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How the Chinese See U.S. Elections: Three Myths

China, long a hot topic in U.S. presidential elections, is one of the few countries frequently mentioned in American presidential candidates’ speeches and debates, very often as the target of attack. And, although electoral issues have changed many times over the past two or three decades, the China topic has remained resolute. Different candidates from different times blame China for the exact same things: the trade deficit, currency manipulation, job losses, and human rights and foreign policy problems. Current candidates have, not unlike their predecessors, taken to criticizing the present president for being soft on China and for being overrun by the Chinese.

On the other side of the Pacific, people in China have been watching the U.S. elections with great interest. However, U.S. opinions of the way the Chinese themselves perceive these accusations against China are often misguided. Here are three major myths in the U.S. regarding how the Chinese see themselves and the U.S. elections.

Myth 1: The Chinese agree China is the winner in terms of trade.

Reality: Many Chinese consider trade with the U.S. to be unequal, unfair, and even harmful to their country.

Though U.S. candidates talk about the trade deficit with China, many Chinese actually believe that China is the victim of trade with the U.S., as China’s exports to the U.S. are mainly cheap products and raw materials that produce low profits, and its imports from the U.S. are normally expensive high-tech products that generate huge profits for American corporations. For example, to buy a Boeing aircraft, China has to export hundreds of millions of shirts. And an Apple phone that is manufactured in China results in only 4 US dollars in profit for the factory in China, while Apple reaps huge financial benefits from the Chinese market. Amidst all of China’s manufacturing focus, the country pays a high price for environmental pollution.

China also pays a high societal price. According to Chinese government statistics from 2014, 168 million migrant workers moved from the countryside in Central and Western China to coastal areas to find factory jobs. As these migrant workers cannot afford to have their families living together in the coastal areas, they end up leaving 61 million children at home. Families are forced to separate, causing many social problems.

Many Chinese citizens and economists alike agree that trade and globalization have brought China some profits, but that American corporations are the ones taking home the majority of the earnings while China is left to suffer the negative environmental and societal consequences that accompany this trade. A popular opinion in China is that the low income and middle class societies in the U.S. are only able to maintain their living standards due to trade with China, and that China’s low wages, low human rights, and sparse environmental regulations have made the low prices of these products possible. Additionally, China’s trade surplus and the world’s highest reserves of foreign currency have also provided the government with huge resources to buy the loyalty of elites and to control and suppress any internal opposition.

Myth 2: The Chinese also see China as an aggressor in the foreign policy arena.

Reality: Many Chinese see China as a victim and believe their government is not tough enough on foreign policy.

Where people outside China tend to see China’s recent foreign policy behavior as that of an aggressive bully, most Chinese actually see themselves as the victims. Consider the case of the South China Sea: Outsiders often disagree with China’s maritime claims, but the Chinese genuinely believe that their claims are based on history and are valid. In fact, generations of Chinese students have been taught this position in their history and geography textbooks. Because of this, many believe that China’s neighbors have long been violating China’s sovereignty, rights, and interests in the South China Sea. To some extent, the government’s aggressiveness is a response to the rise of popular nationalism at home, which is heavily influenced by education and social discourse.

Myth 3: The Chinese admire the U.S. electoral system.

Reality: Not exactly. Many Chinese people actually consider U.S. elections to be rather unsophisticated and ineffective.

Many Chinese are not very impressed with the U.S. democratic election process. Though they do not really have the opportunity to watch the debates or listen to political discourse, they often hear about the negative aspects of the elections, such as the hostilities exchanged between candidates and the political rumors that encircle the race, from state-sponsored media. There are two popular ideas commonly found in Chinese narratives regarding the U.S. elections.

First, many Chinese people believe that a few politically connected families and business tycoons manipulate the elections. As it turns out, this year’s discussion about establishments and the emergence of Donald Trump are actually supporting this assumption. Many Chinese think that the U.S. democratic system only offers Americans choices between a few candidates, and that most of those candidates are representatives of the establishment. They feel, in other words, that America’s is not a true democracy.

The second idea is that the U.S. system selects candidates with good public speaking skills and personal appeal, rather than those with experience and capability. Some Chinese scholars openly publish articles describing how the Chinese system of selecting state leaders is more advanced and effective than its American counterpart. China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, is often held up as an example. Before he became president, Xi experienced a full range of political positions, including county chief, mayor, governor of a province, and chief of Shanghai (China’s largest city). The five years he spent as China’s vice president served as the final stage of his training. Over this period of time, he gained intensive training in foreign policy and operation of the party and central government. Not only does Xi possess this expertise, but so did each of his predecessors in the past three decades, as do most members of the top leadership echelon. So for many people in China, it is unthinkable that someone like Barack Obama, who had only one term in the U.S. Senate under his belt and had no foreign policy experience, was chosen to run an entire country and become president of the world’s leading nation. It should be noted, however, that while people are proud of the Chinese system, they forget that, in recent decades, almost every time China's top leadership has gone through a power transition, it actually caused fierce internal power struggles, the consequences of which always took lengthy periods of time to overcome.

The reality, then, is this: U.S.-China relations have become arguably the most important bilateral relationship in the international system, so it is critical for people from both sides to better understand each other, including their political systems. If individuals always use their own institutional and cultural experiences to interpret the other side, misunderstandings and misjudgments will become inevitable. When U.S. presidential candidates blame China for many issues, it often signifies an oversimplification of complicated trade and foreign policy issues. When they attempt to use China as a scapegoat, they create obstacles that make it more difficult for people to identify the real problems that face the country. At the same time, the Chinese should also avoid using their own institutional and cultural experiences to interpret the other side, otherwise misunderstandings will become inevitable.


Zheng Wang was a Class of 2016 & 2017 Carnegie Fellow at New America, writing a book about China’s rise and future U.S.-China relations. He is the director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies and an associate professor in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University.