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Trump Says China Wants Him to Lose the U.S. Presidential Election. The Truth Is More Complex

7 minute read

On Sept. 21, Donald Trump addressed an election rally in Dayton, Ohio. “If Mr. Biden wins, China wins,” he told the crowd. “If we win, Ohio wins and most importantly, in all fairness, America wins.”

It’s a familiar theme. After a year scarred by the COVID-19 pandemic — which has claimed more than 200,000 American lives while eviscerating a supercharged economy — as well as nationwide protests against racial injustice, the U.S. president has sought to reframe the Nov. 3 election around the looming threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

“If I don’t win the election, China will own the United States,” Trump told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Aug. 11. “You’re going to have to learn to speak Chinese.”

The president also says that China wants him to lose. “China will do anything they can to have me lose this race,” he told the Reuters news agency back in April.

To be sure, Trump has launched a trade war that hiked tariffs on over $300 billion of Chinese exports, sanctioned top Chinese officials over human rights abuses and sought to ban Chinese tech firms from the U.S. market. He’s even rolled out Chinese dissidents during his stump speeches. But it’s still unclear that China is dead against another four years of the Trump presidency.

Indeed, “Many ordinary Chinese people want Trump to win, because they think Trump has destroyed the American system and its alliances,” says Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University in Beijing. “So if Trump continues to do that, there may be opportunities for China.”

Where China stands on the U.S. election

With U.S. officials alleging that China is interfering in the electoral process, Beijing is wary of being perceived to favor one candidate or the other. Aside from a prosaic biography issued by state news agency Xinhua upon his securing the Democratic nomination, Trump’s rival Joe Biden remains largely unmentioned.

“American domestic dynamics are well beyond what we can predict or influence,” China’s ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, told an online foreign policy seminar hosted by the Brookings Institution on Aug. 13. “We have no intention or interest in getting involved.”

Trump’s frequent broadsides against Chinese interests — deporting Chinese students with military links, banning social media platform TikTok, closing China’s consulate in Houston — all receive rebukes. But Beijing’s foreign policy wonks appear divided over which candidate represents the greater threat and state media instead jibes at the process in general.

“The central theme of their election coverage is that the U.S. election is really just about money, while bringing up the unfairness of the electoral college system, the disproportionate value of a swing state, and so on,” says Oriana Skylar Mastro, a China specialist at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. “They are very careful not to suggest a strong preference for Trump or Biden.”

Read more: What happens next with the U.S.-China rivalry

Still, it is telling that Trump has earned a sardonic nickname among Chinese netizens. Chuan Jianguo, or “Build-the-Country Trump,” parrots a common honorific for CCP grandees, implying that Trump’s blundering is actually a boon for the Chinese state.

It’s a view echoed by Hu Xijin, the strident editor of the Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times: “I strongly urge American people to reelect Trump because his team has many crazy members like [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo,” he tweeted June 24. “They help China strengthen solidarity and cohesion in a special way. It’s crucial to China’s rise. As a [CCP] member, I thank them.”

Still, China is not a monolith and contrasting views exist. Many elite, well-educated Chinese — who typically studied in or have relatives in the West, and vacation in the likes of L.A. and New York — are aghast at the rifts between the two superpowers. They hope a Biden victory can, at the very least, restore beneficial cultural, educational and other programs.

“Trump has not just damaged the U.S. reputation but also the West’s image in China,” says Wang. (The feeling seems mutual, with a Pew Research Center survey published in July finding 73% of Americans had a negative view of China, the highest since the question was first asked 15 years ago.) “He makes the world more complex and unpredictable.”

US Vice President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping toast during a State Luncheon for China hosted by US Secretary of State John Kerry on September 25, 2015 at the Department of State in Washington, DC.PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images

What a Biden presidency would mean for China

Xi Jinping described Biden in 2013 as “my old friend” — a huge honor in CCP-speak. Biden was one of the first U.S. senators to visit China in April 1979, meeting reformist leader Deng Xiaoping just three months after Beijing and Washington established official ties. He also used to talk up his more recent exchanges with China’s current leader.

“I’ve spent more time in private meetings with Xi Jinping than any world leader,” Biden told a Council on Foreign Relations gathering in 2018, adding that the encounters amounted to “twenty-five hours of private dinners.”

But there’s little sign that this former advocate of engagement is still amicable to Beijing. At a recent Democratic primary debate, Biden denounced Xi as a “thug” who has one million ethnic Uighur Muslims in “concentration camps.”

Read more: Tough talk between the U.S. and China is making a diplomatic resolution harder than ever

That said, a Biden win would likely see Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric replaced by reengagement with international institutions, policy conducted according to a strategic plan, and efforts to build some kind of rapport with Beijing on issues of mutual concern.

In January, Biden wrote about his desire to forge a coalition of countries to isolate China and persuade it into better practices. “When we join together with fellow democracies, our strength more than doubles,” Biden said. “China can’t afford to ignore more than half the global economy.”

This may cause more sleepless nights for Politburo members than four more years of Trump, whose policies have actually helped China according to some analysts. A return to traditional, coherent, alliance-based diplomacy might not serve Beijing’s strategic goals as well.

A man waves a US national flag as protesters attend a rally in Hong Kong on October 14, 2019.ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

What could happen to China relations if Trump wins

There are many avowed China hawks at Trump’s top table — Secretary of State Pompeo, Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger, White House trade advisor Peter Navarro among others — who firmly believe the CCP to be an existential menace. Trump has also proved he’s willing to use issues that touch raw nerves with the leadership in Beijing, such as the detention camps in western Xinjiang province, political freedoms in Hong Kong and the status of self-ruling Taiwan.

This confrontational approach, says Mastro, “targets a lot of Chinese domestic policies, which really goes at the heart of what they consider their internal security and the legitimacy of the party.”

But to believe the tell-all book by former national security advisor John Bolton, Trump is prepared to compromise on every one of these issues. He also ignores others, so far expressing little interest in holding China to account on labor rights, religious freedom, human rights, climate change and other bugbears that mired Beijing’s relations with the George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama White Houses.

And while Trump may have started aggressively contesting Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea by increasing freedom-of-navigation sorties through the contested waterway, such missions were almost completely neglected early in his term as he sought Chinese help to rein in North Korea. Neither have the missions led to any attempt at wider coalition building in Southeast Asia.

Some believe that if he got a fresh mandate, and in a final term, Trump might even be inclined to tone down the bombast and come to some understanding with China.

“Without the burden of reelection, maybe he can negotiate with China more pragmatically,” says Renmin University’s Wang. “And we can finally make a deal.”

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Write to Charlie Campbell / Shanghai at charlie.campbell@time.com