TOUGH American election talk is worrying China that new strains with Washington may be ahead.
During Sunday's presidential debate, Beijing found itself in the middle of the campaign fray as President Bush defended his kid-glove approach to Chinese human rights abuses and Democratic front-runner Bill Clinton pledged to link China's trade relations with the US to a push for more democracy.
"I would say [to China], if you want to continue most-favored-nation [MFN trade] status through your government-owned industries as well as your private ones, improve human rights in the future. Open your society," Governor Clinton said.
The debate underscores China's growing touchiness in its crucial relations with the United States. Across China, government officials, academics, factory workers, and even farmers are perplexed by what they see as contentious US moves on trade, human rights, and Taiwan.
* Washington and Beijing narrowly averted a direct trade confrontation last week with a deal over Chinese market access and intellectual property rights.
* Also last week, a New York grand jury indicted China's major textile-trading agency and its US subsidiary for allegedly evading garment import quotas.
* In September, President Bush wounded Chinese pride by selling 150 F-16 jet fighters to rival Taiwan. To China, the deal was an act of betrayal by a president who had buffered Beijing from US criticism following the crackdown on Tiananmen Square demonstrators in 1989.
"America is very aggressive. It is acting like an international policeman," says Beijing taxi driver Wang Yinzhong.
"Any country that over-reaches itself or rides roughshod over others will be denounced by the peoples of the world," Communist Party official Jiang Zemin told applauding delegates Monday at the opening of a key party congress.
The problems of a lingering cold war in Asia are not out of step with what has long been a difficult, often moralistic relationship. "There is a missionary impulse to remold and change China," says David Shambaugh of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. "It's longstanding. Tiananmen only fueled that."
Chinese intellectuals, even those sympathetic to US concerns, see a bipolar rivalry deepening between an economically crippled but militarily powerful US and a changing, increasingly assertive China.
"It seems that the US is looking for a rival after the Soviet Union. Without that pressure, the US seems to be falling apart because Western society is based on confrontation," a Chinese academic says, echoing a widely voiced view among intellectuals.
"It makes no difference whether a Democrat or Republican wins," he adds. "The most worrisome factor is that the US is looking for a new rival."
Chinese officials would be much more comfortable with the known quantity of Bush, despite his F-16 sale, Chinese political scientists and Western diplomats say. Independent candidate Ross Perot is given little chance of winning and has been ignored.
Chinese frustration with - and lack of influence on - US presidential politics is not unlike Washington's impotence in softening Beijing's approach to human rights, a senior Western diplomat says.
Yet while activists say they appreciate US concerns, they worry that outspokenness will trigger a backlash at a time of still tenuous economic reform in China.
"Clinton is right, to some degree. But it is very difficult to deal with the Chinese government," says a college professor who took part in the 1989 demonstrations. "As Chinese citizens, we must keep the door open. If they link MFN to human rights, that's the wrong approach."
Across China, people in cities and villages nurture a deep interest in the US. Many still remember Americans for building schools, hospitals, and universities earlier this century. Bush's stand against the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and US firepower in the Gulf war left many Chinese in admiration and awe.
Yet Chinese says Americans have not tried to understand China's viewpoint. "I don't think prison labor is that big a problem," says a villager in Hebei Province. "I don't know why you rich Americans should care about that."
High-stakes trade issues also rankle, but Guo Changlin, a US relations specialist at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, says broader economic ties pivot on a less strident political mood.
"Economic relations will continue to depend on political relations. Without a political bedrock, they will be fragile," he wrote in a recent report obtained by the Monitor. "There is no reason to predict that China and the US cannot be friends again because they cannot afford to be enemies."