Both criticized the other for being too soft on Beijing, with Trump accusing Biden of being hoodwinked by China during his time as vice president, and Biden hitting Trump for saying “what a great job” Chinese President Xi Jinping was doing at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
But while Beijing would rather not be a topic at all in the United States election, and this rare consensus represents a growing anti-China strain in Washington, the debate as a whole will have raised spirits in the Chinese capital.
For decades, Beijing has criticized US-style democracy, holding up (very real) flaws in the American system as vindication for Chinese authoritarianism. Anyone advancing reform or liberalization in China is forced to answer for every failure in the US, and made to justify why that will be better than the Chinese system, which may not offer much in terms of representation, but at least provides stability and economic growth.
China got only a glancing mention in Tuesday night’s first Presidential debate, with Trump saying the virus that has killed more than 200,000 Americans “is China’s fault.” Biden has been buoyed by an August Fox News poll that shows more Americans trust him over Trump to handle China, perhaps in reaction to Trump’s swings between painting China as an existential threat to the U.S. and effusive praise toward Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
But many Trump supporters, if not most Americans, have become accustomed to Trump’s praise of strongmen in public, which in this case has given way to a barrage of insults, slamming Xi for letting the “Wuhan virus” spread. And Trump’s arguments that the Obama Administration was fooled by China could be persuasive if they make it to a future debate stage, says Michael Green, an Asia specialist from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Trump Administration’s line,” says Green, a former Bush official who has backed Biden, “is that everybody was duped by China.” Green says that is “ridiculous and wrong…but it’s a pretty easy line to use in a debate.”
Sure enough, Trump’s debate one-liner was, “China ate your lunch, Joe.”
Biden’s riposte highlighted that the U.S. trade deficit with China has only grown since Trump signed a trade deal with China in January. “He talks about the art of the deal, China has made — perfected the art of the steal,” he said. But it will be tricky for Biden to counter these charges in clear terms to the American people, if asked and actually given an opportunity to answer in one of the next two debates. During his early years as Vice President, Washington and key allies like the U.K. were still hopeful of working with China, guardedly optimistic that Chinese Communist Party leaders could be carrot-pulled into more free-market, human-rights and democracy-oriented behavior.
The last year has seen China double down in a different direction. Its crackdown on Hong Kong demonstrators culminated in enacting a National Security Law on the region, decades ahead of when the city’s semi-autonomous status is meant to end. China has also continued its crackdown on Muslim Uighurs, with hundreds of thousands reportedly sent to re-education camps.
The Trump Administration has accused Chinese leaders of being slow to tell the world how easily COVID-19 was spreading from person to person, and slow to admit a WHO team trying to investigate the outbreak. The Administration criticized China for releasing a DNA map of the virus without also sharing actual physical samples, which could help determine whether it jumped from animals or originated in a Chinese weapons lab, a popular but unsubstantiated theory among some in the GOP that is ridiculed by Chinese officials..