A Better Way to Fight China?

Scott noted this morning the 30th anniversary of China’s brutal crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. This set me to thinking about Trump’s trade strategy with China (and now Mexico) and an old memory.

Almost 12 or 15 years ago now I was teaching a class at Georgetown as a visiting lecturer, and one of my students was a young Chinese lady who seemed very bright, though quiet as most Chinese students are in my experience. But one day after class, chatting at the pub, she said, “I’ve seen your Internet. Everything about Tiananmen Square is wrong.” She explained to me that the student protesters had attacked the police and the army, and that the government had no choice but to crack down hard. Pretty clearly the Party line. A few follow up questions yielded the fact her parents were members in good standing of the Chinese Communist Party, but that of course no one really believed in Marxism-Leninism any more.

A couple weeks later this young lady turned in the best midterm paper in the class (out of about 40 total), analyzing the statesmanship of Churchill. I did wonder about this—I have had a few highly capable Chinese students who produced superb work and displayed genuine interest in and passion for American ideas (and Tocqueville in one notable case—I use these opportunities to corrupt Chinese students as much as possible), but in this case I was suspicious that the paper was so good that it had to be either plagiarized or written for her by someone else. (This was in the days before various internet tools to check for plagiarism were available.)

A week later, the young lady informed me that she had to withdraw from the class and return to China immediately because of some emergency with her home university. Which sounded totally bogus.

I suspected at the time, and even more so today, that this capable young lady was in fact a spy. We’ve learned a lot since then about organized Chinese efforts to infiltrate American universities to conduct industrial espionage. My class would have been very unsuitable to gaining any useful industrial intelligence, unless you think my session on Alexander Hamilton on manufacturing was helpful.

Which brings me to Trump’s aggressive trade strategy. I can support it, though it makes me very nervous because I think it might fail catastrophically. But I’ll give Trump a lot of running room on this; he is the only president who might be able to carry this off, precisely because of the qualities that so many liberals deplore about him.

But I like this idea better: tell China that if they don’t reform their predatory trade practices, we’ll cut off all student visas for Chinese students at American universities. What are they going to do—send their students to German and French colleges where Chinese students don’t know the language? Think British and Australian universities can absorb that many Chinese students? Do you think they want that many Chinese students? Of course they don’t.

This step would annoy the Chinese elite who want to send their kids to American colleges —and use it as a means of sneaking some capital out of the country. One untold story is the number of Chinese students whose parents buy them an expensive house and expensive car in the U.S. as a way of escaping China’s capital controls. I’ve seen this first hand.

This would have the added bonus of depriving many liberal universities of revenue, since they love Chinese students because they pay the full tuition sticker price. Admitting a certain amount of full-tuition Chinese students has become part of the business model with many colleges and universities. And you don’t even need to bribe a soccer coach. Without full-paying Chinese students, some colleges might have to lay off the six-figure salary associate assistant deputy under-dean of diversity and inclusion. Horrors!

Likewise with Mexico, I admire Trump’s determination to pressure Mexico to stanch the flow of “migrants,” but I wonder if restricting remittances and a couple other measures wouldn’t impose more pain on Mexico than tariffs.

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