Despite Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai’s comments during an interview with CNN on Tuesday, in which he stated “we take no sides,” outside the Chinese leadership, the Chinese have indeed been taking sides.
In a survey of 3,300 respondents in China conducted by the state-owned newspaper Global Times in March, some 54% preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. Another poll in May conducted of 24,449 people by the Chinese language Phoenix TV website showed 61.5% supported Trump, with only 7.8% favoring Clinton.
Perhaps behind Trump’s initial popularity among Chinese were his isolationist foreign policy views—unlikely to stand in the way of a rising China. During an interview with The Economist in 2015, Trump brushed aside China’s construction of airstrips on reefs in the South China Sea, calling them: “very far away” and “already built.” Also, his perceived status among Chinese as a successful businessman may have also helped explain his popularity even after a number of anti-China statements, as he was seen a more pragmatic dealmaker on trade issues “election talk is just election talk,” than as an ardent human rights advocate and defense hawk like Hillary.
Yet while many Chinese distrust Hillary as an aggressive hawk, and may be happy she lost the election, other Chinese may now be rethinking their earlier support for a Donald Trump presidency as fears over a trade war grow in recent days.
One of those concerned is Chinese President Xi Jinping, who spoke with Trump on Monday to congratulate the new leader. According to the Financial Times, during the conversation Xi emphasized that cooperation between the two countries was the “only correct choice.”
Some pundits believe Xi was advising and warning Trump to back down on his campaign rhetoric, accusing China of “raping” the U.S. and promising to impose a 45% tariff on Chinese imports. Trump has also promised to abandon the Paris climate change agreement ratified in September by U.S. President Barack Obama and Xi.
In recent days, president-elect Trump has attempted to soften some of his earlier campaign rhetoric, and may yet issue new statements to calm Beijing’s nerves. Yet the often extreme and contradictory positions taken on some issues, and his relative inexperience as a politician and diplomat have created uncertainty over his governance. In a Pew Center survey released on October 5, some 37% of those Chinese polled expressed confidence in Hillary “to do the right thing regarding world affairs”—compared to 22% expressing confidence in Trump.
To the Chinese, Hillary Clinton was the devil they know. Now Beijing and the Chinese, financial markets, and geopolitical pundits must all adjust to this new uncertainty and hope for the best.