AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Obama's message today is just the latest salvo in a weeklong campaign fight over China. The president and Mitt Romney have both been eager to point out the challenges in America's relationship with its biggest rival. And as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, they've been eager to describe why the other guy is to blame for those challenges.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Getting tough on China has been part of Mitt Romney's stump speech from the beginning. But last week in Virginia, he went into more depth than usual. It was the first rally after his contentious press conference about Libya, and he turned his attention to China. At this rally in a D.C. suburb, not only did he promise to label China a currency manipulator his first day in office, he also accused the country of stealing American technology and intellectual property.
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MITT ROMNEY: Did you know they even have an Apple store? It's a fake Apple store. They sell counterfeit Apple products. This is wrong. We're gonna crack down on China when they manipulate their currency, when they steal our goods, when they don't protect our intellectual property. We're gonna make sure that China understands we mean business. Trade is going to work for us, not just for them.
SHAPIRO: His weekly podcast hit the same theme, and Romney's campaign released an ad accusing President Obama of letting American jobs slip away to China.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Barack Obama: failing to stop cheating, failing American workers.
SHAPIRO: The U.S. has lost manufacturing jobs since President Obama took office, but since 2010, manufacturing has grown steadily in the U.S., one of the few bright spots in this economy. The Obama campaign released an ad of its own accusing the Romney team of hypocrisy.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Romney's never stood up to China. All he's done is send them our jobs.
SHAPIRO: Democrats point out that Romney has profited from Chinese companies, both during his work in the private sector at Bain Capital and in investments he's maintained since he left the firm. A U.S. court found at least one of the companies Romney profited from was guilty of copying patented technologies. He appears to talk about one of those Chinese investments in a video that recently showed up on YouTube.
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ROMNEY: When I was back in my private equity days, we went to China to buy a factory there that employed about 20,000 people.
SHAPIRO: This was apparently recorded surreptitiously at a fundraiser. Romney describes the factory where young women lived and worked.
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ROMNEY: So you see them work the number of hours they work per day, the pittance they earned, living in dormitories with little bathrooms at the end of maybe 10 rows of - and the rooms, they had 12 girls per room, three bunkbeds...
SHAPIRO: In the middle of this tug-of-war over China, the Chinese weighed in. The state-run Xinhua news agency published an editorial saying that Romney could ignite a trade war if he follows through on his rhetoric. When the Obama campaign called attention to the column in Xinhua, Republicans accused the Democrats of citing communist propaganda.
CORNISH: Christopher Johnson is a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says the Chinese expect harsh rhetoric during a presidential campaign, but they're a little bewildered by what they're hearing from Romney.
CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Traditionally, they tend to favor the Republican Party, and yet Governor Romney is being pretty tough on them, which is difficult for them to understand, again, especially because they felt that they had a relationship with him from the past.
SHAPIRO: Johnson points out that China has a new incoming president, Xi Jinping. He's under pressure to prove that he's not soft on the United States, just as Romney is under pressure to show that he's tough on China. If and when both men act on that pressure, it could start a new chapter in the already tense relationship between the world's two largest economies. Ari Shapiro, NPR News.