On a recent October afternoon, wholesale sellers and buyers rush around a shopping complex in Yiwu, China, lugging plastic bags and stuffing their new wares into boxes as tall as they are.
The complex is part of the world’s largest consumer wholesale market. Many “Make America Great Again” hats and Biden-Harris T-shirts for the American presidential campaign came from this one coastal city. Vendors here joke that during the last U.S. presidential election in 2016, they knew who was going to win because orders for Trump merchandise far exceeded those for Hillary Clinton.
This year is different.
“Last election we were selling flags and hats, and it was obvious which side was ordering more. This year it is more balanced,” says You Zhuo, a baseball-cap seller in Yiwu.
She, like dozens of other vendors here who supply the T-shirts, masks and bumper stickers for American political campaigns, have a curious window into American politics. You says despite the increasingly tense relations between the U.S. and China, she is happy to supply American campaigns.
“Under Obama, relations [with the U.S.] were good, but China’s development was mediocre. With Trump, it is like you have someone chasing you all the time, but we have developed powerfully as a result,” You says.
Trump being good for China has been, perhaps surprisingly, a common refrain among Chinese policymakers, who see the U.S. president as accelerating America’s decline while aiding China’s rise.
“Another four years of Trump would further divide the U.S. This is beneficial to Beijing,” says Deng Yuwen, a Chinese political commentator.
Despite a rising U.S. bipartisan consensus on taking a more hard-line approach toward Beijing, he says American lawmakers may be distracted under a Trump presidency by hot-button issues such as health care and immigration.
“Foreign policy may suffer because energy is diverted away,” Deng says. “In this case, America’s appeal and leadership in the world would dip.”
Others see an opportunity for China to hunker down and build its resilience as the U.S. rolls out trade sanctions on Chinese tech firms. In the past year, the Trump administration has tried to remove TikTok and the messaging app WeChat from U.S. app stores and has restricted sales of semiconductor equipment and components to Chinese telecom firm Huawei.
“China thinks this way: ‘The more you hold me down, the more I push back. The more you withhold, the more I innovate. If you hit me, I do not hit back, but I know my weaknesses and I will unceasingly work harder,’ ” says Wei Jianguo, a former commerce vice minister who now helps lead a government think tank.
Still, nearly four years of Trump and a coronavirus pandemic that he blames on China have left Beijing anxious about a second term.
Trump’s gone from calling leader Xi Jinping a “friend” to putting sanctions on senior Communist Party officials and the country’s biggest technology firms. His administration has expelled Chinese journalists, made it harder for Chinese students to stay in the U.S. and even closed the Chinese Consulate in Houston.
“I think the decision-makers in Beijing don’t like the Trump administration that much because of this unpredictability; you never know what it’s going to do next,” says Zou Yue, an anchor for China’s state broadcaster.
Zou says Chinese decision-makers hope for stability under a potential Biden administration. But he warns that no matter who wins, policymakers in Beijing expect the U.S. to continue to be tough on Chinese trade and pursue further economic restrictions on technology firms.
“I think the agreement here in China is that America is going to be more critical of China and the policies will be more aggressive,” Zou says. “It’s just to what degree.”
Calculating what comes next
China has been restrained in its relations with the U.S. the last few months, with the exception of ratcheting up tensions with Taiwan, as it waits to see who wins the election.
“[The U.S. is] still the most important variable for China when it comes to its rise and rejuvenation,” says Rush Doshi, who studies China at the Brookings Institution.
“[An] American decline is a mixture of reward and risk. The risk comes from the fact that a declining America, while it might open up space for China, will also lash out in dangerous ways,” Doshi says. “But that doesn’t mean they don’t still see opportunity, and as they themselves put it, the opportunity is often greater than the risk.”
On Thursday, China’s Communist Party Central Committee concluded its fifth plenum, a gathering of some 300 top party officials during which the country’s economic plans for the next five years are decided. Central among those economic plans is a broad initiative dubbed “dual circulation,” which aims to build resilience into China’s high-tech sectors and wean the country’s economy away from foreign trade.
That, and a successfully contained coronavirus epidemic, means Beijing feels confident it can prepare for whoever wins the U.S. presidential race, says Deng, the political commentator.
“When you put two and two together,” he says, “I think Beijing would prefer to wait out an American decline because it may think that it could weather further pressures from Washington.”
U.S. political tension is an opportunity that the vendors at Yiwu continue to take advantage of. One of them, Song Juexian, shows us her wares: piles of printed face masks, all destined for one country — the United States.
In recent months, she has shipped hundreds of thousands of masks to America with slogans such as “Trump 2020 Keep America Great” and “Jesus Is My Savior Trump Is My President.”
Song says she has no idea what these slogans mean. She mistakes former President Barack Obama for Joe Biden and doesn’t know much about the image on her most recent orders. “This old man?” she says, pointing to Trump. “Isn’t he the American president?”
The average person in China such as Song may not care about what happens Tuesday. Those in Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party’s Beijing headquarters, certainly do.
Amy Cheng contributed research from Yiwu.