Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

China will likely be a major issue in the 2020 presidential election, as the coronavirus crisis continues to paralyze large swaths of the U.S. economy. But even without a global pandemic ramping up the geopolitical stakes, Democrats and Republicans have long disagreed over how to deal with the world's most populous country.

Why it matters: Debates from decades ago still echo in today's partisan divide over China policy, revealing entrenched attitudes that complicate America's search for a sustainable relationship with Beijing.

What's happening: Republicans are coming down harder than ever on China, and there are almost no political downsides for them in this campaign season.

  • Administration officials who have pushed for U.S.-China economic decoupling now feel vindicated, as governments around the world are realizing they are dependent on Chinese imports for crucial medical supplies.
  • As the number of coronavirus cases and deaths in the U.S. soar, deflecting blame onto China for the pandemic isn't just expedient, it's almost a necessity.
  • It's an approach with wide appeal, as 9 out of 10 Americans now view China as a threat.

Democrats, meanwhile, are experiencing a kind of paralysis.

  • A dramatic rise in anti-Asian racism in the U.S. has led Democrats to rally in support of Asian Americans and to disown rhetoric by leading Republicans that pins blame for the coronavirus on China.
  • But that has made it politically toxic for Democrats to appear tough on Beijing. Many leading Democrats share Republicans' deep concerns over China's increasingly assertive authoritarianism, but China policy is now largely focused on the country's role in the pandemic.
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden campaign's new line of attack — trying to sound tougher than President Trump on China — was widely panned by many on the left as racially inflammatory.

Details: Partisan issues dating as far back as the 19th century still inform the national conversation today:

The 1870s and 1880s: The Chinese Exclusion Act

  • A wave of anti-Chinese sentiment, tied in part to fear of competition in the labor market, resulted in the first U.S. law barring all Chinese nationals from entry.
  • Republicans, who were "still the party of Lincoln" at this time, opposed the act because they believed in "ideals of racial equality," and many supported an expansion of Pacific trade, Gordon H. Chang, a professor of American history at Stanford University, told Axios in an interview.
  • Democrats, on the other hand, supported the act, because they "represented portions of labor, and more racially prejudiced portions of the population," said Chang.

Since Trump's election, Chinese-American groups have pointed to similarities between the political environment in the 1880s and today.

  • The memory is alive in China, too. In early February, shortly after the United States banned entry to Chinese nationals amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Chinese tabloid Global Times published an article comparing the travel ban to the 1882 law and the racist fears of a "yellow peril" that had accompanied it.

The 1940s and 1950s: The Chinese Communist victory and the start of the Cold War

  • In the early years of World War II, Democrats and Republicans were united in their support of China's Nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-shek and their opposition to the invading Japanese and the Chinese Communists. But this bipartisanship didn't last.
  • Democrats grew dissatisfied with Chiang's ineffectiveness and his own authoritarian tendencies, and their support for Chiang's government waned.
  • Republicans remained strong Chiang supporters and blamed the Democratic administration for the Chinese Communist Party's victory over the Nationalists in 1949. In an early episode of nascent McCarthyism, Republicans spearheaded an investigation into State Department officials whom they accused of secretly supporting China's Communists, leading to a purge of China experts.

That was the moment "China became a sensitive domestic political issue," said Chang. To this day, Democrats have remained deeply fearful of a return to Cold War-era suspicions, which makes them loathe to echo some of the more hardline Republican rhetoric that has become mainstream since 2016.

The 1990s: Appeasement after the Tiananmen massacre

  • President George H.W. Bush slapped sanctions on China after its leaders sent in tanks to quell pro-democracy protests in Beijing. But the tough attitude didn't last, and Bush soon worked to open up trade between the two countries.
  • In a well-known 1992 presidential debate, Bill Clinton accused Bush of "appeasing the Butcher in Beijing," said Yafeng Xia, a professor of East Asian and diplomatic history at Long Island University Brooklyn. The criticism stuck and damaged Bush's candidacy.
  • "From that time on, China would become a football in U. S politics," said Xia.

The bottom line: The divide between Republicans and Democrats on China policy runs deep.

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