Hidden Hypocrisy

Scott Walker’s Secret Love for Red China

He talks a good game about how tough he will be on China as president. But his record as governor of Wisconsin suggests a softer, cozier policy.

08.26.15 5:00 AM ET

Just before the 2012 presidential election, a prominent Republican governor appeared on Chinese state television wearing a lapel pin on his dark blazer that depicted that country’s hammer-and-sickle flag.

In an interview, he brushed off his party’s concerns about trade with China, downplayed citizens’ worries about outsourcing, and called the country’s trade practices “good and fair.”

That governor was Scott Walker—the same governor who, on Tuesday, confused just about everyone by saying Obama should make the Chinese president cancel his upcoming state visit. Same guy.

Walker has a record as being extraordinarily comfortable with China and its leaders, even going so far as to praise the country’s trade practices on government TV.

China and international trade issues have become central to the 2016 presidential campaign, especially given that the country’s economic struggles precipitated Monday’s stock market dive. As he’s done with immigration, Walker fast moved to be the furthest right on China, releasing a statement calling for Obama to cancel Chinese president Xi Jinping’s upcoming state visit.

“Given China’s massive cyberattacks against America, its militarization of the South China Sea, continued state interference with its economy, and persistent persecution of Christians and human rights activists, President Obama needs to cancel the state visit,” Walker said in the statement.

But up until he emerged as a top presidential contender, concerns about Chinese currency manipulation and human-rights violations didn’t seem like a top priority for Walker. (Of note: human-rights leaders also called for Obama to cancel Xi’s visit. Walker met with Chinese human-rights activist Chen Guacheng in June and released a statement on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.) Throughout his governorship, Walker adopted rhetoric and policies that sought to build bridges and deepen relationships between China and Wisconsin—even though, according to one analysis, the Badger State lost more than 60,000 jobs during his tenure because of the growing Chinese trade deficit and the country’s currency manipulation. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Walker has criticized Xi Jinping’s upcoming state visit for being mere “pomp and circumstance.” But pomp and circumstance didn’t bother him in 2011, when he attended an official dinner in Chicago for then-Chinese president Hu Jintao. The city’s mayor at the time, Richard Daley, hosted the dinner on January 21, 2011—a little more than a week before Walker’s inauguration. Valerie Jarrett, Senator Mark Kirk, and Senator Dick Durbin also attended, according to a press release from the city. Walker and the other guests savored “a traditional Midwestern menu with Asian accents,” and listened to Daley discuss his efforts to promote the study of Chinese language and culture in city public schools.

Over the course of his governorship, Walker didn’t exactly try to put daylight between the Badger State and China. Shortly before the 2012 presidential election, Walker made an appearance on CCTV—a Chinese state television broadcaster—sporting a lapel pin that depicted the American and Chinese flags side by side, waving over Wisconsin (Wisconsin blogger Jud Lounsbury flagged the video on YouTube in 2013).

The conversation was pegged to the criticism that the Republican presidential ticket had leveled at China’s trade practices.

“Despite all the criticism on China from the Romney/Ryan campaign, Governor Walker has been an advocate of bringing more Chinese investment to his state and increasing trade with China,” said the host, introducing the segment by contrasting him with fellow Wisconsinite Paul Ryan.

Walker said state leaders needed to communicate with Chinese investors about the benefits of trade with Wisconsin.

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“It’s our responsibility to show them good investments that will ultimately help put people to work in our state, that will provide a return on investment to those Chinese investors,” Walker said. “It’s not only good for our state, good for our employees, good for the investors, but also good for the people of China.”

He also called the trade status quo “good and fair.”

“The best way for us to show that there’s a good and fair trading system is to do what we’re doing right here. We’re living!” Walker said. “We’re not just talking about—we’re living it this week, we’re putting in place something that’s a mutually beneficial scenario, and I think that’s what most people and most voters ultimately want out of their leaders.”

And he said Wisconsin’s trade with China didn’t result in outsourcing.

“You look at that almost $1.4 billion worth of exports from Wisconsin to China—that’s not exporting jobs, that’s exporting products,” he said. “That’s a win-win.”

Walker backed up that rhetoric with action. A few months after appearing on Chinese state TV, he led a trade mission to China that included representatives from a variety of companies, as well as from the now-troubled Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and the state government. They visited Beijing, Shanghai, and Harbin, according to a press release.

Walker campaign spokeswoman AshLee Strong said there is no incongruity in Walker's actions.

“There is no equivalence between a routine trade mission and honoring the Chinese president with one of the United States’ highest forms of diplomatic flattery," she said. "Rather than high honors and an unnecessary ceremony for President Xi, President Obama should be focused on real engagement. Holding China accountable for its egregious actions doesn’t negate the importance of trade. As the Governor’s statement said, ‘There's serious work to be done rather than pomp and circumstance.’”

While he was there, Walker attended the U.S.-China Governors Forum. Terry Branstad, the Republican governor of Iowa, led the American governors’ delegation there. Branstad took those two to visit Xi during the trip, according to The Des Moines Register. The paper noted that Xi rarely meets visiting foreign dignitaries, and that Walker benefited from Branstad’s ability to make the introduction.

Walker also opened a Wisconsin/China trade center in Shanghai on the trip.

“This trade center strengthens our relationship with China and provides Wisconsin businesses the resources and assistance to pursue export opportunities in this growing market,” he said, according to a press release. “Through the years, Wisconsin has built a strong trade relationship with China, and the opening of the Wisconsin Center China will help Wisconsin businesses continue to strengthen our trade relationships and grow export opportunities.”

(Note: Nothing on persecution of Christians or human-rights abuses.)

Back home in Wisconsin, concerns about China got him in a bit of trouble. Walker’s 2013-2015 biennial budget proposal included a provision that would have foreign individuals and corporations own unlimited amounts of land in the state, even if they didn’t live there.

“[T]here's no question that this would allow the Chinese government to buy a big chunk of land in northwest Wisconsin if it wanted to,” said Republican then-state Senator Dale Schultz at the time, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

Republicans yanked that provision from the budget after it drew outrage.

But that didn’t constrain the governor’s energy for improving relations with China. On his trade trip, he oversaw the finalization of a handful of trade deals, including one in which one of the country’s biggest medicine companies promised it would only sell ginseng in its stores if it was from Wisconsin. According to WBNS-10TV, the Chinese prize Wisconsin ginseng, but the market is riddled with counterfeit products that claim to be from Wisconsin but aren’t. Walker estimated the deal could be worth up to $200 million to businesses in the state.

Since then, Wisconsin’s Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch has lavishly praised the state’s relationship with China. On December 8, 2014, her office put out a press release touting the ginseng deal and saying she and Walker were committed to “diplomatic relationships that will position Wisconsin to benefit from Asia’s rise.”

The New York Times reported in July that Walker “met or [spoke] with” Xi Jinpeng at some point in the last few months, as well as other world leaders.

All this is to say that Walker helmed energetic efforts to improve Wisconsin’s trade relationship with China. But he doesn’t appear to have done much to check the nation’s currency manipulation and unfair trade practices.

Robert Scott, the director of trade and manufacturing policy research at the Economic Policy Institute—a labor-affiliated think tank—said Walker could have gone much further in pushing back against China. Scott said Walker could have filed an unfair-trade practices complaint with the World Trade Organization or pressured the Treasury to do more about China’s currency manipulation.

“I’ve heard no efforts from the governor or anyone else on that front, until last week,” Scott said.

A spokesperson for the Wisconsin governor’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on if Walker had (or could have) pursued any of those remedies.

Scott added that canceling Xi’s state visit “could cause China to overreact.”

“The Chinese are very sensitive to saving face,” he said, “and I think if you were just to insult the Chinese president, just for the sake of insulting him, I don’t think it would be useful in improving the relationship.”

“I think it could cause China to dig in his heels,” he added.

And, Scott noted, that could be particularly tough on Wisconsin. Scott’s research indicates that Wisconsin would stand to benefit more than any other state if China and other countries stopped manipulating their currencies because of the state’s sizable durable goods industry.

Scott’s research also tracks how many jobs individual states lose each year because of outsourcing. He estimates that, thus far in Walker’s governorship, Wisconsin has netted 600,000 lost jobs because of outsourcing to China.

So Walker’s new anti-China rhetoric is a bit of a departure. And while it’s won plaudits from some on the right, including AEI’s Michael Mazza, it could make things awkward for the governor and Branstad. The Des Moines Register noted that Branstad and Xi are “longtime friends” and have known each other for 30 years.

“China is a valuable trading partner for Iowa and the state has had a friendly relationship with President Xi dating back to his first visit to Iowa in 1985,” said Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers.

The paper also suggested Walker’s stance could hurt him with the state’s agribusiness interests.

This isn’t the first time he hasn’t zipped to the far right after being moderate or silent on an issue. His rapid rightward migration on the immigration issue also raised a flock of eyebrows. But to sport a lapel pin depicting the Chinese flag one year and then to call for a prompt cancellation of a state visit in another is—well, interesting.

This story has been updated with a statement from Walker’s campaign. 

Correction: A previous version of this story said that, according to one study, Wisconsin lost over 600,000 jobs during Walker's tenure. It has instead lost over 60,000.