Pearman: In this edition of “Dancing with the Dragon,” we present the Republican candidates and where they stand in relation to China, mainly the Chinese government. Owing to the large number of Republican candidates, we’re concentrating mostly on the candidates who are involved in Chinese issues and who we feel are likely to stay in the race for a while and have a decent chance to win the nomination. As before, we do not seek to persuade, merely to inform.
Wang: Within the Communist Party of China (CPC), the relationship with the United States is one of the key factors in evaluating the success or failure of CPC leadership. This is rarely known outside China, but it is with utmost importance in understanding U.S.-China relations. Therefore, the CPC is extremely invested in the U.S. economy, politics and the U.S. presidential election.
Historically, the Republicans have a far better relationship with the CPC than the Democrats do. I think we have to begin with an analysis of the man the Chinese leadership would most like to see win the nomination and become President of the United States: Jeb Bush. He’s their preferred candidate by far.
Pearman: What makes him so attractive to the men in Beijing?
Wang: He’s what I would describe as an ideal Western politician, from a Chinese government perspective. His father was an ambassador to China and a personal friend of Deng Xiaoping, who essentially charted the course of the contemporary economic reform. In fact, President H.W. Bush is one of the “Old Friends of the Chinese People,” which is a very select and “honored” group that includes Kissinger and, before he died, Nixon. Jeb Bush is, on his own merit, a mature, pro-business leader. He understands how important it is to respect the dignity and face of your opposite number, and he is more politely sophisticated than blunt.
Pearman: In a way, Jeb Bush seems a good deal like one of the top men in the CPC himself. He’s quiet, comes in by way of a political dynasty, and believes in compromise and mutual benefit. Unfortunately, all of that seems to be working to his detriment in the current race.
Wang: I agree, which brings us to the second important point: the sheer level of energy in this Republican primary. This is personified, of course, by Donald Trump, but it’s also seen in the fire of Ted Cruz, the blunt rhetoric of Chris Christie, and the enthusiasm of Ben Carson’s supporters.
Pearman: I can’t imagine Beijing is too happy about that. The Party leadership isn’t very fond of strong, boisterous popular sentiment, and I can’t help but imagine that they view Trump, in particular, as a kind of American Bo Xilai - a dangerous populist demagogue.
Wang: Trump is indeed the candidate the CPC is most afraid of, simply because they have little idea how to deal with him. Remember, these men are technocrats with engineering degrees who read their speeches off cue cards. Trying to deal with the aggressive bluster of a Trump, especially when he’s stated publicly that he intends to renegotiate America’s trade relationship with China, is not something they look forward to. And on another level, all of this political fervor and fighting feels unseemly to them. The Communist Party has a huge number of quarrels, of course, but these are treated as internal affairs, hidden behind a harmonious public front. They view public disputes as endangering the unity of the entire nation.
Pearman: Do you see any of the quarrels or complexity you mentioned having a bearing in how they view the current race?
Wang: I think that the more important question is if any of the candidates really understand how complex China really is. There’s a tendency to view China as a monolithic entity that can be “stood up” to; in fact, it’s really a nation governed by seven men, ruled by a party of 80 million, and containing 1.3 billion people. So even if a candidate has experience dealing with a facet of China, that does not mean that that one facet is translatable across all issues Chinese. Nor does a relationship with one person always mean as much as they assume.
Pearman: Going off that, I think there’s sometimes too much media coverage on an individual, like Xi Jinping, and what they may want. That leads to the idea of a China that can be dealt with “man to man,” when the more important thing to understand, at least in my mind, is the interests of the Red Elite - the wealthy Communist families at the highest ranks of the Party.
Wang: There’s definitely a point to that, and it also seems that a great deal of media coverage misses important points in favor of fluff. For instance, Xi Jinping is often presented as a kind of supreme leader to the American public when, despite his strong centralist tendencies, he’s still first among equals. And that’s part of a larger problem: both the public and the candidates seem not to realize the incredible opacity of China. We don’t know much, and what we do know is often misinterpreted. I find there’s a special problem with propaganda: anti-American rhetoric is blasted over the airwaves every day in China, and Americans assume it’s aimed at them. It’s not; it’s aimed at the civilian population. The Communist Party isn’t trying to provoke America; it’s pacifying its own citizens, using the time-honored tactic of stirring up anger at a foreign “aggressor” to avoid tough questions at home. I’m sure the CPC would not mind, and even expects, the same tactics from Americans.
Pearman: How do you feel the idea of lost American trade is playing into this election?
Wang: I think it’s a big factor, but again, I think the candidates are oversimplifying. The United States has lost a great many jobs to China, true, but those jobs are now leaving, either returning to America or heading out to other nations in the Pacific Rim. Donald Trump might claim that the TPP is a deal designed eventually to include the Chinese, but it’s not. It’s a way to punish China for trying to circumvent WTO regulations, and it’s really a poke in the eye for them. And as far as currency manipulation goes, that has been a disaster for China’s own economy - by keeping the value of their currency low, the CPC is guaranteeing high inflation.
Pearman: I’ve noticed that the candidates tend to feel confrontational toward China, and they fall into one of two categories. People like Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Chris Christie take a secular focus and attack China for its cyberattacks, economic drain on America, and expansion in the South China Sea. Others, in particular Marco Rubio, have attacked China on the basis of human rights, usually filtered through the lens of Christian faith (the One-Child Policy comes under special fire for its role in encouraging and sometimes forcing abortions). Rubio also tends to be blunt about the authoritarian nature of the CPC, which is understandable, considering his parents (as well as Ted Cruz’s) are escapees from Communist Cuba.
Wang: Yes, and this brings up an important point. After Trump, the person the Chinese leadership would least like to see as president on the Republican side is Marco Rubio. They do not want someone with the kind of personal and political stake in human rights that he has in the White House. Rubio also had written an editorial that lays out a detailed plan for American buildup in the Pacific with the purpose of countering Chinese expansionism. The CPC appreciates a harmonious and prosperous relationship with a U.S. that gives them a free hand in the Pacific. So the CPC fears Trump the most, then Rubio, and after him, I think, would be Ben Carson.
Pearman: Would this be another case of not wanting to deal with someone they don’t understand?
Wang: Exactly. As a doctor and a devout Seventh-Day Adventist, Carson’s worldview is worlds away from theirs; he doesn’t really use the same decision-making framework. I feel that they would see him as someone with Mike Huckabee’s problem: a man who has trouble remembering when he is supposed to be a politician as opposed to a pastor. There’s also Dr. Carson’s well-known blunder of stating that China has troops in Syria; the CPC might well ask if he might, as president, act on misinformation like that. In fact, in some ways, Rubio and Carson might be considered worse than Trump. While Donald Trump is a populist and a blusterer, he is still a fairly effective businessman, which means he is conversant with the ideas of exchange, compromise, and mutual benefit. His website, for all its grandiosity, still points to negotiating with China. He’s also expressed skepticism about the necessity of the U.S. military presence in the Pacific. On the other hand, should tensions between the U.S. and China ever heat up, the situation might become very uncomfortable very quickly for Chinese-Americans in the U.S. Trump has already indicated that he feels the decision to intern the Japanese in World War II might have been justified ...
Pearman: Where do you think Ted Cruz fits into this equation?
Wang: Ted Cruz, I feel, comes across as similar to Trump, with a few key differences. For starters, he has a personal stake in human rights, considering his parents are Cuban émigrés. He’s also more noticeably religious. However, he does strongly support trade and the economy, which would probably make dealing with him at least mildly palatable.
Pearman: I don’t think our article would be complete without mentioning two candidates who, while low in the polls, have had a notable presence in the debates. John Kasich, former governor of Ohio, a state that struggled owing to outsourcing, but has largely managed to rebuild. Carly Fiorina is a former Hewlett-Packard executive who has taken a strong stance against expansionism and cyberattacks. How do you think the CPC leadership would view them?
Wang: I believe that of the two, Governor Kasich would be received more favorably: despite his Rubio-like advocacy of rearming Japan and more troops in the Pacific. he does have a proven record in helping a state do business, which is something the CPC could work with. If nothing else, closer American military engagement with the Japanese would provide excellent propaganda fodder.
Carly Fiorina, on the other hand, would make the Beijing leadership uncomfortable. Historically, very few women have held power in China (the last being the disastrous Dowager Empress Cixi, who effectively derailed modernization in the late 1800s, or possibly the deranged extremist Madame Mao). Hillary Clinton, as we mentioned previously, would be acceptable due to her long list of connections to China; Ms. Fiorina has none. Of course, the CPC expects Hillary Clinton would soften her tunes on the human rights issues once elected, just like her husband did. And finally, Fiorina’s blunt and confrontational, which are not qualities the CPC prizes in a female politician.
In the end, the CPC will always prefer Jeb Bush as the Republican nominee (and probably the president). But I feel that they may wind up agreeing “Anyone but Trump!”
Note: This article was written and submitted before the GOP Dec. 15 debate in Las Vegas.
Editor’s note: Last fall, Chang Wang and Joe Pearman began a series of articles in this paper that focused on doing business with China and the Chinese people. This year China Insight invites them to explore another timely issue: the positions of U.S. presidential candidates on China, and how those positions are likely to be received by the Communist Party of China (CPC).
Joe McKenzie Pearman is a second-year business student at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Chang Wang is chief research and academic officer at Thomson Reuters and an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota.
The authors would like to remind the readers that they are endorsing neither candidates nor political party. Their purpose, they say, is simply to “call it like we see it,” and let the readers and voters, draw their own conclusion. Foremost, the authors hope to help the readers make an informed choice.
Part I of this article is available at www.chinainsight.info (select “Past Issues” under the Home tab).