China is now at the top of the list of issues in political ads these days, right up there with the intertwined issues of the coronavirus and health care.
Republicans are driving the push, spending far more than Democrats on presidential campaign ads that mention China. From April 1-May 15, Republicans spent $8.3 million on TV ads (excluding cable) referencing China, compared to the $1.7 million spent by Democrats, according to data compiled by Kantar/CMAG for HuffPost.
Democrats, meanwhile, spent $5.8 million on non-China-related ads, and Republicans spent just $64,000.
During the height of the presidential primary, China was not at the front of the campaign. But during the coronavirus, President Donald Trump and his allies have attempted to shift attention from the White House by blaming China for the global pandemic.
“I think it’s a giant attempt to deflect, and they recognize there is a giant vulnerability on their end. It reeks of desperation,” said Shripal Shah, vice president of American Bridge PAC, which has run a response ad hitting Trump on his China policies.
The Trump campaign and a pro-Trump super PAC, America First Action, have led the China ad spending.
“The coronavirus infected millions. Crushed the world economy. One nation deserves the blame: China. They lied about it. Covered it up. Joe Biden coddles China,” goes one ad from the Trump campaign.
Another ad with a similar message, from America First Action, goes after the presumptive Democratic nominee for praising China over the years, warning, “Now, more than ever, America must stop China. And to stop China, you have to stop Joe Biden.”
Kelly Sadler, a spokesperson for America First, said the super PAC bought BeijingBiden.com in May 2019, expecting China policy “to be a contrast in the general election.”
“The bottom line is no matter who wins in November, China is going to be a major geopolitical issue the President is going to have to deal with,” she said. “The coronavirus started in China and China covered it up, allowing it to spread internationally. Biden has a 47 year history of coddling China - from granting them permanent trade relations, supporting their entry into the WTO, and most recently calling the President’s travel ban from China ‘racist and xenophobic.’”
Sadler said America First has spent $9.2 million in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin with its ads and expects to spend $10 million by the end of the month. (Not all of the spending is reflected in the Kantar/CMAG data because it does not track ads that run on cable.)
Other spots tout Trump’s travel bans on Chinese and European travelers, going after Biden for allegedly calling them xenophobic. (The Biden campaign has said that Biden’s charge of xenophobia was not specifically about the travel ban, but “Trump’s long record of scapegoating others” more generally.)
In April, the Trump campaign also released an ad that falsely implied that Gary Locke, a former Democratic governor and U.S. ambassador to China, is a Chinese government official.
“Donald Trump had countless opportunities to mobilize against the outbreak, as Joe Biden called on him to do,” Biden spokesperson Andrew Bates said. “But instead he spent months disregarding repeated alarms sounded by his own advisers while downplaying the threat. As coronavirus spread like wildfire, he continuously echoed Chinese government propaganda about the threat being contained ― despite Joe Biden publicly warning him not to believe it and that he had to get our experts on the ground there.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
In late January, Trump did put restrictions on travelers from China. And he has repeatedly referred to the coronavirus as the “China virus.” But for weeks, beginning in late January, Trump praised Chinese officials for their response to the virus.
“China is working very hard,” Trump said on Feb. 7. “They’re working really hard, and I think they are doing a very professional job.”
“President Xi loves the people of China, he loves his country, and he’s doing a very good job with a very, very tough situation,” he added on Feb. 18.
But the rhetoric has shifted significantly in the last couple of months, and the president’s campaign isn’t the only one focusing on China. Sen. Martha McSally, a Republican facing a tough reelection fight in Arizona, put out an ad recently going after China for its handling of the virus.
On the Democratic side, the mentions of China tend to focus on Trump praising the country’s leadership during the early days of the pandemic as a counterpoint to the anti-China rhetoric he is now using.
The Biden campaign has run two digital ads hitting Trump’s response to the coronavirus, highlighting how he downplayed the severity of the virus and, as one of the spots states, “rolled over for the Chinese.”
American Bridge PAC launched a TV ad specifically meant to counter America First’s shot at Biden on China. It spent approximately $2 million on a spot that ran from April 21-May 4 in the same three states as the GOP ads ― Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
“Trump trusted China. Sent China our supplies. And just look at the mess we’re in now,” the ad states.
Shah said the Trump focus on China “looks desperate, but just because something reeks of desperation doesn’t mean you can let it go unchecked, and we thought it was important to counter their ads with a counterpunch.”
“Both parties agree that the Chinese government was a bad actor early in this crisis and there will be a policy debate about what to do in response, but Trump is using China to try to distract voters from his disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic. The fact is, China lied to everyone, not just us,” said Josh Schwerin, spokesman for the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA Action .
“That doesn’t explain why we now have more deaths and cases than any country in the world and our economy is in shambles,” he added. “Trump was faced with a real challenge and his failures have had deadly consequences.”
The rhetoric about China ― and the use of terms like “China virus” and “Wuhan virus” ― worries Manju Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), a coalition of organizations and individuals in Los Angeles County.
“There’s no question that I think these messages are harmful,” she said.
A3PCON, Chinese for Affirmative Action and the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University launched STOP AAPI HATE, creating a form for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to report incidents of racism related to the coronavirus. Kulkarni said that so far, they have received more than 1,800 incident reports, including instances of people being called racial slurs or being physically assaulted.
“This is also part of the president’s long history of encouraging white supremacists and nationalist views for political gain,” she said. “So, unfortunately, this fits neatly within that framework. It’s part of a political strategy, and it’s not about better handling the virus or better addressing the needs of Americans.”
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