China Criticized In U.S. Debates, But Stays Close

With the final presidential debate on Monday tackling foreign policy issues, surely China will be a familiar topic. It seems every four years, the U.S. relationship with China takes a beating during campaign events. Host Guy Raz speaks with James Fallows of The Atlantic about why candidates attack China yet presidents always balance their rhetoric.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now that we're 18 days out from the election, Mr. Severely Conservative wants you to think he was severely kidding about everything he said over the last year.

MITT ROMNEY: They've been reduced to petty attacks and silly word games.

OBAMA: We got to name this condition that he's going through.

ROMNEY: The Obama campaign has become the incredible shrinking campaign.

OBAMA: I think it's called Romnesia.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

RAZ: The two candidates trading barbs on the campaign trail over the past couple of days. James Fallows of The Atlantic joins me now as he does most Saturdays. Jim, hello.

JAMES FALLOWS: Hello, Guy.

RAZ: We are down to the last debate on Monday. It's going to focus on foreign policy. And we're going to talk about that in-depth on the program tomorrow, Jim. But let me ask you about China because you just returned. In presidential campaigns, every four years, China becomes the whipping boy. And I'm wondering, do the Chinese - first of all, do pay attention to it? And is it actually bad for our relationship with China?

FALLOWS: I think on the paying attention front, there's a split in China between popular opinion and the governing elite. Any critical remarks about China in the U.S. campaign gets trumpeted in Chinese press and many of the ordinary people get upset about this. I think that the governing elite has figured out that this is the way U.S. politics works and that whatever party is out of office is going to say that the incumbents are being too soft on China.

And then whoever wins the election will actually maintain what's been the policy of the U.S. ever since Richard Nixon, which is basically to work with China rather than against them.

RAZ: Well, what does the next president face when it comes to China?

FALLOWS: I'm going to take the rare step of telling you what I actually think as opposed to trying to be the neutral news analyst, which what impresses me is that in all the years since Richard Nixon and then Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter cemented a relationship with China, there's been this ongoing tension. On the one hand, the U.S. have said that it's better for everybody if China develops rather than if it stagnates. So it'd be more dangerous in a poor and surly condition than it will be in a position of growing strength.

On the other hand, we still have all these tensions with China - political tensions, strategic tensions - and the effect on the U.S. economy, especially our manufactured workforce of the ongoing rise of China's manufacturing base. So every single president from Nixon to Obama has balanced those tensions. And I think whether it's a second Obama term or a first Romney term, that is going to be the reality too.

It's better for the U.S. if China continues to emerge, but there are still problems. And I think next January, either next president will be maintaining that policy.

RAZ: Jim, I want to ask you about a somewhat related topic of manufacturing in China. You had the opportunity this past week to visit the infamous Foxconn campus in China. That's a place, of course, that makes, you know, many of our favorite devices, like the iPhones. Lots has been written about the work conditions there. What did you find that surprised you?

FALLOWS: The big surprise to me was that I was able to get in there at all. I've been trying to for years and years. And just for odd circumstances, I was able to spend most of a day there photographing anything I wanted. And I think since Foxconn has taken on such a connotation of dark satanic mills and sweatshop labor producing the things that are all around us, the main surprise to me was how normal it seemed.

And normal, I mean, by the standards of big Chinese factories. Normal in that there were people just walking around not, you know, sort of marshaled into work gangs every single second. They weren't wearing uniforms. I've been doing some pictures on The Atlantic site. The ways in which if you've seen any Chinese workplace, you've seen the things that go on there as well.

I'd be writing more about it in an article, but I think the main surprise to me is why they haven't been letting in more reporters over the years.

RAZ: And you can find more of Jim's impressions of Foxconn at jamesfallow.theatlantic.com. Jim, thanks again.

FALLOWS: Thank you, Guy.

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