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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Harrop: China’s choice: Russia or U.S.

By Froma Harrop
Published: April 14, 2022, 6:01am

President Joe Biden warned China that if it helps Russia in its savagery against Ukraine, the U.S. might apply sanctions to Chinese products. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman expanded on that thought: Sanctions imposed on Russia should give President Xi Jinping “a pretty good understanding of what might come his way should he, in fact, support (Vladimir) Putin in any material fashion.”

Then there is the American consumer whose closets and toy boxes bulge with stuff from China. This may be the most powerful voice as mass disgust over Putin’s war crimes sticks to countries that defend him, much less weaken efforts to squeeze Russia’s economy.

Over the weekend, yours truly was rustling through the clothing racks when her heart quickened at the sight of a turquoise blouse selling at a freakishly low price. She can report that the “made in China” label quickly extinguished any shopper’s lust.

Bill Browder, a former hedge fund manager in Russia who fought corruption and remains a Putin target, speaks of the high moral cost now attached to Chinese products.

“China has been very clear that it’s not going to join the rest of the world in challenging or punishing Putin for what he’s doing,” he said. “I think that China has to be careful.”

Browder thinks our consumers may start boycotting Chinese products — even before the U.S. government installs any official sanctions.

Firms get message

And it’s not just things from China.

The owner of Uniqlo, a Japanese fast fashion chain, originally refused to leave Russia as other retailers had. A consumer backlash quickly forced Uniqlo to reconsider. It has since changed course and pulled out of Russia.

The Chinese telecom giant Huawei is now closing its office in Russia, as have other IT companies before it.

Russia was a big and growing market for Huawei, but the risks of doing business there, including the prospect of additional sanctions, caused a turnaround.

Early in February, Xi and Putin joined forces at the Beijing Olympics to declare their alliance and enmity toward nonauthoritarian governments supporting freedom of thought.

Even now, China is submerging its people in Russian lies — among them, denials that Russians are viciously attacking civilians in Ukraine. Such reports are hoaxes created by the West, says official Chinese media.

China’s softening economy and shutdowns over new COVID-19 outbreaks have also rattled the leadership, raising speculation that China would turn its focus on helping Russia out of its economic isolation. For example, as Europeans try to cut their consumption of Russian oil and natural gas, talk grows that China could replace that market. (Europe now spends $1 billion a day for Russian oil and gas.)

And China could fill in Russia’s loss of access to Western financial infrastructure and technology. But China’s financial systems can’t nearly match the Western ones for size. China is certainly behind Europe in internet services.

In any event, if China sells it to Russia, its companies face secondary sanctions or consumer boycotts, witness the decision of Huawei to close offices.

Western private equity companies have been getting cold feet about investments in China, according to Bloomberg. Some of it is Xi’s crackdowns on the private sector. Some of it is travel restrictions in China. But a lot of it is political disquiet over China’s soulless alliance with the cruel leadership in Moscow.

Behind all these flashing red lights stands the mighty and mightily upset American consumer. If Browder is right, U.S. shoppers may now already be on the case. To which we might add that even before the Russian aggression, American companies were trying to replace Chinese supply chains snarled by the pandemic.

China has to choose: Russia or us. The better bet seems clearer all the time.