Like everyone else across the country and the world, China’s leaders are likely watching the contentious presidential campaign unfolding in the United States and anxiously wondering what it means for them. After their four-year rumble with Donald Trump, the Chinese should be counting the months, weeks, days, and minutes to the November election, hoping a (more pliable) Democrat takes over the White House, right? That’s certainly what Trump believes. The Chinese, he tweeted, “are desperate to have Sleepy Joe Biden win the presidential race so they can continue to rip-off the United States, as they have done for decades, until I came along!”
That’s not necessarily true. From Beijing’s perspective, while a Democratic presidency may restore a more predictable form of American diplomacy, that may not best serve Chinese interests. In fact, four more years of Trump—though likely packed with annoyances and disputes—might present tantalizing opportunities for China to expand its influence around East Asia and the world.
Of course, we can’t know with certainty what outcome China’s senior cadres prefer, or if they even agree among themselves. No candidate should expect an endorsement from People’s Daily. Still, there are clues. In a highly unusual comment, the former Chinese trade negotiator Long Yongtu reportedly told a Shenzhen conference late last year, “We want Trump to be reelected; we would be glad to see that happen.” The president’s tweets make him “easy to read,” Long said, and thus “the best choice in an opponent for negotiations.” In May, Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor of the Communist Party–-run newspaper Global Times, tweeted at Trump that the Chinese “wish for your reelection because you can make America eccentric and thus hateful for the world. You help promote unity in China.” Hu added that “Chinese netizens call you ‘Jianguo,’ meaning ‘help to construct China.’” Long and Hu may not be speaking for the Beijing leadership, but no Chinese official or state-media figure would risk making such statements in public if their views were taboo in the inner circle of power.