As expected, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders scored an easy win over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary voting for the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. While most of the attention focused on Donald Trump’s massive victory in the Republican Party primary, Sander’s win – or, more accurately, Clinton’s defeat – might be cause for celebration in an unlikely place: Zhongnanhai.
Beijing would never make public its preference for a U.S. presidential candidate. But in China, Clinton is well-known — and not particularly popular. That, in turn, could hamper a hypothetical President Clinton’s efforts to work with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who values interpersonal relationships in diplomatic efforts (see, for example, his noted warmth toward Russian President Vladimir Putin — and reputed dislike for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un).
Clinton has a long history with China, dating back to her time as First Lady. In 1995, Clinton gave a rousing speech on human rights in Beijing at the UN World Conference on Women, in which she declared that “women’s rights are human rights.” Fourteen years later, when she assumed office as secretary of state, Clinton was proud enough of this moment to specifically list it in her official State Department biography, but the incident left a lasting negative impression on China, which keenly resented being embarrassed on the world stage.
When Clinton became secretary of state in 2009, China was likely somewhat mollified by an early remark that seemed to suggest she would not, in fact, emphasize human rights. During her first trip to Asia as secretary, Clinton told reporters that U.S. pressure on human rights issues “can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis” — a remark her critics took to mean she would turn a blind eye to rights violations in exchange for Chinese cooperation elsewhere.
That was not the case. A year later, in 2010, when Google publicly accused China of hacking into the email accounts of human rights activists and dissidents, Clinton used the incident as the basis for a sweeping speech on internet freedoms. That sparked a testy response from state news agency Xinhua, which said her speech was “inconsistent with the facts.”
Later, in a 2011 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, Clinton spoke harshly of China’s “deplorable” human rights record, calling the government’s efforts to crack down on dissent “a fool’s errand.” In October of the same year, in a Foreign Policy article outlining U.S. Asia strategy, Clinton listed “advancing democracy and human rights” as one of the “six key lines of action.” To Chinese leaders, who are on constant watch against U.S. attempt to foster “color revolution” by drumming up human rights issues, Clinton’s remarks were ominous indications of hostile intent.
But it’s not only her stance on human rights that irked China. Clinton was seen as the point person on the rebalance strategy. Her 2011 Foreign Policy article, “America’s Pacific Century” largely laid out of the contours of the rebalance, and her extensive travel in and personal attention to the Asia-Pacific made her the strategy’s public face. Yet Beijing finds the rebalance inherently threatening, believing it is a thinly-veiled gambit to ‘contain’ China. Thus Clinton, the supposed architect of the rebalance, is viewed with deep suspicion in Beijing.
Clinton only cemented China’s suspicion in 2010, when she waded into the South China Sea disputes at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi. While emphasizing that Washington had no stake in the territorial disputes, she laid out U.S. interests in the South China Sea: “a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.” In addition, Clinton said that “legitimate claims to maritime space in the South China Sea should be derived solely from legitimate claims to land features” – a comment read by many to mean China’s nine-dash line, which encircles almost all of the South China Sea, is not a “legitimate claim.”
China’s then-Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was reportedly angry enough to walk out on the meeting. When he returned, his defense of China’s position was far from reassuring to the ASEAN members: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”
Clinton’s vocal stance on the South China Sea led many Chinese analysts I’ve spoken with to conclude that she — not Obama — was the mastermind behind U.S. “interference” in this realm. Her remarks also set a precedent for the South China Sea being raised at each and every ASEAN meeting – a change China abhors (it has repeatedly stated ASEAN forums are not the proper venue for raising the disputes).
Meanwhile, Clinton never seemed to miss a chance to snipe at China while visiting third party countries, whether it was accusing China of “new colonialism” in Africa or warning, from just across the Chinese border in Mongolia, that countries “cannot, over the long run, have economic liberalization without political liberalization.”
Such was the Chinese dislike for Clinton that the state-run China Daily took a moment to crow about her departure as secretary of state: “Clinton always spoke with a unipolar voice and never appeared interested in the answers she got.” China Daily had more faith in her replacement, saying that “Kerry understands the true multipolar nature of the 21st century world.”
Distrust between the United States and China is deep-seated, and it would be difficult to find any presidential candidate that Beijing would look favorably on (especially given the race to “get tough” on various China-related issues during each U.S. presidential campaign). Trump, for example, has promised to place a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods, and crowed in his New Hampshire victory speech that “we’re going to beat China.”
Generally, though, China isn’t too bothered by tough election rhetoric. Its analysts remain confident that candidates will change their tune once voted into office – and historically, that’s been the case. The ‘tough-on-China’ rhetoric favored by Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush eventually succumbed to geopolitical realities.
But in Clinton, China sees a politician who is demonstrably devoted to furthering a campaign to “contain” China. China knows exactly what it’s going to get with a Clinton presidency – and it doesn’t like the prospect. So don’t be surprised if there are more than a few closet Sanders supporters within the halls of Zhongnanhai.