Will the Internet Generation "Take China Down"?

As a colourful Republican field vies for the chance to take on Obama in next year’s presidential election, the China issue has been a focal point of debate. Most candidates have competed to adopt a harder line than their rivals on Chinese trade and currency practices, provoking accusations of anti-China pandering from former ambassador Jon Huntsman. For the most part, though, China has remained relatively unruffled. From a Politico piece on the attacks, quoting Orville Schell:

“Initially, the Chinese were very offended by these statements, but over the last few years they’ve acquired a more sophisticated knowledge about the almost craziness that comes over a country during the campaign. They’re beginning to understand they should not react to everything. … Things usually settle down afterwards,” Schell said.

Huntsman, however, did manage to provoke a reaction from state media with comments made during a Republican primary debate (from Shanghaiist):

“We should be reaching out to our allies and constituencies within China. They’re called the young people. They’re called the internet generation. There are 500 million internet users in China. And 80 million bloggers. And they are bringing about change, the likes of which is gonna take China down.”

This prompted a vigorous response from the Global Times, which rallied online polling and a brigade of foreign policy experts against Huntsman’s claims:

Among the 51,000 people polled, 70.9 percent rejected Huntsman’s idea, with about 11.1 percent supporting the claim and the rest saying they were “not sure ….”

Regarding the intention behind Huntsman’s remarks, 43.7 percent of those polled said it was in line with US policy against China, and 32.7 agreed that the idea represents the mainstream view of the US political leadership ….

“The attempt to instigate the Chinese Internet generation as an anti-China weapon is just wishful thinking on Huntsman’s part,” Wang Yusheng, the director of the Beijing-based China Foundation for International Studies, told the Global Times.

US politicians should spend more time addressing their own problems, such as the ongoing Occupy Wall Street movement, noted Wang, a former ambassador to Nigeria and Colombia.

Though The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos wrote that the Global Times’ figures “should be seen not as polls, exactly, but as megaphones for a certain realm of thought“, an angry backlash against Huntsman did appear to emerge among Chinese netizens. Ministry of Tofu compiled and translated some responses:

颓影了残生:From the age of the Great Navigations till today, foreigners have been doing the same thing: converting people elsewhere to their beliefs and propping up those who believed in them as their advocates to help them loot local treasures, or killing those who did not. Several hundred years ago, that belief was called Jesus. And now, it is called Democracy.

czmawei:It is not surprising at all that Jon Huntsman said this~~ During the Jasmine Flower Revolution he even went to Wangfujing to express support and was caught red-handed by Chinese netizens.

On the other hand:

Issolo:Oh, please, he is running for president. If he didn’t say so, wouldn’t it make his career in China sound a waste of time? Running for president means going along with the public opinion. Obviously the public opinion sees China as its enemy. If this bro becomes the president, he will definitely about-face.

This confidence has a sound historical basis. A number of observers—Businessweek’s Joshua Green (via CDT) among them—have noted a consistent difference between candidates’ campaign rhetoric on China and their actual policies once in office. From NPR:

Back in the spring of 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama said China’s economy is dependent on its exports to the U.S.

“What we need to do is to just be better bargainers and say, ‘Look, here’s the bottom line: You guys keep on manipulating your currency; we are going to start shutting off access to some of our markets,’ ” Obama the candidate said.

But President Obama never made good on that threat. And Scott Paul, who keeps a wary eye on China as head of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, is skeptical that a President Romney would be any different.

“We’ve seen presidential candidates in the past talk about China in a very aggressive way, only to back off once they become president,” he says. “So I think that there is still a gap between rhetoric and performance.”