China is wary of US candidates tough talk

NY Times News Service, BEIJING

Mon, Oct 22, 2012 - Page 4

Richer and more assertive since the last US presidential campaign, China is looking at the harsh anti-Chinese sentiment being expressed by both candidates with a mixture of aloofness and unease.

The Chinese say they are accustomed to China-bashing during the US election season, but there is growing concern among government officials, business executives and academics in Beijing that this time the attitude toward China among the US public and politicians is so hot it may not cool after Election Day.

From accusations of unfair trade practices to a discussion of whether it is proper for the candidates to have investments in Chinese companies, the word “China” came up 22 times, and always negatively, in the debate between US President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney last week.

In the final presidential debate tonight, where foreign policy will be the main subject, China is likely to be a center of attention again.

The relationship between China and the US has become more brittle in the past two years, with differences over trade and strategic interests stoking US fears that China is infringing on the US’ longstanding influence in Asia.

For their part, the Chinese watch with growing alarm as their country has become a frequent target of blame for the weakness in the US job market.

“The US general election, originally thought only a battle over domestic issues — the economy, fiscal deficit and health care — has now embroiled China as a punching bag,” said Fred Hu, chairman of Primavera Capital, a private equity group in Beijing, and former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asia. “The noises from the campaign trail are quite disconcerting. It remains to be seen whether the shrill campaign rhetoric about China will just remain as bombast.”

The fears over China in the US, experts in Beijing note, are not limited to the campaign trail.

Last month Obama cited national security concerns as the reason for ordering a Chinese company to divest its shares in wind farm projects near a navy testing facility in Oregon. A scathing harsh congressional report called the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei a national security threat to the US.

China is itself now in the final countdown of the transfer of power from Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) to Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平), whose ascension to the top Chinese Communist Party post is expected to be announced at the 18th Party Congress opening on Nov. 8, two days after the US election. With the political jockeying inside the Chinese leadership more turbulent than expected because of such things as the Bo Xilai (薄熙來) scandal and the conflicts with China’s neighbors over offshore territory, Beijing has had less time than it might have liked to focus on the US contest.

“I don’t see a clear intention from the Chinese government yet,” said Hu Shuli (胡舒立), editor in chief of Caixin Media.

Historically, Chinese governments have favored Republican administrations, preferring their perceived stability in foreign policy, Chinese academics say. In particular, they were closely acquainted with and liked former US president George H.W. Bush, who was an ambassador to China and head of the CIA before becoming president in 1989.

However, those were different times, when the relationship was less interdependent, less vital to the global economy. Chinese government leaders know little about Romney, analysts in Bejing said, and view him as a new kind of Republican who is more conservative than those they have known.

In some respects, the Chinese government would probably prefer a continuation of the Obama administration, they added, on the basis that the incumbent is a known quantity.

“If Obama wins, we will have a smooth relationship without much change,” said Chu Shulong (楚樹龍), professor of political science and international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “If Romney wins, there will be some uncertainty. If Romney wins, he has to keep some of his words.”

Of particular concern, Chu said, is Romney’s threat to name China a currency manipulator for keeping the yuan at an artificially low level. However, he and other analysts said they believed Romney would be hard put to follow through. That is because the value of China’s currency against the dollar has risen substantively in recent years, making it less of a factor in providing Chinese exporters a competitive advantage, and because Romney would run into a wall of opposition from US businesses that fear they would be deeply scarred by any Chinese retaliation.

“Obviously people are not happy with the Romney rhetoric, but they assume he will adjust if he got into office,” said Dali Yang (楊大利), a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and Tsinghua University in Beijing.

The US election and the impending leadership changes in China coincide with a growing confidence among the Chinese in their own strengths and more wariness toward the US.

Just 39 percent of those polled in China during the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project this year described the relationship with the US as cooperative. In 2010, two-thirds of those polled called the relationship cooperative. Only 8 percent saw the relationship as hostile in the 2010; this year 26 percent viewed it that way.

The survey was conducted between March 18 and April 15 this year among 3,177 respondents, a sample designed to reflect the views of about 64 percent of the adult Chinese population, the Pew Research Center said.

Despite the clamor in the US campaign about China, the coverage in Beijing of politics in the US has been relatively modest. Whether the coverage is limited by the party’s distaste for democratic elections is not clear. By contrast, the coverage in China of presidential elections in Taiwan has been more comprehensive.

In China the US presidential debates are available live only to the very small number of households that subscribe to cable television and whose channels include CNN, or some of the households with satellite dishes.

“Americans shouldn’t assume the presidential campaign is watched by people in every second-tier city in China,” said Rui Chenggang (芮成鋼), a prominent television interviewer on CCTV, the state broadcaster, and author of a best-seller, How China Sees the World. “People don’t care about the campaign; they want to know the result.”

However, to show how intertwined China has become in the campaign, Rui posted on his microblog a translation of the candidates’ back and forth in the last debate on their investments in China.

“I wanted to show that neither candidate is separated from China, that China is an inherent part of the campaign,” Rui said.

At a cafe near Tsinghua on Wednesday night, a small crowd consisting mostly of US students was joined by some Chinese students as they watched a replay of the most recent debate. A common attitude among the Chinese was pride that China had become an important issue in the campaign.

“We have a power transition in China this year as well, and China’s influence is only going to grow,” one Chinese said.