SHORTLY BEFORE election day in America, Chaguan spent an instructive morning in central Beijing listening to a senior Chinese official explain why his country does not care who sits in the White House. This was partly bravado, for China’s rulers do not care to play up the idea that mere voters might hold world leaders to account. But the official’s disdain also reflects an elite consensus that a full reset of US-China relations is difficult to imagine.
China wants smoother ties with America, said the official. But given their deep roots, present-day tensions will be hard to reverse unless America comes to a new understanding of the world. Westerners are a self-centred and judgmental lot, he charged. They never expected the Chinese—a diligent, studious people—to rival them so soon. No matter which party runs Washington, the official said, “The US has to answer this question: can the US or the Western world accept or respect the rise of China?”
To Chinese leaders, Donald Trump’s aggression in office merely accelerated some inevitable trends. To them, the Trump era shows that talk of values is a sham, that China alarms Americans because it is getting stronger—and that the solution is to become more powerful, until Western critics are shamed into silence by China’s success. They also think that American weakness is making that ex-hegemon (even more) vicious and determined to scapegoat China. Back when Xi Jinping was China’s vice-president, he spent many hours with his counterpart Joe Biden, who is seen as an establishment centrist close to business sectors that want better China ties. But struggle with America is seen as unavoidable.
Ordinary Chinese citizens never followed an American election so closely. But many watched with more scorn than envy. Instead, abetted by censors who allowed mocking jokes and memes about the race to flood social media, a common view is that the result is irrelevant. The Chinese internet is full of posts backing Mr Trump. Most reflect glee over his pugnacious style and a hunch that his incompetence, notably in handling covid-19, has usefully harmed America. Other fans include nationalists grateful for Mr Trump’s reluctance to condemn official abuses in places like Xinjiang and Hong Kong, as well as, confusingly, dissidents and Hong Kongers who think him tough on the Communist Party.
Americans may object that Chinese views of their politics are cartoonish, incoherent and self-serving. But cynicism about the democratic West—among both elites and the general public—matters. For it helps to explain how the party will approach what its Central Committee described on October 29th as a “profound adjustment in the international balance of power”.
Elite cynicism about America preoccupies Chairman Rabbit, a Harvard-educated Chinese blogger whose 1.7m followers on Weibo, a social-media platform, include business leaders and officials in government ministries. Ren Yi, the chairman’s real name, is a mainstream nationalist with princeling blood: his grandfather was a reformist party secretary of Guangdong province in the 1980s. His posts explore the nuances of American politics. But the wider public associates such nuance with naivety. Mr Trump was liked in China until 2018, says Mr Ren over coffee in a Beijing hotel. His populist nationalism resonated, as did his praise for President Xi. His slogan “Make America Great Again” mirrored talk of a great Chinese rejuvenation. Even the trade war had fans, at first. When Mr Trump’s envoys pushed China to speed up market-opening reforms, some influential Chinese were sympathetic to American arguments, recalls Mr Ren. Three events changed the mood. Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, a boss at Huawei, a Chinese tech giant, on behalf of American prosecutors investigating alleged sanctions-busting. Then American politicians cheered on anti-government protests in Hong Kong. Finally came America’s bungling of the pandemic, even as the Chinese public complied with strict health controls that tamed the virus at home.
Mr Ren saw friends concluding that all American politicians are as bad as each other. Most Chinese “think of US politics as a huge conspiracy to keep China down”, a suspicion that they flaunt as a badge of sophistication, says the blogger. Where once the Chinese romanticised America as an advanced nation, “Now because of covid they see the US people as selfish, anti-science, anti-intellectual.” It is no accident that events that angered Chinese—Ms Meng’s arrest and the protests in Hong Kong—touched on sovereignty. Homogeneous China finds it hard to comprehend pluralistic, divided America, says Mr Ren. What Chinese really care about is China’s strength and territorial integrity. “They think that it is China’s destiny to rise, and so to come into conflict with America.”
Too late to contain China, still time to compete
Popular opinion concerns Wang Yong, who directs the Centre for American Studies at Peking University, one of China’s most prestigious institutions. A frequent guest on state media, he made a series of short election-eve videos about America for Jinri Toutiao, an online platform, racking up over 10m visits. As he describes it, America’s China policies are guided by competing interest groups, with Mr Biden heeding the Wall Street financiers and Silicon Valley bosses who seek “more rational” ties with China, while hawks and “deep-state forces” push for a new cold war. China and America can work together on such shared interests as climate change, public health and enabling global prosperity, he insists. Yet people should be realistic, says the professor over jasmine tea near his university. America “has been accustomed to the top position in world affairs and will use all means to defend its status”.
Amid such distrust, any Chinese rapprochement with America should be understood for what it is: a bid to buy time while China races to become stronger. China’s rulers are not hiding their worldview, which is based on the idea that only the powerful are treated with respect. America can choose whether or not to compete. But it has been warned: American gridlock would be a win for China. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “How China sees America”