This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Whoever wins the U.S. presidential elections, dissidents in China are hoping the occupant of the White House will maintain pressure on Beijing to bring about democratic and economic reforms in the world’s most populous nation.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party has not expressed any strong preference in the tightly contested race between incumbent president Donald Trump, who has taken a tough stance on China, and challenger Joe Biden, who has vowed to call out Beijing’s human rights violations.
“The U.S. election is a domestic affair. China has no position on it,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Wednesday. One report quoted Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yuchen as saying Thursday that despite bilateral disagreements, there is vast room for mutual benefit and cooperation between the two powers.
But many dissidents and liberals in China are hoping Donald Trump will be re-elected, citing his willingness to sanction rights abuses by the CCP, according to a Beijing-based veteran political journalist.
“Everyone is paying close attention to the U.S. election right now,” liberal journalist Gao Yu, who has been jailed for “leaking secrets overseas” after talking to foreign journalists about CCP policy, told RFA.
“This is because Trump has imposed sanctions on the CCP in recent years.”
She said an economic downturn in China would step up domestic political pressure on CCP general secretary Xi Jinping, amid an ongoing trade war with the U.S.
“There is now a lot of unemployment [here in China,” Gao said. “This could be a fatal blow to the CCP.”
Cautious reporting by state media
State-run media in China have generally been cautious in their reporting on the U.S. presidential election so far, but social media platforms are awash with commentary and speculation.
Comments were flying thick and fast this week on chat apps and social media platforms both inside and outside the complex system of blocks, filters, and human censorship known as the Great Firewall, according to observations by RFA reporters.
While some support Trump, a number of comments have appeared in recent days supporting Joe Biden, in the belief that he will end the high trade tariffs imposed on Chinese imports by the Trump administration.
They believe that a Biden presidency would mean an improvement in bilateral ties, which have been increasingly strained in the past two years.
Still other comments said little would change for China, regardless of who ends up in the White House.
According to Beijing academic Zhou Tong, many in China are watching closely.
“Biden, as a Democrat, is more about reconciliation … as the Democratic Party has always pursued closer Sino-U.S. ties,” Zhou said. “The Democratic Party has been unwilling to get confrontational [with China].”
But he added: “The current China problem isn’t just an issue for the people of China; it’s a war between democracy and autocracy; a problem for the whole of humanity.”
A Hubei resident surnamed Gao said he is hoping for a Trump win.
“This is a president who fights for justice,” he said. “I hope Trump gets re-elected.”
Widely differing opinions
A Chinese legal professional surnamed Li said many in China think the outcome of this presidential race will affect them like never before.
“The Chinese people, especially dissidents, have widely differing opinions on the presidential race between Biden and Trump,” Li said. “This election is crucial.”
“Many other issues are involved, not just the Americans choosing their next president from these two candidates,” he said.
Li said his hopes are also with the Trump campaign, as the incumbent has a reputation for standing up to Beijing, by contrast with Democrat presidents Obama and Clinton.
“As someone who is anti-CCP myself, I am hoping that the United States will change its attitude towards the CCP,” Li said.
Li Datong, the former editor-in-chief of Freezing Point Weekly, who published an open letter in 2018 opposing Xi Jinping’s abolition of term limits for presidential office, said the U.S. election is a hot topic among Chinese officials, albeit behind closed doors.
“The group chat headlines are providing information in real time, and we are hearing about it no later than the Americans,” Li told RFA on Thursday, as counting continued.
He said China’s state-run media is no longer interested in reporting public opinion in the country, however.
“The so-called mainstream media in China right now could shut down overnight without any impact on Chinese society whatsoever,” he said.
Former government censor Liu Lipeng said anyone setting themselves up as a pundit on the U.S. elections on Chinese social media will likely get their account deleted, amid an ongoing crackdown on citizen journalism.
“On the Chinese internet, the Communist Youth League and the cyberpolice are using social media platforms to set up accounts aimed at young people, particularly on Bilibili and Douyin,” Liu said.
“They are much more relaxed [than official media outlets], and they are talking about the U.S. elections, but they are still official accounts, and they are still toeing the line on official propaganda,” he said.
Taiwan will still count on US support
Vincent Chang, former special deputy minister of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), said the democratic island of Taiwan is also watching the race closely.
“U.S. policy toward China will definitely affect the trilateral relationship between the United States, China, and Taiwan, and the heaviest impact will be on relations with China and the question of Taiwan’s future,” Chang said.
He said that while a Biden victory could somewhat ease the Sino-U.S. relationship, Taiwan would still be depending on U.S. support to counter China’s power, especially as Beijing has refused to rule out invading the island, which it has never controlled, and which has never formed part of the People’s Republic of China.
Taiwan political commentator Wu Tsu-chia said Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen had likely invested too much of her administration’s political support in the Republican Party and the Trump campaign, in the hope that this would yield dividends in case of a military threat from China.
“Over the past few years, the Tsai administration has interacted very closely with the Trump administration, especially when it comes to military cooperation and arms sales and procurement,” Wu told RFA. “But Taiwan is only a passive party in the trilateral relationship, and … are dependent on the relationship between the two major powers, China and the U.S.”
Tsai said in a Facebook post on Thursday that her administration is closely following the election results in the U.S., but that she expects U.S. support for the island, which is governed by the 1911 Republic of China, will continue regardless of who is president.
“We have always maintained close contact with the U.S. Government, the Senate, and the House, both major political parties, and with think tanks and civil society,” Tsai wrote.
“Whatever the outcome of the general election, that will not change, and we will continue to deepen Taiwan-US relations on that basis,” she said. “We are confident, that [support for] Taiwan has become the consensus in the U.S., with bipartisan and strong public support.”
Policy change delays likely
Hong Kong political analyst Derek Yuen said that even if Biden wins and starts to move towards greater rapprochement with the CCP, the effects may be delayed, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Biden has said he wants to rebuild the alliance and will talk more [with Beijing] about the climate issue,” Yuen said. “He should also stop the trade war.”
“But if China doesn’t change its [politically aggressive] behavior in trade and diplomacy, it will be easy for Europe, the U.S., and other countries to resist.”
U.S.-based commentator Chen Pokong said it would be hard for Biden to backtrack on U.S. China policy even if he wins, because engagement has been shown to have failed over the past four decades.
“The past 40 years have shown us that previous U.S. China policy was wrong,” Chen told RFA. “The Trump administration was the first to wake up and start pushing back against the CCP and correct this.”