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Where Do the Candidates Stand on China?

The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The recent revelation that Apple's (AAPL) business partners aren't always squeaky clean has had China much in the news of late. Reportedly, Foxconn, a Chinese manufacturer that sells computer parts and microchips to Apple subjects its hundreds of thousands of employees to appalling working conditions.

Between January and November of 2010, 18 Foxconn employees attempted suicide, with 14 succeeding, to protest low wages and on-site hazards. Apple's good-guy image took an even more serious hit from headlines in January 2012, when 150 Foxconn workers threatened mass suicide after the company refused to pay promised compensation.

In fairness, Apple is hardly Foxconn's only American customer. Amazon, Intel, IBM, Microsoft and many other American companies reportedly buy from Foxconn. And Foxconn isn't the only Chinese company that allegedly treats its workers inhumanely. Descriptions of working conditions in China sound eerily like those of the U.S. during the industrial revolution, when demand for manufactured goods set the stage for miserable sweatshops and dismal company towns. Still, American companies and consumers must grapple with the ethical dilemmas presented by the availability of cheap goods produced under appalling working conditions in China . . . and so must the president of the U.S.

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The four remaining candidates for the Republican nomination for president are bound to face questions about how the U.S. should interact with China, both as a significant military power and the second-largest economy in the world as well as from a human rights perspective. Strangely enough, however, three of the four the candidates seem unable or unwilling to take a definitive stance.

Perhaps their reluctance reflects a lack of confidence in their ability to speak credibly about China. Of the candidates who initially threw their hats in the ring to seek the Republican presidential nomination, former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman was undoubtedly most familiar with the challenges China presents. Huntsman has withdrawn from the race, though, leaving the Republican Party with four other candidates who lack his hands-on experience in dealing with Beijing.

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