Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for US president, is the most extreme China basher in memory. In his first debate with Hillary Clinton, he blamed China for stealing jobs from Americans, for devaluing its currency and for engaging in state-sponsored cyberhacking. “Look at what China is doing to our country,” he said in his opening statement. “They are using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China.”
Not surprisingly, only 22 per cent of the Chinese public sees him favourably. What is surprising is that a large chunk of relatively well-informed elite option in China favours Mr Trump for US president. The Global Times, a state-supported nationalist newspaper, wrote that “many Chinese prefer Trump”.
What explains this relatively positive assessment of Mr Trump in China? One reason is the expectation that Mrs Clinton as president would take a more hardline and confrontational approach with Beijing.
Mrs Clinton has strongly endorsed President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia that seems designed to reinforce US military superiority in east Asia. Her adviser Laura Rosenberger said that the policy will continue in a Clinton administration: “As president, she [Mrs Clinton] will absolutely figure out ways to build on what’s been done over the past eight years.”
In her nomination speech in Philadelphia, Mrs Clinton sounded only slightly less extreme than Mr Trump: “If you believe that we should say no to unfair trade deals . . . that we should stand up to China . . . that we should support our steelworkers and autoworkers and homegrown manufacturers . . . join us.”
Her public statements suggest that she views China as a monolithic totalitarian state bent on crushing human rights, suppressing women and combating democratisation. She has never once suggested that the Chinese form of government might have merit or that China has legitimate security interests in east Asia.
So what about Mr Trump? Most of his ire is directed at China’s allegedly unfair trade practices. He promises to push for protectionist measures specifically directed against China. But he is also viewed as a pragmatic businessman who puts forward tough gambits in negotiations. Chinese elites respect his ability to get things done.
What if Mr Trump as president does implement protectionist measures that harm China’s exports to the US? This could provide a good opportunity for the Chinese government to tackle vested interests, such as powerful state-owned enterprises, that block China’s transition to a more consumer-orientated economy. Just as China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001 provided cover for former Premier Zhu Rongji to sack 50m state employees, so the Chinese government would have a new “enemy” that could be blamed for a further round of painful reforms.
The main reason that many in China’s elites are enthused by Mr Trump is that he threatens to scale back support for US allies if they do not pay more for it. If South Korea and Japan refuse to shoulder more financial responsibility for military protection, it might provide an opportunity for Chinese expansion.
Such views are not entirely unreasonable. It is hard to imagine that the US can maintain military superiority in the region over the next few decades, but few American politicians other than Mr Trump speak about such an eventuality. In the long term, US control of east Asian maritime waters and military support for allies that neighbour China is likely to decrease, and Mr Trump may negotiate an accord that gives China a greater say in its back yard.
More worryingly, I have heard the view that a Trump presidency will discredit the American democratic system and lend support for China’s more meritocratic system, which has checks against inexperienced and unstable candidates getting anywhere close to the main levers of political power. At the very least, there will be no more of the kind of lectures Bill Clinton used to give when president about China being on the “wrong” side of history because it has not moved towards electoral democracy.
Of course, not all Chinese elites cheer for Mr Trump: my female academic friends in China tend to be horrified by his “uncivilised” ways. But American leaders should consider the kinds of views I have described when they think about the policies most likely to lead to good relations with China. The best-case scenario is that Mrs Clinton as president will take counsel from experienced China hands such as Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, who managed to stake out a constructive relationship with China when the country was ruled by an unstable political leader of its own.
The writer is author of ‘The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy’