Bernie Sanders on China

“Since the China trade deal I voted against, America has lost over 3 million manufacturing jobs. It’s wrong to pretend that China isn’t one of our major economic competitors. When we are in the White House, we will win that competition by fixing our trade policies.” – Bernie May 1, 2019

China is the world’s largest economy. It also has the world’s biggest population, and is the world’s biggest polluter, by far. Bernie wants to change our disastrous trade policies with China, which force American workers to compete against low-wage labor and primarily benefit wealthy corporations. Bernie has a strong record of supporting Tibet as well as political and religious freedoms in China. Bernie also supports preventing foreign sales of weapons to China to prevent them from building up their military. He opposes militarization of the Pacific.

Trade Policy: Our current trade policy with China is detrimental to American workers.

Military Build-up: China continues to grow militarily and we must work with the international community to deter foreign support for China’s military buildup.

Human Rights: We must support Tibet, and call upon China to respect fundamental human rights both in Tibet and within China.

Trade Policy With China

“Let’s be clear: one of the major reasons that the middle class in America is disappearing, poverty is increasing and the gap between the rich and everyone else is growing wider and wider is due to our disastrous unfettered free trade policy.”
Bernie Sanders, 2011

Bernie opposed normalizing trade relations with China. He firmly believes that current trade relations with China are detrimental to job growth and wealth equality in the United States. Bernie has criticized trade deals as being “designed to protect the interests of the largest multinational corporations at the expense of workers, consumers, the environment, and the foundations of American democracy.”

The growing trade deficit with China has led to the loss of over 3.4 million U.S. manufacturing jobs since 2001. As of 2018, the U.S. trade deficit with China was $419 billion.

What is our trade policy with China?

Beginning in 1944, trade between the U.S. and China was governed under the Bretton Woods Agreement. In 1948, the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was signed and developed into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995.

Parallel to these trade agreements are U.S. laws that give China preferential status. Congress gave China Most Favored Nation status in 1993 and passed a law to establish Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China in 2001.

Here’s a more in-depth breakdown of the U.S. history of trade agreements with China:

  • GATT: the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was the first multilateral free trade agreement. It grew out of the 1944 Bretton Woods Agreement that removed the gold standard and created the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). GATT began with 23 countries in 1948 and grew to 125 nations and regulated 90 percent of world trade by 1995. GATT eliminated tariffs and trade barriers and increased international trade. China and the U.S. both joined in 1948.
  • WTO: The World Trade Organization replaced GATT. It oversees existing free trade agreements and settles trade disputes like dumping low priced goods on a market. Since the WTO’s failure to help developing countries in the Doha round in 2006 countries negotiate their own trade agreements. All member countries in the WTO have Most Favored Nation Status.  
  • Most Favored Nation Status: Most Favored Nation Status means the country is given the lowest tariffs, the fewest trade barriers, and the highest import quotas.
  • PNTR: The U.S. Congress voted to grant permanent most favored nation status to China in 2000 by passing legislation for permanent normal trade relations.

There are two main problems with U.S. trade policy with China. The first is the enormous trade deficit, which is caused by the mass import of cheap Chinese goods and the reality that the Chinese don’t buy enough products produced in the U.S. The second is that China restricts entry to their market so that U.S. companies doing business in China must hire Chinese workers. This gives Chinese companies production knowledge and access to intellectual property, allowing them to make their own cheap knock-off products. Eventually, the U.S. companies can’t compete and leave. However, the damage to the U.S. economy and workers has already been done. The factories that moved to China don’t return to the U.S.

PNTR with China is a large reason that there is an enormous trade deficit between the U.S. and China. China joined the WTO in 1995 as a developing country and it refuses to give up developing country status. China repeatedly violates the terms of trade agreements by setting quotas and imposing tariffs. China dumps low cost goods to flood markets and drive competition out of the marketplace. Products shipped from China regularly do not meet safety standards. Workers are exploited, child labor is used. Wages are abysmal. The environment is being destroyed.

What has been the effect of our trade policy with China?

The trade deficit with China has cost the U.S. 3.4 million jobs since 2001.

In 2018, the Economic Policy Institute released a report which found that between 2001 and 2011 alone, trade deficits with China:

  • Reduced the incomes of directly impacted workers by $37 billion per year.
  • Cut wages for non-college graduates by $180 billion in 2011 alone.
  • Redistributed lost income to corporations as higher profits and higher wages to workers with college degrees.

Additionally, the U.S. trade deficit with China has increased since China entered into the WTO.

This chart shows the trade imbalance with China:

Maybe trade agreements aren’t great for Americans, but don’t they provide millions of jobs for Chinese workers?

Bernie firmly rejects the idea that America’s standard of living must drop in order to see a raise in the standard of living in China. When asked about the impact of these trade agreements for Chinese workers in a July 2015 interview, Bernie said:

“I want to see the people in China live in a democratic society with a higher standard of living. I want to see that, but I don’t think that has to take place at the expense of the American worker. I don’t think decent-paying jobs in this country have got to be lost as companies shut down here and move to China. I want to see the Chinese people do as well, but I do not want to see the collapse of the American middle class take place, and I will fight against that as hard as I can.”

What’s going on? Are we really in a trade war with China?

Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China is one of the most consequential international free trade agreements, with the loss of 3.4 million manufacturing jobs as a result. The intended goal was to grant China membership in the World Trade Organization so it could participate equally in global trade and in turn would open access to it’s large consumer market so that more U.S. products could be sold there. That didn’t happen, and the already large trade imbalance between the U.S. and China significantly increased.The PNTR was a mistake.

Granting China PNTR and facilitating China’s entry to the WTO was an opportunity for the U.S. to demand that China conform to international human rights standards. That opportunity was lost when the U.S. delinked trade and human rights when dealing with China.  China has largely ignored an unenforceable provision that created a permanent commission to monitor Chinese human rights.

China regularly devalues its currency in relation to the U.S. dollar.  This means the products produced in China are less expensive to buy so it boosts exports of Chinese goods, which helps the Chinese economy.  It harms the U.S. economy because the competitive advantage for China makes U.S. exports more expensive, and so fewer U.S. products are sold.  The result is that less U.S. production is needed to meet the reduced market demand for higher priced U.S. goods and so U.S. jobs are lost. Granting PNTR and participation in WTO were intended to prevent China from engaging in these uncompetitive manipulations of the marketplace. That hasn’t happened, China continues to manipulate its currency to gain a market advantage by lowering the price of its goods.


In response to the trade imbalance and currency manipulation, the current administration has started a trade war with China. In addition, President Trump issued an executive order that declared a national emergency over Chinese threats against US technology and added Huawei Technologies, one of China’s largest companies, to the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) Entity List, which makes it more difficult for Huawei to do business with U.S. companies. The ongoing trade dispute with China has disturbed the markets and will likely fail to reduce U.S. trade deficits with China or stop the currency manipulation. Instead, tariffs may make things worse. The trade dispute will hurt American families and likely cost American jobs.   

Bernie does not disagree with the tough approach to China, just the way it’s being done by the administration. He said, “The problem is that the Trump administration is mainly interested in addressing some of the imbalances between America and China overall, when it also needs to address basic drivers of economic inequality. The future of this relationship requires both a degree of pressure on China, and reform of the economy inside the United States itself.”

What does Bernie think we should do about trade with China?

“I would be supportive of Americans workers. I think it is wrong that when large corporations are making huge profits that they simply shut down in this country, throw American workers out on the street, and look for cheap labor abroad.”

– Bernie May 7, 2019

In 1993, Bernie voted in the House against granting China “Most Favored Nation” status. In 2000, Bernie voted against Permanent Normal Trade Relations.

Bernie lists Ten Fair Ways to Reduce the Deficit and Create Jobs, among them is stopping China’s currency manipulation.

In a 2015 editorial, Bernie wrote, “our overall trade policy must also change for corporations to start investing in America and creating jobs here again, and not just in China and other low wage countries.”

Bernie’s Agenda for America calls for ending free trade policies. Instead of passing such trade deals, Bernie argues we must “develop trade policies which demand that American corporations create jobs here, and not abroad.”

In addition, Bernie is a founding member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and has at times adopted the CPC’s position papers regarding trade deals. The CPC’s principles on trade highlight a commitment to putting workers first, stopping currency manipulation, and respecting human rights.

In this 2019 interview, Bernie talks about how he would deal with China.

Here’s another video where Bernie talks about China:

Other than opposing free trade agreements with China, how does Bernie plan to keep jobs in the U.S.?

“Right now employers are able to take workers, put them in a private room, threaten them that if this company becomes union we’re moving to China, or say that if you try and organize the union, well, you’ve been late lately, I’m afraid we’ll have to fire you. I think we have to make it easier. There’s legislation, which I support, the Employee Free Choice Act that says if 50 [percent of] workers in an agency plus one sign a union card, they have a union. And I believe in that.” – Bernie Sanders, 2015

Bernie has announced his 2019 plan to guarantee every American a job. He announced a similar work guarantee plan in 2018.

He is a cosponsor of the Raise the Wage Act of 2019, which will raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

From the start of 2015, Bernie has been on the forefront of the Fight for $15. He understands that raising the minimum wage will be a tremendous help for all workers.

Bernie has supported unions throughout his career and continues to fight for working families. Bernie believes that in order to rebuild the American middle class, we must rebuild the American trade union movement as well as expand employee ownership and participation in the industry through worker co-ops. In 2017, Bernie was given a 100 percent Pro-Union rating by the AFL-CIO and has a lifetime score of 98%. Bernie often joins the picket lines and supports striking workers.

Bernie has said, “Standing with workers on picket lines is something I’ve done my entire life– that’s what I do and what I believe. Unions are my family.”

Bernie introduced the Workplace Democracy Act of 2018, which would ban anti-union laws and make it easier for workers to organize a union. Bernie introduced the Workplace Democracy Act during his very first term in Congress in 1992 and re-introduced the bill every two years for nearly a decade.

Bernie has also voted for the Allowing Collective Bargaining for Public Safety Officers bill, which required the Federal Labor Relations Authority to enforce the ability of public safety officers to engage in collective bargaining. He also voted against a 2011 amendment which would have terminated collective bargaining rights for employees of the Transportation Security Administration.

In 2015, Bernie introduced the Rebuild America Act, which called for an investment of $1 trillion over 5 years to rebuild and expand our country’s infrastructure and to create over 13 million good-paying jobs. It would be paid for by closing corporate income tax loopholes and overseas tax havens.

In 2017, Bernie joined Senate Democrats in supporting the Blueprint to Rebuild America’s Infrastructure Plan, which also called for a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure.

Here’s Bernie talking about the 2015 Rebuild America Act:


Bernie, along with Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), announced the Employ Young Americans Now Act. This bill, which is nearly identical to his 2018 plan, includes $4 billion in grants to state and local governments to provide employment opportunities to low income youths and assistance with child care and transportation. $1.5 billion is for grants to employers, community colleges, and local organizations, for apprenticeships and on-the-job training.

See our Infrastructure page and Youth Employment page and Workers Rights page for more information.

Find out more about Bernie’s plans for creating American jobs on our Economy and Jobs page.

Military Build-up

Bernie believes we must deter China’s military build-up.

Even as the Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in the early 1980s, Bernie sent letters to China and the Soviet Union urging them to work in conjunction with the United Nations’ international disarmament efforts. China has built enormous man-made islands in the South China Sea with radar capabilities and military bases in once empty international waters. Bernie is opposed to China’s military build-up and supports continued arms sanctions against Beijing. He has also stated that countries that export armaments to China should be sanctioned and violators should be punished. In 2005, Bernie voted for a bill to deter foreign arms transfers to China.

What policies does Bernie support around this?

Bernie supports an arms embargo against China that includes:

  • Denying participation in cooperative research and development
  • Prohibiting ownership and control of any business registered as a manufacturer or exporter of defense articles or services
  • Revoking all licenses relative to dual-use goods or technology
  • Prohibiting participation in any foreign military sales

Human Rights

All countries must respect fundamental human rights, including China.

As a senator, Bernie cosponsored legislation condemning the violence by Chinese government in Tibet. Bernie has also cosponsored a congressional resolution condemning China for its poor human rights record, and is a member of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.

Watch Bernie express his support for Tibet and call out China for its long record human rights violations:

Which policy proposals does Bernie support in this regard?

Bernie has repeatedly cosponsored legislation that pushes for China to:

  • Stop the persecution of all religious practitioners and safeguard fundamental human rights.
  • Release all religious practitioners, Falun Gong members, and prisoners of conscience from detention and end torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.
  • Allow the Chinese people to pursue their personal beliefs.
  • Adhere to the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.
  • Respect the right of the people of Tibet to speak of the Dalai Lama and possess his photograph.
  • Allow international journalists free access to China.
  • Provide a full accounting of the March 2008 protests in Tibet.

Bernie cosponsored the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act to permits journalists and diplomats to freely enter Tibet.

In 1998, Bernie introduced a resolution, which passed unanimously, that criticized China’s human rights record, supported a dialogue between the government of China and His Holiness the Dalai Lama on religious and cultural autonomy for Tibet within China, and called on the president to make Chinese diplomatic missions in the U.S. contingent on the U.S. being allowed to establish a diplomatic office in Lhasa, Tibet.

Bernie has cosponsored legislation condemning the human rights abuses, mass internment and ‘re-education’ of Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic groups.