China has proven a reliable punching bag, and potential vote-getter, for U.S. presidential candidates: The fast-growing country's massive factories, staffed by underpaid workers, fill American stores with tainted food and dangerous toys, voters are told.
Candidates accuse China's government of crushing dissent and befriending thug rulers in Sudan and Myanmar; Beijing's currency manipulation and trade distortions, they say, make it impossible for American companies to compete.
As a crucial primary Tuesday in the industrial, midwestern U.S. state of Ohio approaches, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Democratic presidential front-runner Barack Obama are working to convince voters that they are the stronger candidate to confront China.
The campaign China-bashing offers another side to what President George W. Bush calls the "complicated" U.S. relationship with Beijing. His administration has balanced criticism with a recognition of China as an important trading partner and as a world power whose cooperation is needed to settle nuclear standoffs with Iran and Korea.
Voters are wary about China's rise. With U.S. recession fears growing, many Americans are more likely to think about jobs lost to China than about the low prices they pay for Chinese products. Their view of China's power can also be exaggerated: a recent survey found that four in 10 Americans believed China, not the United States, was the world's top economic power.
Candidates are trying to tap into that unease. Yet, despite the tough talk, whoever wins the White House could take a more moderate approach to China. The next president will need Chinese help to confront a host of global issues important to the United States.
Clinton, in a foreign policy speech this week, dealt with voter discomfort with China. "Today, China's steel comes here and our jobs go there," she said. "We play by the rules and they manipulate their currency. We get tainted fish and lead-laced toys and poisoned pet food in return."
Obama, in recent debates, has called China "the biggest beneficiary and the biggest problem that we have with respect to trade."
He spoke of Ohio workers watching equipment being "unbolted from the floors of factories and shipped to China, resulting in devastating job losses and communities completely falling apart."
In Ohio, where thousands of manufacturing jobs have disappeared this decade, the complaints on China's trade will appeal to voters. "China is very front and center," U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from the state, said in an interview. "My guess is both candidates would acknowledge that trade is a bigger issue in Ohio than even they knew."
China's economic and trade policies long have been criticized by U.S. lawmakers and manufacturers, especially as a huge U.S. trade deficit with China has grown. The trade gap has been blamed for contributing to the loss of 3 million manufacturing jobs in the United States since 2000.
Dozens of bills in the U.S. Congress would punish China for what critics see as unfair trade practices.
Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank, said that whatever the candidates say about China during the campaign, Bush's successor will find a way to improve ties with China.
But for now, as Obama and Clinton fight for the right to face presumed Republican nominee John McCain, China is closely watching how it is portrayed by the candidates.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told reporters this week that he spends "more time watching U.S. television channels and reading U.S. newspapers than what I did in previous years."
Asked if the U.S.-China relationship could be hurt by domestic American politics, Yang said it is a "mainstream consensus" among Democrats and Republicans to "further grow the relationship with China."
Recently, McCain, a veteran senator and former Vietnam prisoner of war, has measured his comments on China, criticizing its pollution and efforts on climate change.
He also has taken a tough line, saying the United States "must take note" of China's "warlike rhetoric" toward U.S. ally Taiwan.
China's close economic and diplomatic relations with "pariah states" such as Myanmar, Sudan and Zimbabwe will result in tensions, McCain wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs.