Tea Leaf Nation

Who Would China Vote for in 2016?

Who Would China Vote for in 2016?

As 2016 draws nearer, a cascade of mostly Republican presidential hopefuls have announced their entry into the U.S. presidential race. Until a successor to current President Barack Obama is selected in November 2016, Americans can count on an increasingly boisterous debate over who will, or should, become the world’s most powerful head of state.

But what if citizens of America’s largest competitor — and many say strategic foe — could vote in the 2016 U.S. presidential election? Though media discussion of domestic politics remains muzzled in China, people there generally enjoy greater freedom to debate international news and politics. And in what has been termed the world’s most important bilateral relationship, the selection of the next U.S. leader is likely to have implications for China and its 1.35 billion residents.

Of all the candidates in the offing so far, former U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton is by far the best known in China. It’s not just among dedicated America-watchers — many average Chinese, from taxi drivers to hair stylists, know her name, pronounced “shee-la-lee” in Mandarin. That’s hardly surprising, as Clinton’s former roles as secretary of state under Obama, as well as that of first lady during her husband’s tenure as president, brought her widespread attention in Chinese media.

But fame doesn’t equal popularity. Clinton is widely reviled in China for her support of the U.S. pivot to Asia, which many in China view as an attempt to contain the country’s rise. State media has dubbed her outspoken criticism of China’s human rights record as “interference” in the country’s domestic affairs. And the April 12 announcement of her presidential candidacy garnered an outpouring of mostly nasty comments on Weibo, China’s huge Twitter-like microblogging platform. “This old woman is extremely anti-China,” read one especially popular comment. “I support women holding office, but I absolutely do not support her.”

Jeb Bush, whose candidacy for presidency attracted moderate media and social media attention in China, fares little better. While few seem to evince familiarity with his individual characteristics, his family’s reputation precedes him. And with a brother whom most Chinese know by the derogatory nickname “Little Bush,” that’s not a plus. Indeed, Chinese web users have already dubbed Bush No. 3 “Little, Little Bush,” while others opined that his election would indicate the United States, dominated by a handful of powerful political families, has become a “fake democracy.”

And then there’s Donald Trump. It might seem possible that the real estate mogul’s larger-than-life charisma and self-made economic success might endear him to the millions of would-be entrepreneurs and investors in China’s burgeoning cities. Not so. In a June 29 report, Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily repeated the common U.S. media refrain that Trump’s candidacy was “embarrassing” for the Republican Party, and Trump’s statement “I’m really rich” as a qualification for the presidency made click-bait headlines in China just as it did in the United States. Social media users readily compared him to Chen Guangbiao, the Chinese philanthropist known for blushingly buffoonish escapades such as attempting to buy the New York Times while exclaiming confidently that he was “very good at working with Jews.”

Honorable mention goes to Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packard CEO and the Republican field’s only female candidate. Her controversial comments earlier this year that Chinese are “not terribly imaginative” and are “stealing our intellectual property” prompted self-reflection among Chinese netizens, who in fact often agree with the charge that China lacks innovation. But Fiorina’s 15 seconds of small-time fame didn’t usher in a prolonged interest in her politics; and besides, voters don’t elect politicians who call them stupid.

As for the others who have thrown their names into the ring so far — on the Republican side, Rick Perry, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Lindsey Graham, and Rick Santorum; and on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Lincoln Chafee — virtually none amount to more than a tiny blip across the vast screen of the Chinese public. Tea Party firebrand Ted Cruz may be disheartened to learn that, despite his martyr-like vision of himself as the new “Galileo” and his rhetorical defense of China’s Christians, his full Chinese name has appeared in a grand total of 43 Weibo posts. Even Estonian soccer, by way of comparison, attracted more interest, with 396 total mentions on the platform.

That leaves just one man left standing: Rand Paul. He’d admittedly be a bit of an underdog if Chinese citizens were the ones voting. Paul is far from a household name in China, and popular discussion on Weibo seems almost as interested in American graphic designer Paul Rand, with whom he shares an equally similar Chinese name, as the libertarian favorite.

But the steady trickle of attention Paul has garnered in China has been generally positive, or at least neutral. The often fervently nationalist state-run Global Times highlighted Paul’s May stand against U.S. government surveillance — which, after the Snowden leaks revealed that the NSA also listened in on Chinese targets, faces heavy criticism among Chinese. Columnist Lu Gang praised Paul’s economic views in an April op-ed in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. In other words, while the U.S. senator from Kentucky is hardly social media gold in mainland China — though his opposition to U.S. military drones has attracted a smattering of support — neither is he ridiculed or despised. For a current American politician navigating today’s increasingly tense U.S.-China relationship, that’s as good as it gets.

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