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 it’s striking how much they have 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-immigrant in the U.S.). And both regimes are captained by swaggering men (President Xi Jinping in China; President-elect Donald Trump in the U.S.) who tend to 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 probably 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 and travel — could blow up the University of California’s business model.
Hollywood depends on moviegoers who live under both regimes, and Silicon Valley ventures in virtual reality and artificial intelligence rely on our ability to bring together manufacturers, investors and technologists from China and the U.S. Our tourism depends on Chinese visitors, and our housing market relies on Chinese buyers, who spend an estimated $9 billion a year on homes in the state. All these industries would be threatened in trade war.
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 hyper-sensitivity 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. relationship back to our founding (that tea 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,” says Sheehan.
But not all collaborations with China would be helpful. Our technologies companies shouldn’t be aiding the surveillance and security 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 about the mutual craziness of both countries (we have our rebellion with the South, you with the Taipings) as a basis for collaboration. His work produced 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.