Beijing (dpa) – On an autumn evening in Beijing, people from the United States, Canada and China gathered at a pub in the city centre to watch the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
While nearly all the foreigners were Clinton supporters, many of the Chinese viewers had mixed reactions.
“Trump doesn’t seem that bad. I thought he’d be totally crazy, but he seems pretty smart,” said Chen Yu, a student at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University.
Chen and his classmates laughed when Trump blamed China for stealing jobs from US citizens and devaluing its currency to gain an unfair trade advantage.
“Look at what China is doing to our country,” Trump said. “They are using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China.”
In May, the Republican nominee had gone as far as to describe China’s trade relationship with the US as “rape.”
But despite his attacks, Trump counts a number of Chinese admirers. Some have even set up groups on social media with names such as “Donald J Trump Superfans Nation.”
Official Chinese media, meanwhile, have jumped onto the opportunities Trump’s scandals present to point out the failings of Western democratic societies.
In a popular editorial, the state-run Global Times called Trump a “narcissistic and inflammatory candidate” who acts like “a clown,” expressing alarm that he could become president in “one of the most developed and mature democratic election systems” in the world.
The newspaper warned that people like Trump are not only “big-mouthed,” they can be dangerous.
“Mussolini and Hitler came to power through elections, a heavy lesson for Western democracy,” it said.
But analysts say that events over the past year – from Brexit to Trump’s rise – have tarnished the image of democracy in China, where there is no meaningful political opposition to Communist Party rule.
“Even Chinese citizens who are sceptical, who have travelled abroad, see that there are genuinely worrying events in the US.
The Chinese media doesn’t have to make it up,” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese and world history at the University of California, Irvine, in an interview with dpa.
Ying Ying, a banker in Beijing, agreed: “What’s happening in the US and Europe really doesn’t make democracy look good.”
A commentary from the official Xinhua news agency earlier attacked Trump for playing the “China-bashing card” in his efforts to shore up his support, and accused him of offering no real ideas on how to improve relations.
Xinhua also said Trump’s policy ideas had “betrayed” the Republicans’ traditional endorsement of free trade.
Some Chinese are worried that if Trump wins, China’s economy will suffer. Leaders have assured citizens China will meet the government’s growth target of 6.5 to 7 per cent for 2016.
“If Trump becomes president, he would add heavy taxes to export products, delivering a huge strike to China’s economy,” Hu Die, a trade company employee in Beijing told dpa.
But many Chinese still think that even an election involving Trump is better than no elections at all.
“I hate the Chinese here who support Trump for fun
“But I understand those people who would vote for Trump to show their unhappiness with the current government. It isn’t going to solve the problems, but they have that right,” said An Ruyi, an assistant television producer.
“China doesn’t have politicians who act like Trump. But at least they have elections in the US. I would still like to have the opportunity to vote,” said Guo Guo, a product manager at a Chinese technology company.