[Correspondent’s column] What this noisy US election could mean for China

Posted on : 2016-10-21 17:07 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
China may be hoping for victory by Donald Trump, partly due to Clinton’s past interest in human rights in China

The question of how to write Donald Trump’s name in Chinese has yet to be fully answered in China. With just two weeks left until the US presidential election, two different transliterations are still being used: “Terangpu” (特朗普) and “Chuanpu” (川普). “Terangpu” appears to be becoming the preferred rendering among China’s state-run media, while internet users and Chinese-speaking media outside China favor “Chuanpu.” In many cases, both forms can be found side by side.

Chinese readers appear to have been amused by the “Chuanpu” spelling since early on. The characters can be interpreted literally as referring to the Sichuan Province (chuan) form of Mandarin Chinese (putonghua). By analogy to South Korea, it would be the equivalent to the “standard Korean of Gyeongsang Province speakers” - a frequently source of comic material. A number of netizens have posted messages saying, “That’s what I thought it meant at first.”

Trump’s habit of bashing China by citing the US’s trade imbalance with it during his campaign is also widely known in China. The candidate has made coarse comments about not “allow[ing] China to rape our country,” while threatening to impose a 45% duty on Chinese products. But from a Chinese standpoint, the US election’s debate over “checking China” and “the China threat” is nothing new. In the relatively recent 2012 election, then-Republican candidate Mitt Romney talked about China’s “exchange rate manipulations”; in 1980, then-Republican candidate Ronald Reagan took issue with the Democratic Jimmy Carter administration’s decision to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Today, these attacks are taken in China as a symbol of its growth and evidence of its newfound global stature. Once the elections are over, the winners have also tended to always take some of the edge off their stances on China.

If the “China-bashing” is downplayed on these grounds, it lends more credence to widespread speculation that the Chinese would prefer Trump get elected over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Clinton has been consistently stern on Chinese human rights issues; as Secretary of State, she was the control tower for US diplomacy during the Barack Obama administration’s period of “rebalancing Asia” policy, which was widely seen as intended to check China. For China, Clinton’s considerable experience is a debit.

In contrast, Trump has made almost no direct mention of the Chinese regime or human rights issue. Indeed, he has voiced skepticism about the stationing of US troops abroad and the role of US Forces Korea and US Forces Japan, which China sees as a security burden. Trump has also led the way in calling for the US’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which could restrict China’s influence. He has further advocated non-intervention in the South China Sea.

Trump is not a mainstream Republican Party figure, but some have argued that a Republican president could be good for China - as with the Richard Nixon administration, which initiated the founding of US-China bilateral relations, or the George W. Bush administration in its second term, which earned praise from China as the “greatest relationship.” As a businessman, Trump has close ties to China, as seen with the Chinese steel used to build his hotels.

With so much about Trump remaining uncertain, China cannot simply support him and hope. In a US visit last month, Premier Li Keqiang was noncommittal, saying US-China relations would be kept on a stable footing regardless of who was elected. After the third televised presidential debate on Oct. 19, many reports noted Chinese experts predicting a Clinton victory.

What is clear is China’s ridicule of the ongoing US election. An editorial in the Oct. 8 edition of the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper boastfully mocked the mud-slinging and the price tag of the election, which has been the most expensive in history.

“The US has boasted about how a noisy election symbolizes institutional dominance - it’s even used that to make careless comments about China. It needs to put an end to its vast overconfidence and arrogance,” the piece said.

While there is some room for debate over whether Trump is wholly responsible for the election’s nasty turn, his message about “making American great again” also reads as an admission that it is not great at the moment.

By Kim Oi-hyun, Beijing correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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