In The News

China’s Perception of Obama

February 4, 2009

I was recently asked to describe how the Chinese have assessed the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Their assessment has evolved somewhat over time, and can be divided into three stages: the campaign, the transition, and the (still very young) post-inaugural period. For each, we can consider both official and unofficial Chinese opinion. The latter, some of which appears in the Chinese press and on Chinese blogs, provides useful supplement – and sometimes, an interesting contrast – with more official statements and commentary.

The Campaign

During the campaign, the Chinese officially said little that would hint towards a preference among the three major candidates: John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. The Chinese generally like continuity of leadership in the U.S. They prefer leaders they know, who have already been converted from an initial skepticism about China to a commitment to a reasonably close working relationship. This was the case with President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton. This election year, however, there was no incumbent and all the leading candidates ran on platforms promising significant change.

But, of all the candidates, they knew Hillary Clinton best. Yet Clinton worried them as well, since the Chinese were not confident that she had overcome her critical views of China’s human rights records, especially with regard to women and Tibetans, to the same degree her husband appeared to have done. And some of her statements on trade issues during the latter stages of the campaign, especially as she fought to save her candidacy in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, appeared to reflect a high level of protectionist sentiment.

The Chinese also generally prefer Republicans to Democrats, largely because the presidents they have worked with most closely – George W. Bush, his father before him, and especially Richard Nixon – have been Republicans. They also fear that, compared with Republicans, Democrats are more likely to criticize China’s human rights record, and represent protectionist sentiments within American society. But the Chinese were considerably concerned about candidate John McCain. McCain did not focus on human rights or trade issues, but he had called for the creation of a “League of Democracies” that might not only exclude China, but also serve as an alternative to the United Nations for legitimating American foreign policy initiatives, which might include sanctions and humanitarian intervention. McCain also favored the deployment of an American ballistic missile defense system, and explicitly stated that one of its targets would be China’s strategic capability.

In spite of those concerns, although the Chinese never expressed a clear preference, based on their traditional criteria, Barack Obama would probably have been their last choice: a Democratic candidate who had never visited China, with whom Chinese had few personal ties, and who promised the greatest degree of change in both American domestic and foreign policy.

The Chinese outside of government had their own views of Obama, which seem to have gone through an intriguing evolution as the campaign proceeded. Like much of the rest of the world – and like many Americans — Chinese were intrigued about the possibility that an African-American might actually be elected president of the United States. At first, some actually appeared to think that this was sign of American weakness – even of the decay of the American political system. But as they learned more about Obama and his background – the fact that he had been educated at Columbia and Harvard, that he was highly intelligent and extremely articulate, and that his policy positions placed him in the middle of the political spectrum rather on the extreme – reservations turned to admiration. Many ordinary Chinese, especially those sympathetic to the United States, reacted to Obama’s election with admiration, and even joy. Many thought that it reflected the openness of American society and the responsibility of the U.S. political system. As one friend wrote me just after the election, they felt it showed what “a great country” the United States is.

The Transition

Faced with the fact that America had elected the candidate they knew least, and about whom they had some of the greatest reservations, the Chinese then had to prepare themselves for the inauguration. Not only did Chinese officials and the official Chinese media express their desire to continue a cooperative relationship with the United States, but they also presented several reasons why they were confident such a development would occur.

Restating a key theme in Chinese analysis of U.S.-China relations since 1980, well-connected Chinese scholars said that the desire for cooperative engagement with China has consistently been mainstream American policy. Even those presidents who had campaigned against that policy or for other fundamental changes in American relations with Beijing – presidents such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush — had eventually changed their minds after a relatively short time in office. Even if Barack Obama were to adopt a tougher American line toward Beijing, that would be unlikely to endure.

This time, this was especially true because of the growing economic interdependence between the two countries. Especially during the present global financial crisis, that interdependence, and the importance of the two economies, would make cooperation essential. The growing list of transnational issues in which the two countries had a stake – terrorism, proliferation, energy security, and climate change – also appeared to Chinese analysts to be a powerful factor promoting a cooperative and stable relationship.

In this election especially, China had not been a major campaign issue. That in itself was reassuring to the Chinese, since it reduced the chances that the newly elected president would adopt a more hostile or critical approach to Beijing, even temporarily. And of the three major candidates, Obama had appeared marginally less protectionist than Clinton, and certainly did not support McCain’s positions on ballistic missile defense and a league of democracies

Finally, although Chinese had often expressed a greater degree of comfort with Republican presidents, some officials began to acknowledge the contributions of Democratic presidents to the U.S.-China relationship. It was Jimmy Carter who had actually completed the task of normalizing the relationship; and it was Bill Clinton, despite his original threat to remove China’s Most-Favored-Nation trading status, who had negotiated China’s membership in the World Trade Organization and who had secured permanent normal trade relations for Beijing.

Post-inauguration

It has been just a couple of weeks since the inauguration of Barack Obama, but some Chinese are now expressing some signs of concern about the new president’s intentions toward their country.

Obama’s inaugural speech did not contain any explicit reference to China, and thus did not include a commitment to continue a cooperative relationship between Washington and Beijing, as some Chinese may have hoped. Instead, it referred to the successful American struggle against fascism and communism under earlier administrations, and then talked critically about those governments that “suppress dissent” and are on the “wrong side of history.”

It is not at all clear to me that these passages were intended to refer to China. And yet, it is true that the phrase “the wrong side of history” had been used by Bill Clinton, in a meeting with Jiang Zemin, to refer to China’s policy toward Tibet. If Barack Obama and his speechwriters did not remember that reference, Chinese analysts most certainly did.

Of even greater concern were the written responses to questions about the currency question made by Timothy Geithner during his Senate confirmation hearings after his appointment as Secretary of the Treasury. Geithner’s answer included the sentence that “President Obama – backed by the conclusions of a broad range of economists – believes that China is manipulating its currency,” implying to some that the Treasury Department would cite China as a currency manipulator in its next semi-annual review of the question. Also, they feared that the new administration would support some kind of legislation that would impose sanctions against China and presumably other countries who had been found to be manipulating their currency.

In fact, Geithner’s full answers qualified that particular sentence in important ways. He said that, in the short run, the most important economic challenge facing the two countries was not addressing the value of the renminbi, but rather coordinating stimulus packages that could promote the recovery of the global economy. And, over the longer term, the issue again was not necessarily currency value, but rather the underlying need to encourage China’s shift toward consumption-led growth (and, by implication, away from export- or investment-led growth). When and if the U.S. did raise the currency issue, Geithner carefully quoted Obama’s campaign statements that he would “use aggressively all the diplomatic avenues open to him to seek change in China’s currency practices,” wording that did not necessarily imply the use of countervailing duties or other sanctions, and even raised the question of “how and when to broach the subject in order to do more good than harm.”

At a minimum, therefore, these two statements – Obama’s inaugural address and Geithner’s confirmation testimony – were somewhat ambiguous about the new administration’s approach to China. And, as I read the Chinese press, I see a divergence between the official and unofficial responses to them.

The explicit official responses remain – as during the transition period – largely optimistic. Both Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Chinese Ambassador to the U.S., Zhou Enzhong, continue to express their hope for a stable and cooperative U.S.-China relationship. But there have also been indications of a more critical Chinese reaction.

Deleted from Chinese broadcasts of Obama’s inaugural speech and from the transcripts in the official Chinese media were the passages about America contributing to the end of communism, and to authoritarian regimes standing on the “wrong side of history.” Also, a prominent Chinese specialist on U.S.-China relations said that Geithner’s comments on currency manipulation reflected a lack of “maturity,” while a Chinese central bank official warned that a finding that confirmed China manipulated the value of the renminbi would obstruct cooperation on what Geithner had acknowledged to be the more immediate issue: cooperation on managing the global financial crisis. Interestingly, too, some Chinese analysts have referred to yet other developments they regard as negative. China Daily carried an article that criticized Obama’s reassertion of American global leadership in his inaugural address, commenting caustically that “U.S. leaders have never been shy of talking about their country’s ambition to be the leader of the world. For them, it is a divinely granted destiny no matter what other nations think.”

But Chinese observers have reserved most of their venom for the charges in American commentary – now heard with increasing frequency – that the high Chinese savings rate, the high Chinese foreign exchange reserves, or both, provided the liquidity that produced the asset bubble that lay at the bottom of the global financial crisis. Xinhua‘s reaction was typical: “The high savings rate in emerging markets is not a reason for developed countries to loosen financial regulation and look on, arms folded, as financial institutions develop new derivatives and let financial bubbles balloon. The reasons for the current financial crisis lie in excessive consumption, high indebtedness, and lack of financial regulation.”

Harry Harding is University Professor of International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and Vice Chairman of the Board of The Asia Foundation. He is currently teaching in Hong Kong and Sydney and blogs about U.S. foreign policy towards Asia at http://www.thinkingaboutasia.blogspot.com.

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