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What’s Driving Mitt Romney’s China-Bashing?

Somewhat lost amid the circus of the Republican primary has been Mitt Romney's decision to take a hard line against China's trade and currency practices. Tough talk on China has become almost de rigueur for presidential challengers (who typically then take a much softer line in office), but Romney's rhetoric is especially striking coming from the businessman candidate, and Romney's been chided for it both by Jon Huntsman, the former China ambassador, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Well, the chiding hasn't had much effect, because Romney was right back at it in an op-ed today in the Washington Post:

Having embraced free enterprise to some degree, the Chinese government and Chinese companies have quickly divined the benefits of ignoring the rules followed by others. China seeks advantage through systematic exploitation of other economies. It misappropriates intellectual property by coercing “technology transfers” as a condition of market access; enables theft of intellectual property, including patents, designs and know-how; hacks into foreign commercial and government computers; favors and subsidizes domestic producers over foreign competitors; and manipulates its currency to artificially reduce the price of its goods and services abroad.
The result is that China sells high-quality products to the United States at low prices. But too often the source of that high quality is American innovations stolen by Chinese companies. And the source of those low prices is too often subsidies from the Chinese government or manipulation of the Chinese currency.
Some argue that access to quality goods at low prices are good for our consumers. But like the predatory pricing prohibited under our antitrust laws, China’s underpriced products lead to an undesirable and inefficient elimination of competing businesses, with serious long-term consequences. And in this case, the businesses killed are often our own. Meanwhile, American companies do not even get the supposed benefit of the free-trade bargain: When they try to do business in the Chinese market, they find policies designed to shut them out.

And then comes the political cudgel:

Candidate Obama talked tough about China’s trade policies; President Obama has whispered about them. China smiles, diverts attention by criticizing the United States and merrily continues to eat our economic lunch. Who can blame the Chinese for ignoring our timid complaints when the status quo has served them so well? Actually doing something about China’s cheating makes some people nervous. Not doing something makes me nervous. We are warned that we might precipitate a trade war. Really? China is selling us $273 billion per year more than America is selling China — why would it possibly want a trade war? And what is the alternative to confronting China? It is allowing the Chinese to take by trade surrender what we fear to lose in trade war.

This stance represents a marked shift for Romney. He engaged in some China criticism in the 2008 campaign, but much milder than this. And in his subsequent campaign tract, "No Apology," he criticized the Obama administration's toughest anti-China measure, its move against the dumping of cheap Chinese tires in the U.S. market. This new hard line is also likely not coming from his economic advisers, who are mostly veterans of the pro-trade Bush Administration.

No, it's not hard to imagine what's driving the rhetoric -- going hard at China is an easy way for a private equity gazillionaire to earn some populist credibility in states hit hardest by the decline in manufacturing, both general election swing states such as Ohio but also key primary states such as South Carolina. Put together with Romney's newly harsh anti-immigration rhetoric, it makes for a package with some appeal to the nativist-minded voter who might otherwise be wary of the former Bain CEO from Massachusetts with the mansion expansion in La Jolla.

On immigration, Romney is clearly trying to get to Rick Perry's right. With the anti-China line, Romney can seek to appeal to both ends of the spectrum, given how widespread and disparate anxiety about free trade has become, said John Russo, co-director of the Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown State. "Conservatives with nationalistic values share a lot with people on the left on trade," Russo said. "The issue is more a parabola than a spectrum, with corporate liberals and corporate conservatives both benefitting from a certain type of liberalization policies."