For months, China’s netizens and state media have bantered about the entertainment value of a possible US presidential contest pitting Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton.
Now that this matchup is all but certain, the tone of levity is sobering up.
In recent days, Chinese academics have started to seriously debate the trade-offs for China of Trump vs. Clinton. Nearly all agree that the stakes are immense, given that the United States is China’s biggest trading partner and also the biggest check on its ambitions as a world power.
“Many Chinese view Trump as kind of a joke, but that is starting to change,” says Wang Yiwei, director of the Renmin University Institute of International Affairs.
People are warming to Mr. Trump, he says, because of his support for a more isolationist US foreign policy. “They think the US is too involved with the world," he says.
Yet Chinese views are rarely uniform on any topic, and on the US election, they vary according to gender and nationalist instincts, among other factors. On social media, many women have celebrated the historic nature of Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy. She also is more of a known quantity than Trump.
As a presidential candidate in 2008 and later as US Secretary of State, Clinton was critical of China’s human rights record. In September, she caused an international stir when she tweeted that Chinese President Xi Jinping was “shameless” for speaking at an international women’s conference while persecuting feminists at home.
Such comments have not made Clinton popular here, either among government leaders or netizens.
“Hillary will definitely make things difficult for China,” read one comment on Weibo, China’s main social media platform. Many academics agree, predicting that if Clinton became president, she would be far more aggressive than President Obama in seeking to contain Beijing’s influence in the South China Sea and other parts of Asia.
On the other hand, Clinton – traditionally a supporter of freer trade – is seen to be more likely than Trump to maintain good economic relations with China. Trump has proposed levying a 45 percent tariff on Chinese products. At a rally in Indiana last Sunday, he accused China’s trade policy of “raping” the United States.
On Wednesday, the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper published a roundup of comments on the election by Chinese academics. Several noted Trump’s protectionist rhetoric, but they doubted he would follow through if elected.
“Many of Trump’s speeches against China are mere claptrap,” Zhao Minghao, a research fellow at the Charhar Institute, an independent think tank, was quoted as saying. If Trump launched a trade war against China, he added, it would not only “hurt the interests of US consumers and enterprises, but also impair the whole global trade system.”
On Weibo, some netizens continue to treat Trump as if he were a carnival figure. A favorite Chinese homonym for his name is “chuang po,” which means “broken bed.”
For their part, government spokesmen have shown little sign of alarm over the US election, maintaining their traditional reserve over other countries’ polls. At a regular media briefing Wednesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei deflected concerns about Trump’s ascension in the GOP, and suggested the US-China relations would endure, regardless.
“It is worth noting that mutual benefit and win-win results are defining features of economic cooperation and trade between China and the US,” he said.