China Thinks Hillary Is Bossy

Why there's no love lost between Beijing and America's 2016 frontrunner-in-waiting.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton’s unstated but near-inevitable campaign for the 2016 presidency is ramping up with the June 10 release of Hard Choices, her memoir of her time as secretary of state, and the (soon-to-be) countless corresponding press interviews. The book will hopefully help broaden the conversation from Benghazi — the Libyan city where gunmen killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Sept. 2012 — to a broader reckoning of her four-year tenure at the State Department, and from her past record to her future policies.

Clinton’s complicated dance with China, for example, is a far more important guide to U.S. policy than what she did or did not know about embassy security in Libya. In her book, according to the Washington Post, Clinton describes three choices for managing Asia: “broadening the U.S. relationship with China, strengthening alliances with others in the region as a counterbalance to China, or elevating multilateral organizations in the region. ‘I decided that the smart power choice was to meld all three approaches,’ she writes.” Foreign affairs specialist Walter Russell Mead describes her as “a realist who believes that the United States and China can reach a genuine accommodation based on economic interests and a common desire to avoid war.”

What do the Chinese and their leaders think of Clinton? There are no credible polls demonstrating how China’s 1.4 billion people perceive U.S. politicians — or their own, for that matter. But a close read of Chinese media and Internet chatter, as well as dozens of interviews, reveal that the thought of President Hillary incites a surprising amount of anger among Chinese intellectuals, average citizens, and — judging from the way state media covers her — possibly China’s leaders as well.

As part of a special package after Clinton left the State Department, entitled “The Departure of an ‘Adversary,'” the nationalist newspaper the Global Times summarized her tenure, writing that “in just four years in office, Hillary has quickly become, in the eyes of Chinese netizens, the most hated U.S. political figure.” While discussion of Clinton on the Chinese Internet also features anodyne debates about U.S. politics and admiration of her success, it generally ranges from musings on why she “hates” China to ad hominem attacks rallying against the idea of a Hillary Clinton administration. “She can’t even manage her husband, and yet she wants to manage a country?” asked one user of Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, in a representative comment.

Much of the negative opinion against Hillary in China seems to come from the state media’s portrayal of her over the last decade, both during her time in office and afterwards, as a tough, sharp, unfriendly “iron lady.” State media pores over her personal life, printing thinly sourced speculations about her sexual orientation and obsessing over her fashion choices. While even respected U.S. publications run stories on Clinton’s hairstyle, the superficial details occupy a far larger percentage of Chinese coverage. A slideshow by People’s Daily Online, the website of the party’s official mouthpiece, consists of photos showing Hillary’s hairstyles from different periods, such as “the most country-bumpkin” look and “the most over-the-top” look. “We don’t have a lot of channels to learn about American politicians,” admitted a deputy director of the Department of Online Forums at People’s Daily Online, who asked to remain anonymous. “Only the gossip makes it into Chinese newspapers.”

Antipathy from Chinese political pundits, however, seems to be inspired by a deep dislike of Clinton’s policies, especially the so-called pivot to Asia — a strategy Clinton rolled out in Foreign Policy in October 2011 while she was secretary of state. More specifically, Chinese foreign policy analysts feel she spent far too much time criticizing China — the second of her three approaches mentioned above — and not enough time accommodating China.

Clinton’s tenure overlapped with an increase in tensions among China and its neighbors — especially regarding disputed territories in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. It also overlapped with Beijing’s growing assertiveness, after the country’s economy emerged largely unscathed from the Great Recession. Much Chinese anger seems to come from Hillary publically standing up to China — something she pointedly did in press interviews and on most of the seven trips she took there as secretary of state. (At least she’s consistent: Clinton even did so in a famous 1995 trip to China as first lady, when she took Beijing to task for limiting discussion of women’s issues.)

One prominent Chinese expert on international relations, who asked not to be quoted by name, called Clinton “unnecessarily harsh on China,” “undiplomatic,” and “unstable.” He relayed the story of a 2009 meeting with Wu Bangguo, then China’s second-highest-ranking official, in which she praised him in private but criticized China in public. Privately, the expert said, Clinton deals well with Chinese officials. “But openly she is so hostile to us! You cannot give a home to a Chinese leader and then slash his face the next day!” he fumed. Clinton pointedly called freedom of navigation in the South China Sea a U.S. “national interest” in 2010, incensing Beijing. And in the spring of 2011, she called China’s human rights record “deplorable.”

Of her spring 2012 negotiation with Beijing over the blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, Clinton writes in her memoir: “Some of the president’s aides worried that we were about to destroy America’s relationship with China.” The negotiation, however, seemed to sit better with Beijing because she didn’t publically criticize the government during that tense period. She managed to negotiate a face-saving release for Chen; and that May’s Strategic and Economic Dialogue, an important policy meeting between China and the United States, went smoothly.

Her September 2012 trip to China — her last as secretary — was rockier. Tensions between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea were rising, and Beijing did not appreciate Hillary’s stated support for Japan. The day before she arrived, the well-known Chinese pundit Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan spoke to the Global Times in a story about Clinton. “The United States always says it’s not trying to contain China, but of its 11 aircraft carriers, six are patrolling in the Asia Pacific, 60 percent of its nuclear submarines, two-thirds of its warships,” he said, in r
esponse to a prompt about Clinton. “With China’s disputes with its neighbors,” he continued, “the United States always stands on the opposite side, fanning the flames.”

Jin Canrong, associate dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University in Beijing agreed, telling Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao that the secretary’s September 2012 Asia trip was “part fire-fighting, and part adding fuel to the fire.” To make matters worse, Clinton always spoke maliciously about China, Luo added. “At the very least, she should learn some diplomacy from her husband,” he said.

In a Sept. 2012 essay, Kuai Zheyuan, deputy director of the Committee for the Compilation and Publication of the Writings of Senior Party Leaders, a government think tank, wrote about Clinton’s influence on Asia: “In order to protect the United States hegemony and contain China’s rise, the United States inserted itself into territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and China’s dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands.” If Clinton and Obama don’t let up, Kuai wrote, they will turn China into an enemy.

When Chinese evaluate Clinton independent of her policies toward their country, however, they seem to have a more positive impression. “Hillary is a career woman who pursues her ideals,” said Chun Shu, a Beijing-based writer. “She is resilient and not afraid of failures.” Wang Qi, a graduate student in international politics at Shanghai Jiaotong University, sees her as domineering but also wise, and praised her principles and vision. On Dangdang.com, China’s largest online bookseller, there are more than a dozen Clinton-inspired self-help books, ranging from Hillary’s 24 Success Tips for Women to Learn to Give an Elegant Speech from Secretary of the State Hillary.

“People knew her not when she became first lady, but when her husband’s love affair became public” in the late 1990s, said Du Hui, a 34-year-old sales manager at Beijing World Publishing Company, a state-owned publishing house that markets foreign books to Chinese readers. “A lot of people don’t like her because of her assertiveness and aggressiveness. But because of the Lewinsky scandal, in which she was the victim, people also have sympathy for her,” he said. “I was impressed by how Hillary handled her husband’s sex scandal,” said Ms. Wei, a civil servant in Zibo, a city in eastern China, who asked to only be identified by her last name. “I think she decided to forgive him because she was able to look at the big picture and consider the general interest of everyone involved.”

During the 2008 presidential primaries, Sina news conducted a survey in which 79 percent of the nearly 8,000 respondents thought Clinton would win the election. When she lost the Democratic primary, the Chinese news portal Netease published “The Tragedy of Hillary,” a special feature about why she failed. “With the United States only able to choose between a strong, white woman and a black boy, they picked the latter,” it opined, trading entrenched sexism for casual racism.

Obviously, Clinton is not the only prominent U.S. politician to be criticized by Chinese media.

George W. Bush, for example, has often been ridiculed for supposedly “having the second-lowest IQ among American presidents” (behind Warren G. Harding). But the way in which Chinese media depicts Clinton seems to demonstrate a profound discomfort with her among top party officials, perhaps because she is a woman.

“There is a tremendous amount of sexism involved. I think Hillary is terrifying to them,” said Kelley Currie, a senior fellow at Project 2049 Institute who has worked extensively with the Chinese government on human rights issues. “They’re a bunch of old men who dye their hair and wear shoe lifts and are used to women serving them tea. She is not something they are used to dealing with in their political system. And she’s not going to pull her punches with them, in the way that even the most senior women they deal with do.” (There have been no women in the Politburo Standing Committee, the top Party leadership body, since the Mao era.)

More generally, Chinese invariably attach masculine or nefarious attributes to the Chinese women who have achieved power, writes Paul French, an author and historian of 20th-century China. Former Vice Premier Wu Yi — a tough negotiator — was often called “Iron Lady.” Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing, the highest-ranking woman in Chinese Communist Party history, who was sentenced to life imprisonment not long after the death of Mao, was called a “white-boned demon” who seduced Mao and led him astray. “Women, so the thinking goes, can only be successful through their sexuality, or through their manliness,” writes French.

Yet ordinary Chinese appear to feel more sympathetic toward Clinton than political pundits and government officials in Beijing. Hillary is “capable, domineering, and rational,” said Mr. Li, a 41-year-old university teacher in the eastern Chinese city of Jinan, who asked to go by just his surname. Her problem, he added, “is that she doesn’t have a good image in China.” Ms. Wei, the civil servant, thinks Clinton is representative of successful women and can handle challenging situations, but “can sound single-minded and hostile, which sometimes annoys the Chinese.”

According to many of the people interviewed for this article, Vice President Joe Biden would be a better choice for Democratic candidate. Unlike Clinton, Biden “doesn’t seem to see his job as carrying out the God-given mission of the United States and bringing China to its knees,” said Han Deqiang, an aeronautics professor and the founder of the well-known leftist website Utopia. Biden, in both the United States and China, has an uncommon touch for connecting with people. During an Aug. 2011 trip there, Biden ate at a local Beijing restaurant that specializes in pig intestine stew. “His choice to dine local makes him seem much closer to the Chinese people,” said Du. “Many Chinese are left with the impression that Hillary Clinton is a bit aggressive, whereas Joe Biden appears much more moderate and restrained,” said Chen Chenchen, an opinion editor for the English edition of the Global Times.

Chinese views of Clinton won’t sway American voters, of course. In fact, China’s negative perception of her might actually be an asset in a presidential run, if she decides to take that step. And if she does win, one imagines she’ll work out a way of “broadening the U.S. relationship with China,” as Clinton wrote in her book. That seems more likely than Beijing learning how to deal with Hillary.

With research by Liz Carter.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish
A Beijing native, Helen Gao is a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy and an MA candidate in East Asian Studies at Harvard. Twitter: @yuxin_gao

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