China’s Response to the U.S. Political Conventions? Big Yawn

The U.S. may be all agog with the pageantry and pomp of its political conventions, but the Chinese? Not so much

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Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, is shown on the jumbo screens at the Republican National Convention in Tampa on Aug. 27, 2012

As the American political-convention season chugs along, what has been the response in China, a country that reliably emerges as a whipping boy for both political parties during U.S. electoral campaigns? So far in the People’s Republic, the 2012 U.S. election has provoked little more than a long and deliberate yawn. “Obama, Romney, who cares,” appears to be the prevailing Chinese attitude. There are far more pressing issues on the home front — juicy corruption cases, disintegrating bridges, deadly road accidents — than some electoral outcome in a country across the Pacific.

Take as an example the Aug. 30 editorial headlined “U.S. Election Barely Matters for China,” in which the Beijing-based Global Times opined:

To China, the U.S. matters less than before. Even though the majority of Chinese think the U.S. intends to contain China and are worried about potential confrontation between the two sides, but the worry hasn’t generated much apprehension. Chinese increasingly believe the biggest challenge for the country comes from within. Washington cannot easily threaten us. Any move of the U.S. against China will be responded to accordingly.

(MORE: What You Missed While Not Watching the Convention)

It’s tempting to think that such strenuous underlining of how much America does not matter to China actually betrays an opposite sentiment. But on Weibo, the microblog that serves as the unofficial pulse of China’s wired public, the movements of the American political machinery barely elicited a flicker of interest. The lack of curiosity is partly related to the absence of electoral knowledge among the Chinese masses. This is a country where the public has no say in choosing its top leaders, a secretive process set to begin later this year as China undergoes a once-a-decade leadership transition. Parsing the importance of convention politics is hard enough for an American audience, much less a Chinese one.

Still, what about all the anti-China rhetoric emanating from the U.S. political campaigns? Surely that galls the Chinese establishment? For veteran America-watchers in China, there’s a realization that the hullabaloo over China as a trade-hogging, dissident-jailing, all-around bad guy will probably die down come January, if previous campaign seasons are any guide. Will Mitt Romney really, as promised, use his first day of a possible future presidency to label China a currency manipulator and immediately reshape the bilateral trading relationship? Don’t bet on it.

(MORE: Why Asia’s Disputes Aren’t Just About China)

Nevertheless, China’s relations with the U.S. do matter — and, just as in any country, friction points will be used for political benefit by the Chinese government. Just a few days before the Global Times was busily assuring the Chinese public that the outcome of the American presidential election had little impact on the People’s Republic, a spirited editorial in the government’s English-language mouthpiece, the China Daily, attacked Romney:

By any standard, the U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s China policy, as outlined on his official campaign website, is an outdated manifestation of a Cold War mentality. It endorses the ‘China threat’ theory and focuses on containing China’s rise in the Asia-Pacific through bolstering the robust U.S. military presence in the region.

The editorial contrasted Romney unfavorably to Barack Obama, although the Chinese paper also castigated the current U.S. Administration for “covertly or overtly backing some of China’s neighbors in an attempt to add fuel to the fires of the South China Sea disputes.” Early in September, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit China as part of her ongoing Pacific tour. Sure to be on the agenda are tensions in the South China Sea, where territorial claims overlap between China and Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines and Vietnam. On a previous trip to Asia, Clinton told her Vietnamese hosts that the U.S. was committed to helping maintain stability in the vast waterway. The American position naturally drew Beijing’s ire.

(MORE: Turf Wars — a Guide to Asian Geopolitical Conflicts)

Another of China’s regional relations has turned testy in recent weeks. Anti-Japanese protests flared across the country earlier in August after nationalist calls in Tokyo triggered debate over who owns a scattering of islands called the Diaoyu by the Chinese and the Senkaku by the Japanese. Patriots from both sides staged landings on the rocky outcroppings, which are surrounded by plentiful fishing waters but have no human inhabitants. The demonstrations in China were the biggest in seven years; on Aug. 27, a Chinese man ripped the flag off the front of the Japanese ambassador’s car in Beijing, prompting an official complaint from Tokyo. The rhetoric emanating from the Global Times, a reliably jingoistic newspaper, has turned more scathing toward Japan than the U.S.:

Japan’s increasingly radical approach over the island disputes is pushing the Diaoyu issue toward a military confrontation. The Japanese government is dangerously fanning the flames in East Asia.

At a time when concerns over the financial health of the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 economies are coinciding with potential leadership shifts this fall, playing the foreign bogeyman card is a reliable diversion. That’s a political ploy both the U.S. and China are guilty of using.