Citizens of the People’s Republic of China don't get to vote in U.S. presidential elections. (They also don’t get to elect their own leaders, either.) But from the opening question in the inaugural presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, China appeared front and center, particularly in the Republican candidate’s rhetoric. China was blamed 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,” said Trump in his opening statement Monday night. “They are using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China.”
Trump urged China to use its power to rein in North Korea, which has conducted two nuclear tests this year. Contrasting U.S. infrastructure with that of China, with its gleaming new airports, the Republican candidate said that “we’ve become a third-world country.” By contrast, Clinton claimed that during her time as Secretary of State, American exports to China had increased 50%.
During the debate, Clinton claimed that Trump thought climate change was “a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.” A 2012 tweet from Trump’s official account alleged that the “concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.” Trump has said that the tweet was meant as a joke.
There are no reputable opinion surveys in China gauging the popularity of the two candidates vying for the U.S. presidency. But Chinese state-linked media have intimated that “many Chinese prefer Trump,” as the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party–linked newspaper wrote on Monday. The Global Times publicized a poll on its parent website that “showed that 83 percent of the 8,339 Chinese respondents believe Trump will win the election.” The poll was conducted in May and the respondents were a self-selecting group, limiting the survey’s capacity to act as a reliable gauge of public opinion.
Nevertheless, Chinese public support for Trump seems to originate from two camps: respect for him as a businessman and excitement about a fresh force in American politics. “Trump’s patriotism has allowed me to see that American politics is corrupt,” says a Chinese supporter who has formed local social-media groups praising the Republican candidate and goes by the online moniker Donald.J.Trump-The terminator of lies. “He exposed this ugly side of the American reality.”
“Just like some American voters, the Chinese public likes the idea of a new face in politics who is not a traditional politician,” says Wang Yiwei, a professor of international politics at Renmin University in Beijing. “The Chinese elite that understands Trump better is very worried and thinks his election would be an unprecedented challenge for the world because his isolationism and populism is very dangerous, especially for China.”
Read More: Donald Trump's Post-Truth Debate
Clinton has a long public record of intersecting with China. As First Lady in 1995, she gave a speech at the U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing in which she criticized China for its family-planning restrictions. As Secretary of State, she censured China for its human-rights record and was involved in a dramatic episode in 2012 in which Chen Guangcheng, a blind legal activist, fled house arrest to seek refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. (Chen and his immediate family now live in the U.S.) Clinton also forcefully advocated for President Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia, which has directed more American soldiers to the region. Beijing views the pivot as nothing more than American containment of China, even if the Obama Administration has claimed otherwise. “The Chinese are familiar with Clinton as a harsh and hawkish force,” says Wang. “She is always criticizing China for human rights or something else.”
Lu Pin, the founding editor of the Chinese magazine Feminist Voices, recalls the support Clinton gave five young Chinese feminists who were detained last year amid Chinese President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on civil society and dissent. But Lu notes that the average Chinese had no idea that Clinton was tweeting for the release of the so-called Feminist Five. “Hillary’s support brought pressure to the Chinese government [to release them],” Lu says. “She was criticized by the Chinese government and her image in China was damaged. She supports human rights in China, but this act is not welcomed by the Chinese government.”
Although socialist quotas once existed for female representation in lower levels of government, the political representation of women in China has actually decreased in recent years. There is not a single woman on the Politburo Standing Committee, the seven-man clique that effectively rules China. Even the Politburo, one rung lower in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hierarchy, boasts just two women. (In imperial times, only one Chinese Empress ever rose to the throne, back in the 7th century, when her husband, the Emperor, died.) “I think that the CCP has problems getting women into the top echelons for many of the same reasons that we have in Australia and the USA,” says Louise Edwards, a professor of modern Chinese history at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, “factional politics, the brutality of the system’s competitiveness, common old sexism that holds men as natural leaders and men's difficulty of imagining how they could ever be subordinate to any women without being emasculated.”
Of course, in November, the U.S. could elect its first-ever female President, eight years after ushering in the nation’s first African-American leader. “Many [Chinese] citizens might well imagine,” says Edwards, “that one day a Chinese-American would be President of the U.S. too.”