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Watching the US Presidential Election From China

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Watching the US Presidential Election From China

What has China thought of the bitter campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?

Watching the US Presidential Election From China
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ BU Rob13 and Gage

With the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey having announced that no criminal charges will be brought against Hillary Clinton over her use of private email server, and with an “assassination scare” at one of Donald Trump’s last campaign rallies in Reno, Nevada, the drama of the 2016 U.S. presidential election seems to be coming to an epilogue. Hours from the election result, the world has been kept in suspense.

There is no doubt that Chinese policymakers, just like the leaders of many other countries, are watching the U.S. presidential election closely. In fact, the elites and the public alike in China are paying a great deal of attention to the drama across the Pacific Ocean. Major media outlets are in full steam for election coverage and pundits are ready to pour out comments. Some of these analyses will garner enormous amount of attention. Take the Pangoal Institution, a Beijing-based public policy think tank where I serve as secretary general of its Academic Committee, for example. In the past a few days the Pangoal Institution has published two reports authored by two of its senior fellows, analyzing the prospects of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump getting elected as well as the implications for U.S.-China relations separately. Each of the two pieces has generated over two million hits online in just about two days.

The spectacle of this year’s U.S. election has generated debate in China regarding U.S. democracy, with many Chinese people dismayed at its ugly side. This attitude is perhaps best manifested in a line of teasing among many Chinese: “Even Hollywood script writers cannot compose plots as intriguing, dramatic, and occasionally horrifying as the real U.S. presidential election. Saying this is like ‘House of Cards’ belittles the reality.”

In my graduate seminar class on American foreign policy at Peking University, students (from many different countries) quickly point to the hypocrisy of American democracy. If the United States cannot govern itself well, students would say, then they should stop lecturing other countries about American democracy. One could argue that the next U.S. president should humble herself or himself and respect diversity in values and practices of democracy, though I highly doubt it is likely. Nevertheless, it will be increasingly difficult for the next U.S. president to boast of U.S. democracy. Whoever gets elected will be bound to be in a much weakened political position and polarization in U.S. politics is unlikely to end anytime soon.

Based on their statements and remarks, it is clear that Chinese policymakers tend not to indicate their preference for any particular candidate, at least publicly. They instead emphasize that the fundamentals of U.S.-China relations are such that no future U.S. president, whoever gets elected, can reverse the course or push for confrontation or serious deterioration in bilateral relations.

If Hillary Clinton gets elected, many people in China believe that Beijing will be dealing with someone who will be tougher toward China but also more predictable in her way of thinking, including in U.S.-China relations. In other words, she is more familiar. The Chinese leadership will take a pragmatic approach when comes to dealing with a Hillary Clinton presidency. The worry, if any, is that she might be more ideology-driven than pragmatic. Strategic analysts, however, have warned about the prospects that a Clinton administration may up the ante on the North Korea nuclear issue and accelerate the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea; pursue a more confrontational policy in the South China Sea; encourage Taiwan to pursue a policy that further decouples from the Chinese mainland; and altogether reinforce her “pivot to Asia” strategy. In short, Beijing has “buckled up” for potential turbulence in U.S.-China relations should Hillary Clinton get elected.

Meanwhile, Chinese elites and public have been watching the rise of Donald Trump with a sort of excitement and bewilderment. Rightly or wrongly, many in China actually tend to believe that Trump would be easier to deal with than Hillary Clinton, since he is a businessman. A pro-business Republican president will tend to be pragmatic and China-friendly, if not pro-China. This is a deeply-rooted belief shared by many policymakers and analysts. Therefore, for instance, many in China tend to view Trump’s stated policy position of imposing more than 30 percent tariffs on China as rhetorical campaign language.

On the security front, Trump’s view of U.S. alliances has led many in China to believe he would lessen pressure on China in East Asia, and thus help alleviate the growing geostrategic rivalry between Beijing and Washington. Trump’s proposal of pulling U.S. troops out of Japan and South Korea in exchange for allowing the two U.S. allies to go nuclear has attracted a lot of attention here in China. Many in China would view the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Japan and South Korea favorably, while also being alarmed by the possibility of Japan and South Korea (especially the former) going nuclear. One may predict that the probability of Trump following through such a proposal, even if he gets elected, is extremely low, though. That makes it unlikely for China to have to eventually face such a dilemma.

Last night, I had a dinner with an American friend who is currently doing business in a Latin American country. Our conversation naturally shifted to the U.S. presidential election. “Now the world is looking at us and laughing,” he sighed. “What is going on?”

Watching the U.S. presidential election from across the Pacific Ocean, our observations and thinking about American politics and policy certainly will not stop when the election result is out.

Wang Dong is an associate professor at School of International Studies and deputy executive director of the Institute for China-U.S. People to People Exchange at Peking University. He is concurrently Secretary General of the Academic Committee of the Pangoal Institution, a leading Beijing-based public policy think tank.