China Cynical over U.S. Midterm Elections, But Expects Policy Continuity

For the 2012 U.S. presidential election, the U.S. embassy in Beijing arranged a mock polling booth for Chinese to experience democracy. (Credit: AFP)

On Tuesday, November 4, the United States held its 2014 midterm elections and voted the Republican Party into the majority in the U.S. Senate, giving them control of both houses in Congress and, as Chinese analysts noted, a major political victory. The overall Chinese response was cynical about the lack of real democracy in the elections and dismissive of U.S. President Barack Obama’s influence in the last two years of his presidency. Despite some concerns for U.S.-China relations with a more hawkish Republican Congress, Chinese commentators remain optimistic about the future of the bilateral relationship and look forward to President Obama’s visit to Beijing for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit (APEC) later this month (see “Regional Maneuvering” in this issue).

Setting the Stage for Irrelevance

In the run-up to the elections, the official People’s Daily ran a series of articles criticizing the U.S. political system and electoral process as corrupt and disconnected from the American people. The first article traced the history of corruption in the United States and asked “is American-style ‘legal’ corruption democratic?” (People’s Daily, October 15). The second article discussed “money-dominated politics” and explained the two major recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions—Citizens United in 2010 and McCutcheon this April—that “released the tiger of ‘dark money’ out of its cage” (People’s Daily, October 20). The article documented the “arms race” in fundraising by profiling major corporate and individual campaign donors, including Microsoft and Google, and quoted former U.S. Vice President Al Gore as saying, “Our democracy has been invaded.” A third article focused on the “moral and political issue” of income inequality in the United States and concluded that “as more special interest groups control a greater voice in public policy…the U.S. political system has turned cold to the appeals of the poor” (People’s Daily, October 27). The last article documented the endemic “disease” of corruption in Alabama and declining interest in politics, leaving people more susceptible to campaign advertising (People’s Daily, October 31). The article asserted that “the United States is unable to drive money out of politics” because it is too “proud” of its electoral system.

These articles were seemingly intended to set a cynical and dismissive tone for China’s domestic audience that elections are unrepresentative, easily manipulated and an inferior form of governance compared to China’s own socialist system. The message also applied to the United States—with so much dysfunction and malaise in Washington, how can the U.S. government attempt to critique China’s meritocratic political system? This much was made clear in comments by Chinese Ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, published on Election Day. Ambassador Cui remarked on the unpredictable nature of U.S. political candidates: “In the United States, you could have somebody just a few years ago totally unknown to others, and all of a sudden he or she could run for very high office because you use all kinds of media… [and] Super PACS […] in China, you cannot have somebody from a village who the next day could be a national candidate for president. That’s impossible” (Foreign Policy, November 4).

Bad Omen for U.S. Political System

The “United States’ most expensive midterm elections ever” “shuffled the political deck” and left President Obama as a “lame duck” president for his remaining two years in office (Global Times, November 5, Xinhua, November 5). Diao Daming, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’s Institute of American Studies, argued that Democrats performed poorly at the polls because despite the improved employment numbers, the U.S. people have not yet felt the benefits, enabling Republicans to focus on jobs; and Obama’s low approval rating—tied to the Affordable Care Act website, Veterans Affairs hospitals, the illegal immigration crisis, Ferguson, Ukraine, Iraq and Ebola—hurt the larger party on election night (People’s Daily Online, November 5). The article highlighted the continued influence of the Tea Party, citing former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss this June—the first since 1899—as foreshadowing that the election will not solve Washington’s gridlock. Indeed, one article cited Francis Fukuyama’s “vetocracy” argument to predict political paralysis (Beijing Times, November 4). Chinese analysts fear inter-party fighting may lead to another government shutdown over the budget or a vote against raising the debt ceiling next March (Beijing News, November 3). Chinese analysts also saw former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s chances for a successful presidential run in 2016 diminished with the Republican’s current popularity (Phoenix, November 6; Global Times, November 6).

Short Term Concern, Long Term Faith in Washington’s China Policy

Despite the official Chinese government line that U.S.-China relations will be unaffected by the midterms, the Chinese media uniformly predicted short-term changes to Washington’s China policy. Ambassador Cui dismissed expectations or any desire that the midterm elections would impact U.S.-China relations, citing “continuity” between Republican and Democratic governments for China policy (China News, November 5). Xinhua wrote “under Obama’s second term, although China-U.S. relations have had twists and turns, there has been still been an overall stable development” (Xinhua, November 5). Xinhua also said that both political parties will maintain positive U.S.-China relations, because it is in their interests and the country’s interests.

Diao Daming included a lengthy discussion of the major shakeup in Congress’ China and Taiwan lobbies (People’s Daily Online, November 5). In the House, 17 out of 127 pro-Taiwan Representatives left office, as well as six of 38 pro-China and eight of 44 U.S.-China Working Group Representatives—including known human rights advocate Frank Wolf and currency stickler Mike Michaud. In the Senate, 11 of 25 pro-Taiwan Senators also left. This led Diao to hope Congress would take a softer line toward China, while Global Times argued that Congress will instead be “more wolf-like and more acrimonious toward China,” if only because the Republicans will want to oppose President Obama (Global Times, November 6). Yet Global Times ultimately concluded that U.S.-China relations had seen bigger changes in Congress and had weathered worse periods than now. This means that “the existing system in Washington will not necessarily encourage a radical change in its China policy. As long as we do not deliberately provoke the United States, while their China policy may be contentious and have some incidents, there will also be a certain inertia to it.”

With President Obama facing his last two years with an opposition Congress, Diao Daming expects the “Rebalance to Asia” to play a prominent role in Obama’s efforts to shape his legacy, as it is his only major foreign policy success (People’s Daily Online, November 5). Yet, Diao argued that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) may now be more difficult to pass through Congress, as certain parts of the Republican Party oppose it. He predicted U.S. foreign policy would be even more limited by domestic constraints, as evidenced President Obama’s “inward” decision to not attend the last APEC summit during the 2013 shutdown.

Echoing concerns raised by Ambassador Cui, Diao worried about the damage caused to U.S.-China “trust” by China again becoming a campaign issue. Arguing that the 2008 Financial Crisis returned the economy to the forefront of U.S. politics, Diao claimed China has again become a “foil” for U.S. domestic issues, with the 2006 midterms being dominated by discussions of China as a currency manipulator and the 2010 midterms features vicious anti-China attack ads.

Taking Stock

Chinese criticism of the U.S. political system, especially when done without any introspection about the similar shortcomings of China’s own political system, raises the question—does China dismiss U.S. elections out of sincere beliefs, insecurities over political legitimacy at home, or as a soft power attack on “American exceptionalism?” Despite this cynicism, China does pay a great deal of attention to U.S. politics and Chinese leaders, likely more informed than the average U.S. voter, are able to make sensible predictions about U.S. policy. While China’s accurate labeling of President Obama as a “lame duck” may appear to suggest the Chinese government now sees the United States as vulnerable, weak or dysfunctional and thus may take this opportunity to become more assertive, Beijing is unlikely to change its current approach to bilateral relations. Ultimately, U.S.-China relations are so important to Beijing that the Chinese leadership will continue to engage with President Obama, despite the setback of the U.S. midterm election.