The approaching American presidential election, which U.S. President Donald Trump has called “the most important election in the history of our country,” sees China playing a disproportionate role, despite Beijing trying to stay out of the politicking and endless fusillades from Trump.
The official Chinese position on the contest between Trump and Joe Biden, former vice president and the standard-bearer of the Democratic Party, is that it has no position.
"We have no comment on the U.S. presidential election, which is an internal affair,” Zhao Lijian, spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said last Friday when asked to comment on Trump’s speech the night before. “At the same time, we urge the U.S. not to make an issue out of China in its election."
That is a plea that fell on deaf American ears. The Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 turned China into a domestic political issue in the United States, with Bill Clinton in 1992 castigating the then incumbent president, George H.W. Bush, for “coddling the butchers of Beijing.” But never has China been more of a domestic American issue than this year, when both presidential candidates make clear their antipathy for China.
However, China’s stated neutrality doesn’t mean that its officials will simply stay silent regardless of what is said about their country. Last week, in his speech accepting the Republican nomination for president, Trump mentioned “China” more than 10 times and used the derogatory term “China virus” twice.
Asked about Trump’s assertion that, if he is re-elected, the United States would no longer rely on China and “we are taking our business out of China,” Zhao reiterated the Chinese position that “both sides stand to gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation.” As for relocation of American companies, Zhao said, “coercing companies with regard to their normal investment and operation runs counter to the law of a market economy and will eventually lead to self-harm.”
By and large, China’s state media has reported on the campaign in neutral terms. After Biden’s acceptance speech, the nationalistic Global Times reported that he had only mentioned China once.
Ironically, perhaps, that single mention was about not relying on China for medical supplies and protective equipment, “so we will never again be at the mercy of China and other foreign countries.”
While Trump singles out China for condemnation, Biden makes it clear that he would not allow the U.S. to be vulnerable to pressure from any quarter.
China, meanwhile, tries to educate the American public as well as decision-makers about economics.
Trump repeatedly says that China is taking advantage of the United States, pointing to America’s huge trade deficit. But on Aug. 22, the People’s Daily, the official Chinese newspaper, cited American research as showing that a majority of the so-called Chinese surplus actually ended up in American hands.
Researchers of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the newspaper said, discovered that “for every dollar the American people spent on an item labeled ‘Made in China’ in 2018, about 56 cents actually went to U.S. companies and workers, the highest among all sources of imports.”
While China doesn’t comment on the election, the U.S. intelligence community has announced that, in its assessment, China prefers that Trump doesn’t win because of his unpredictability. Interestingly, the intelligence assessment is that Russia is adopting measures to denigrate Biden for what it sees as an anti-Russian “establishment.”
Though Biden has not been as loud as Trump in denouncing China, the Democratic Party’s 2020 platform makes it clear that it has shifted its China stance. Four years ago, the party platform endorsed a “one China” policy. This time, that plank is noticeably missing. Instead, there is an assertion of support for the Taiwan Relations Act and support for “a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan.”
The Republican Party, for some reason, decided against formulating a party platform this year, the first time it has omitted doing so in 150 years. Instead, it simply placed its faith in its candidate, saying that it “enthusiastically supports” Trump’s “America-first agenda.”
So, regardless of who is elected, China will face a hostile American president. Being tough on China is now a bipartisan posture in the United States, and China knows it.
According to Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations of the China Foreign Affairs University, to China, the election outcome means the difference between “whether relations will turn into confrontation between civilized people, or confrontation between civilized people and barbarians.” He didn’t say which of the two candidates was more likely to act like a barbarian.
Frank Ching is a U.S. journalist based in Hong Kong who frequently writes on China-related issues.