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Chinese find some unexpected moments in US presidential debate

In the end, Obama and Romney sound more realistic about how far they can influence Beijing, say analysts.

Exercises in democracy such as Monday night’s US presidential debate are not the sort of event the Chinese authorities choose to broadcast on television, so few Chinese citizens witnessed it. But the debate will not have thrown many surprises to the privileged officials with access to CNN.

China was not much more than an afterthought on an evening dominated by the Middle East and other issues; even its traditional role in US presidential campaign politics, as a whipping boy, seemed unusually muted.

Indeed, Mitt Romney provided the most unexpected moment in the China segment of the debate when he started by pointing out that both Beijing and Washington shared an interest in ensuring a stable, peaceful, and free trading world.

“Romney’s attitude surprised me,” says Sun Zhe, head of the Center for Research on Sino-US Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “I think he showed his real self in the debate, and that his earlier criticism of China was exaggerated.”

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That did not stop the Republican candidate from repeating his flagship campaign promise on China — that he will declare America’s second largest trading partner a currency manipulator “on Day 1.”

Theoretically this could lead to new tariffs on Chinese exports to the US, but the authorities in Beijing do not expect such moves, says Professor Sun. Complaints that the renminbi currency is deliberately undervalued to make Chinese exports cheaper are “out of date,” argues Sun. The renminbi’s real exchange rate against the US dollar has strengthened by 30 percent over the past five years, and Beijing’s current account surplus has dropped from more than 10 percent of GDP in 2007 to around 2 percent now.

Nor was a commentator on the state-run news agency Xinhua impressed by calls from both President Obama and Romney for China to “play by the rules” of international trade.

China “is not duty bound to abide by the regulations designed by a certain country,” wrote Liu Chang, in a response to the debate. “Willing or not, Democratic or Republican, the next US president shall have to tone down his get-tough-on-China rhetoric made along the campaign trail and deal with his country’s sclerotic inaptness toward China’s inevitable rise.” 

One sign of the changing times, however, lay in what was not said during the debate, suggests Hu Xingdou, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. “Political issues such as human rights were not mentioned,” he points out. “Obama and Romney are more realistic” about how far they can influence Beijing.