Why China Hates U.S. Presidential Elections

In the third and final U.S. presidential debate on Monday, Mitt Romney once again vowed to declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. Most Chinese observers think this position is as extreme as it is unlikely, but ever since Romney first made that pledge a year ago, the reaction by policymakers in China has been a mix of frustration and exasperation. “The candidates find fault with China simply to win more votes,” wrote veteran Chinese journalist Ding Gang in the state-run People’s Daily Online. “There must be something wrong with the…[American] political system.”

A Chinese man adjusts the Chinese flag before a point press conference by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Sept. 5, 2012. (Feng Li / AFP / Getty Images)

Ding’s article, which ran with the headline “China-bashing: Shame on American Politics,” is an extreme example of the angst—even anger—that many Chinese feel when they listen to American presidential candidates talk tough on China. Most people in China, of course, don’t hate Americans. But Chinese policymakers do hate American elections—especially the effect they have on China’s image in the United States. This year has been especially bad, analysts say, as Beijing has been blamed for everything from the sluggish U.S. economy to America’s high unemployment rate. Coming at a time of declining economic growth in China and fierce competition over trade between the two countries has created considerable tension.

That tension is reflected in the polls. An October poll from the Pew Research Center found that 49 percent of American voters want the U.S. to get tough on China, an increase of nine percent from March of 2011. And only 42 percent of voters want the U.S. to build a strong relationship with China, compared to 53 percent in March of last year. Most of the American angst about China is economic as opposed to military, according to a September Pew poll, with the biggest concerns being the amount of American debt held by China and the loss of U.S. jobs.

Poll results reflect rising friction in China as well. A separate Pew Survey, for instance, found growing wariness and negative perceptions of America compared to two years ago. The percentage of Chinese respondents who characterize their country’s relationship with the U.S. as one of cooperation has dropped from 68 percent in 2010 to 39 percent today. More than a quarter of those surveyed said the relationship was hostile, compared to eight percent two years ago. Confidence in Ratings President Barack Obama also declined significantly, down to 38 percent compared to 52 percent in 2010.

One reason why Chinese leaders in particular dislike changes in Washington: they feel the need “to teach the new American president about the realities of the relationship,” said one Chinese source who requested anonymity because he wasn’t cleared to talk with media. These realities, in the Chinese view, include the need to avoid a trade war that, because of their interdependence, would undermine both economies. The learning curve for U.S. presidents can make for jittery moments. In April of 2001, for instance, not long after George W. Bush took office, a U.S. EP-3 spy plane collided with a Chinese jet fighter in mid-air over the South China Sea. The 24 crew members of the American plane subsequently landed on China’s Hainan Island. After 11 days of intense negotiations over apologetic language, they were released. But the incident turned out to be more protracted and more difficult to resolve than expected.

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