WASHINGTON — There's a new red scare spreading across America.
Harnessing unrest over the economy and the nation's world standing, political candidates and campaigns are increasingly pointing to China, using its growing dominance to cast opponents as weak and hostile to domestic jobs.
A TV ad from the conservative super PAC Crossroads GPS that started airing this week in Florida and other battleground states blasts President Barack Obama for increasing the national debt and "borrowing billions from China to pay for his spending." An ominous sounding narration is coupled with the image of the Chinese flag.
The approach is tepid compared with what aired in Michigan's heated U.S. Senate race. An ad for a Republican candidate this year showed a Chinese woman riding a bicycle through a rice paddy and speaking in broken English of Democratic incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow, "Debbie spend so much American money. You borrow more and more from us. Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs."
"It's an easy target," said Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow and China expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "People are nervous about the United States having these economic problems and China looking so strong and powerful. They think China can eat our lunch."
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Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has sharply criticized China on the campaign trail, to the concern of some Republicans, promising to confront the country as a currency manipulator and warning about a "prosperous tyranny." One of Romney's new TV ads says he "stands up to China on trade and demands they play by the rules."
A conservative interest group's TV ad that ran in Florida last month said Obama's stimulus included "tens of millions of dollars to build traffic lights in China." As an incredulous sounding narrator spoke, the screen showed a traffic light that was slowly layered with the deep red and yellow of the Chinese flag. (PolitiFact found the claim Mostly False.)
China emerged as a political narrative in the 2010 elections, and dozens of ads for candidates in both parties used the issue to paint opponents as weak on jobs and trade. Often the spots use gong sounds and Chinese music and letters, imagery some find offensive and counterproductive.
An ad against Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Pat Toomey in 2010 portrayed him as a backer of China's expansion and ended with a fortune cookie breaking open to read, "Pat Toomey. He's not for you." Toomey was elected.
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The anti-China sentiment recalls past bogeymen. Fears about the Soviet Union were followed by the rise of Japan in the late 1980s. In the 1990s, Mexico was demonized as a job killer, though profit-seeking U.S. corporations willingly moved manufacturing there, as they do in China today.
China's rise has been breathtaking, experiencing double-digit growth in the past two decades. Only recently has it slowed due to the global economic malaise. China's wealth has allowed it to buy up $1.2 trillion in U.S. Treasury securities, more than any foreign entity. And China has been increasing its military might.
A 2011 Pew Research Center survey found that in 15 of 22 nations, majorities or pluralities say China either will replace or already has replaced the United States as the world's leading superpower. U.S. attitudes toward China have increased from 39 percent favorable in 2008, the start of the economic collapse, to 51 percent last year.
But with jobs and the economy still the most pressing concern, the use of China as a scapegoat is likely to grow as the congressional elections and the race for the presidency heat up.
"It's not an issue one political party can shy away from," said Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads.
"We know that if you make people anxious about something, it makes them more likely to rethink their vote choice, to stray from their partisan leanings," Ridout said. "It's one way to shake up a race."
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That's what Pete Hoekstra, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Michigan, attempted with the ad that began running during the Super Bowl in February. The backlash was intense, with people calling it racist, and the ad was eventually replaced.
"Here was a guy who had the guts to bring it to the forefront," said Fred Davis, a political consultant who made the ad. "China is on the tip of everybody's mind but our politicians are tap dancing around it. Not that China's bad. They've really shored up our economy. They've built some beautiful products over there. But as China's economy grows and ours continue to be stagnant, people are worried."
The new Crossroads GPS ad playing in Florida and Romney's own ad take a lighter approach, with fleeting references to China accompanied by the country's flag or shipping containers to signify the trade imbalance.
Romney's tougher rhetoric has been chalked up as politicking — and there is precedence for his approach. In 2008, Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton fought for votes in manufacturing-heavy Pennsylvania by accusing President George W. Bush of being soft on China.
Obama, who called Bush a "patsy," has not followed through on calls to sanction China for keeping its currency undervalued.
"The reality is with all of this talk during political campaigns, there is tremendous consistency in the way presidents approach China," said Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"At the end of the day, they recognize that you've got to sit down, talk to the Chinese and try to figure out how to narrow your differences," she added. "You try to use your leverage where you have it, but our leverage is not as great as it was many years ago."
Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.