The Chinese say they are accustomed to China-bashing during the American election season, but there is growing concern among government officials, business executives and academics here that this time the attitude toward China among the American public and politicians is so hot it may not cool after Election Day.
From accusations of unfair trade practices to a discussion of whether it is proper for the candidates to have investments in Chinese companies, the word “China” came up 22 times, and always negatively, in the debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney last week. In the final presidential debate Monday night, when foreign policy will be the main subject, China is likely to be a center of attention again.
The relationship between China and the United States has become more brittle in the past two years, with differences over trade and strategic interests stoking American fears that China is infringing on the United States’ longstanding influence in Asia. For their part, the Chinese watch with growing alarm as their country has become a frequent target of blame for the weakness in the American job market.
“The U.S. general election, originally thought only a battle over domestic issues — the economy, fiscal deficit and health care — has now embroiled China as a punching bag,” said Fred Hu, chairman of Primavera Capital, a private equity group in Beijing, and former Greater China chairman of Goldman Sachs. “The noises from the campaign trail are quite disconcerting. It remains to be seen whether the shrill campaign rhetoric about China will just remain as bombast.”
The fears over China in the United States, experts here note, are not limited to the campaign trail. Last month Mr. Obama cited national security concerns as the reason for ordering a Chinese company to divest its shares in wind farm projects near a Navy testing facility in Oregon. A scathing Congressional report called the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei a national security threat to the United States.
China is itself now in the final countdown of the transfer of power from President Hu Jintao to Vice President Xi Jinping, whose ascension to the top Communist Party post is expected to be announced at the 18th Party Congress opening on Nov. 8, two days after the American election. With the political jockeying inside the Chinese leadership more turbulent than expected because of such things as the Bo Xilai scandal and the conflicts with China’s neighbors over offshore territory, Beijing has had less time than it might have to focus on the American contest.
“I don’t see a clear intention from the Chinese government yet,” said Hu Shuli, editor in chief of Caixin Media.
Historically, Chinese governments have favored Republican administrations, preferring their perceived stability in foreign policy, Chinese academics say. In particular, they were closely acquainted with and liked George Bush, who was an envoy to China and head of the Central Intelligence Agency before becoming president in 1989.
But those were different times, when the relationship was less interdependent, less vital to the global economy. Chinese government leaders know little about Mr. Romney, analysts here said, and view him as a new kind of Republican who is more conservative than those they have known.
In some respects, the Chinese government would probably prefer a continuation of the Obama administration, they added, on the basis that the incumbent is a known quantity.
“If Obama wins, we will have a smooth relationship without much change,” said Chu Shulong, a professor of political science and international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “If Romney wins, there will be some uncertainty. If Romney wins, he has to keep some of his words.”
Of particular concern, Mr. Chu said, is Mr. Romney’s threat to name China a currency manipulator for keeping the renminbi at an artificially low level. But he and other analysts said they believed that Mr. Romney would be hard put to follow through. That is because the value of China’s currency against the dollar has risen substantially in recent years, making it less of a factor in providing Chinese exporters a competitive advantage, and because Mr. Romney would run into a wall of opposition from American businesses that fear they would be deeply scarred by any Chinese retaliation.
“Obviously people are not happy with the Romney rhetoric, but they assume he will adjust if he got into office,” said Dali L. Yang, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and Tsinghua University in Beijing.
The American election and the impending leadership changes in China coincide with a growing confidence among the Chinese in their own strengths and more wariness toward the United States.
Just 39 percent of those polled in China during the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project earlier this year described the relationship with the United States as cooperative. In 2010, two-thirds of those polled called the relationship cooperative. Only 8 percent saw the relationship as hostile in the 2010; this year 26 percent viewed it that way.
The survey was conducted between March 18 and April 15 this year among 3,177 respondents, a sample designed to reflect the views of about 64 percent of the adult Chinese population, the Pew Research Center said.
Despite the clamor in the American campaign about China, the coverage here of politics in the United States has been relatively modest. Whether the coverage is limited by the Communist Party’s distaste for democratic elections is not clear. By contrast, the coverage here of presidential elections in Taiwan, the island nation considered by the government to be part of China, has been more comprehensive.
In China the American presidential debates are available live only to the very small number of households that subscribe to cable television and whose channels include CNN, or some of the households with satellite dishes.
“Americans shouldn’t assume the presidential campaign is watched by people in every second-tier city in China,” said Rui Chenggang, a prominent interviewer on CCTV, the state broadcaster, and author of “Something for Nothing.” “People don’t care about the campaign; they want to know the result.”
But to show how intertwined China has become in the campaign, Mr. Rui posted on his microblog a translation in Chinese of the candidates’ back and forth in the last debate on their investments in China. “I wanted to show that neither candidate is separated from China, that China is an inherent part of the campaign,” Mr. Rui said.
At a cafe near Tsinghua University on Wednesday night, a small crowd consisting mostly of American students was joined by some Chinese students as they watched a replay of the most recent debate.
A common attitude among the Chinese students was pride that China had become an important issue in the campaign, whether positive or negative. “We have a power transition in China this year as well, and China’s influence is only going to grow,” said Chen Meini, a senior at Beijing Sport University. “I think it’s good that China is one focus of their campaign. At least we get to influence their policy making.”
Another student, Yang Xiao, a junior at the Beijing Film Academy, said he did not believe that the candidates’ negativity about China would hurt China in the long run. If elected, Mr. Romney would “need to be nicer to China later,” Mr. Yang said. “China’s rise is inevitable and irresistible.”