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China's View of U.S. Presidential Politics

Interviewee: Jia Qingguo
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
April 25, 2012

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The Chinese leadership is following the U.S. presidential campaign very closely, says Jia Qingguo, a leading American studies scholar, "because whoever gets elected may make policies that have serious consequences for China." He says it is fashionable to criticize China during an election, but some of these criticisms reflect U.S. domestic problems. "Significant parts of the U.S. economy are in trouble and you need to find a scapegoat, and China happens to be the one," Jia says. "But if the past experience serves as a guide, a new president will not significantly change the U.S. policy toward China because the relationship between the two countries has become so close and the interests have become so intertwined."

Does the Chinese leadership follow the U.S. election pretty closely?

Definitely. I think the Chinese leaders pay a lot of attention to what's going on in the United States, especially the presidential campaign, because whoever gets elected may make policies that have serious consequences for China. So it's customary that the Chinese leaders pay a lot of attention to U.S. elections.

President Obama visited China in November 2009, and President Hu was in the United States last year. This year, Vice President Xi was in Washington on a kind of "getting acquainted" visit. How is President Obama regarded in China?

I think he's highly respected. Of course, people have problems with him for different reasons. For example, his decision to sell weapons to Taiwan and also his decision to meet the Dalai Lama were not appreciated. But otherwise, he's highly respected as a leader with vision, and also for being a very articulate and pragmatic person.

The United States would like more flexibility in China's currency and in trade. Trade is, of course, a big political issue in the United States given the economic problems we've had in the last several years. Does this bother the Chinese, or do they take this as just U.S. politics?

China has taken seriously U.S. complaints, but at the same time has made some adjustment in its currency policy. Actually, the currency has appreciated by something like 30-plus percent in the past few years, but at the same time, the Chinese believe that the talk about trade and currency issues reflects domestic political considerations. The Chinese feel the United States needs to fix its own economy and also fix its own currency exchange rate problem rather than just complaining to China about these problems. From the Chinese perspective, both countries need to work together more and criticize each other less on such kind of issues.

President Obama did announce several months ago that the United States was going to direct more of its military into the Asia-Pacific. The United States is sending some Marines to be stationed in the western part of Australia. Do the Chinese see this military buildup in Asia in any way threatening?

Well, only some people who have a very serious suspicion of what the United States is doing feel threatened. Actually, most people regard it as a sort of a symbolic move. It's more like posturing. You send 250 people to Australia, but actually the United States has been cutting its defense budget, and probably this affects other parts of the world more seriously than in the Asia-Pacific region. So it's not a great effort to boost the military presence in the Asia-Pacific region with an intention to have a military showdown with China. Most people in China probably would not draw that kind of a conclusion.

Romney, like other Republicans, has also been very critical of China on its economic policies. Is there a concern that if Romney is elected there might be a significant change in U.S.-China policy?

The Chinese know it's fashionable to criticize China during presidential elections, but the problem is [that] a number of problems in the United States are really domestic. Significant parts of the U.S. economy are in trouble and you need to find a scapegoat, and China happens to be the one. But if the past experience serves as a guide, a new president will not significantly change the U.S. policy toward China because the relationship between the two countries has become so close and the interests have become so intertwined. It's very difficult for a new administration to significantly change its China policy without bringing a lot of damage to [the] U.S. economy and U.S. national interest.

Romney has Chinese specialists on his staff, some of whom worked for President George W. Bush. How were President Bush's relations with China?

At the beginning, we had some rocky days, especially after the downing of the U.S. spy plane over Hainan Island. But after 9/11, the relationship began to improve significantly, and by the second term of his administration, the relationship became very good. This has become a pattern, actually, when you look at the history of U.S.-China relations. When an opposition party leader comes into office, in general, during the first couple years you have some problems in the relationship, but after they get to know each other--after you no longer need to make campaign promises, commitments--the relationship begins to improve.

And of course, this year marks the fortieth anniversary of President Richard M. Nixon's visit to meet with Mao Zedong in Beijing. Is this a moment for much celebration in China?

Definitely, for a lot of people. That was a moment when China's destiny began to change significantly. China began to reintegrate with the outside world, and China's international security situation began to significantly moderate, and of course later on in 1979, China formally normalized relations with the United States and then embarked on the process of economic reforms and openness. So from that point on, China has been moving in the right direction.

I've been struck by how many Chinese students are now studying in the United States. You yourself are a veteran of the U.S. education system. Are U.S. schools very popular for Chinese students?

Oh, definitely. This is the top priority for a lot of students in China, and the competition is getting more intense. A lot of people hope that they will have a chance to study in the United States, and with the rise in living standards in China, more and more people can afford to do [so] on their own rather than relying on fellowships and scholarships as in the past.

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