By Chutian Zhou | October 2, 2016
It is a bold and thrilling thought experiment, yet at the same time a rational way to assess present and future U.S.-China relations: if China had a legitimate ballot in the upcoming election, who would they choose to enthrone in the Oval Office? How would China react to this tumultuous U.S. presidential election, given the fact that people within the country consider “Trump the comedian” politically untrustworthy, and Clinton uninspiring? How would China cast its ballot? For Trump, or for Clinton?
In China, plentiful impressionistic comments are prevalent on Weibo and discussion forums, and we face a deficiency of methodologically reliable or rigorous evaluations of how various groups in China, such as ordinary citizens, journalists, academics, and government elites think about the two major party candidates. Some unofficial statistics, however, may shed light on the question of how China’s choice would be made. After “Super Tuesday,” the search traffic of “Trump” and “super model Ivanka Trump” has been at a high level, according to Baidu Index. Trump surprisingly even overwhelms the “national husband” Wang Sicong, the son of China’s richest person Wang Jianlin, in the “contest” of the search traffic on WeChat Public Account, according to Sougou WeChat Search. The most vivid, although questionable, opinion poll is published online by the Global Times. Among the 8,339 participants, 83% of them hold the idea that Trump would win the election. In another online survey conducted by the same institution, only 5% of the 4,976 participants respond that they have positive impressions on Clinton. It seems that China is in favor of Trump, and will vote for him if such a blessing was granted.
The reality is quite eccentric because continuity, instead of change, is usually China’s preference. During Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the U.S. recognized the Government of People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China, and withdrew its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan. Thus, China understandably preferred the China-friendly incumbent Carter to Ronald Reagan, whose foreign policy platform, labeled as the “Reagan Doctrine,” provoked fury from the Communist-supporting regimes, including the Soviet Union and China. During the 1992 election, Jiang Zemin, or, to be exact, Deng Xiaoping, probably hoped for another Bush Presidency, after Bill Clinton blatantly waded into China’s suppression of liberal democracy movements on the Tiananmen Square by saying “I do not believe we should extend ‘Most Favored Nation’ status to China unless they make significant progress in human rights, arms proliferation and fair trade”. That China would have like to see the appearance of incumbent Vice President Al Gore in the Oval Office starting from 2001 is also very clear. Gore, in his own words, would “be aggressive and forward leaning in urging Congress to pass the China/WTO legislation,” which catered to China’s desire perfectly. The challenger George W. Bush, on the other hand, had undoubtedly promoted negative views of himself in China. He asserted that he would not stop enforcing the Taiwan Relations Act and welcomed both China and Taiwan to join WTO.
The presiding theme of the story above is that China is averse to see seismic shifts in U.S. politics. This raises the question, however, of why this time it is unwilling to witness the incumbent Democratic Party candidate Clinton’s coronation, and is inclined to construct a future with the U.S. mortgaged on Trump? There are several reasons. First, Trump is an experienced business and economic actor, and hopefully some accommodating economic agendas would predominate his economic policy toward China. China highly values a U.S. President’s skill in dealing with the economic partnership with China because the domestic economy remains a high priority in the Chinese government’s development plan, as will be thoroughly discussed during the forthcoming 6th Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of CCP. It is also expected that the overall good U.S.-China economic relationship will help China fulfill the supply-side reform mission and the 13th Five-Year Plan. For Trump, it is not a wise move to severely punish China for its “unfair trade practices” and “currency manipulation” because China’s possible retaliation will bring reduced trade opportunities and direct devastating impacts to the U.S.
Second, compared with Clinton, Trump is a not a grumbling “lecturer.” China has been tired of hearing attacks on its human rights perspective from the U.S., but Clinton obviously has irritated China again and again. Back in 1995, the first lady Clinton rebuked the Chinese government for its one-child policy by stating that “It is a violation of human rights when women are denied the right to plan their own families.” Last year, Clinton condemned Xi Jinping as “shameless” for hosting a United Nations conference on women’s rights, which resonated in her 1995 speech. Getting weary of Clinton’s perennial ideological preaching, China is inclined to welcome the pragmatic Trump.
The final—and also probably the most important—nail in Clinton’s coffin is she has been too hawkish towards China, geopolitically speaking. Clinton is a stalwart advocate of President Obama’s Asia Rebalance policy. In her article titled “America’s Pacific Century”, published in Foreign Policy in 2011, she elaborates how the U.S. should collaborate with its allies in the Asia-Pacific to create an environment that is advantageous to the U.S. hegemony expansion in the area and analyzes in detail how to wrestle with China and force it to play a fair game under the rules. If Clinton is elected as the President, from China’s view, her commitment to carry out the China-containment “pivot” policy and unconditionally back U.S. allies Japan and the Philippines will continue, further exacerbating China’s bilateral relations with those two countries, and aggravating the tensions over the South China Sea. Considering these facts, the nationalists in China dislike Clinton, so Trump the President could be an alternative option for them. His motto of “make America great again” implies that he does not have great interests in such areas like Asia as Clinton does. For him, Asia is not in a significant position on his agenda list because his vital target is to satisfy domestic Americans. Consequently, China may welcome Trump, and also Trump’s aloof attitude toward Asia Rebalance.
Either way, regardless of whether China would vote for Clinton or Trump, this is no more than a sandbox game. An appealing, and hopefully not appalling, U.S.-China relation ultimately rests with fellow Americans’ decisions and President Clinton’s or President Trump’s wisdom. It is your move, Uncle Sam.
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