essays was published by Pharos publishers and the proceeds were donated to HKFP.