US ELECTIONS

Hopes, fears and expectations ... Americans in China count down to crucial Trump-Clinton vote

US presidential election described as ‘unusual’ and ‘very important’

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 October, 2016, 4:05pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 October, 2016, 6:36pm

American voters living in China are counting down the days to what many describe as an “unusual” US presidential election next month – and one that could have profound ramifications for ties between the world’s two largest economies.

Catherine McMahon was filling in her ballot on her laptop in the corner of a cafe in Beijing’s Wudaokou neighbourhood on a smoggy Sunday afternoon.

A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, she arrived in China three years ago and founded a design studio in downtown Beijing.

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“I feel the election is very important,” McMahon said. “It’s always important but this time it’s urgent as the choices are very extreme between the two people.”

She said she would vote for Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton, who was “beyond qualified” given her rich experience as a former first lady and former secretary of state, and was looking forward to the election of America’s first female president.

‘After Brexit ... anything could happen’

Clinton is ahead in the polls, with the latest CNN Poll of Polls released on Monday showing she has the support of 47 per cent of likely voters, compared with Republican rival Donald Trump’s 39 per cent, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson’s 7 per cent and Green Party nominee Jill Stein’s 2 per cent.

McMahon said her hopes were high, but so were the risks.

“After Brexit, nobody is confident any more that crazy things can’t happen,” she said. “There is a feeling that anything could happen, and you never know.”

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Before the referendum in Britain four months ago on whether to leave the European Union, most polls predicted the remain side would prevail, but the final result gave the leave side a narrow but decisive victory. Many pundits said a key reason could have been that younger people, on whom the remain campaign depended heavily, did not end up voting.

McMahon said the result of the US presidential election would matter a lot everywhere, not just in the US but also in China.

Richard Welch, a law professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, concurs.

“I think if Clinton is elected, I don’t expect great changes in my life in China as I trust Clinton will maintain good relations with the world, including China,” said Welch, who moved to Beijing five years ago with his family. “But if Trump is to be elected ... I think there could be problems in US relations with foreign countries – especially with China.”

He said Clinton did much better than Trump in their third debate “because she has the experience and apparently know-how to proceed and implement these policies” while it seemed Trump “doesn’t know how to get things done”.

“When he says he wants to get jobs back, he doesn’t say how to do that,” Welch said. “And I don’t think he knows how things work and how to do it.

“When he refused to say he would accept the result of the presidential election, that was unprecedented in American history and a terrible blow to America and the American system, and I think that makes him unqualified to be a president.”

Welch received his ballot two and a half weeks ago, registered Clinton as his preference and has sent it back to an election office in New Jersey, where he used to live.

‘Why are people still supporting Hillary?’

Trump supporter Joseph Castillo, a former Democrat from Chicago who arrived in Beijing seven years ago, is waiting for his ballot to arrive.

The talk show host said he would vote for Trump because he could improve America and maintain better relations with other countries, including China and Russia.

“Why are people still supporting Hillary after the email scandal?” Castillo asked. “Trump did say something controversial, but as a businessman he was not trained as a public speaker, who never do what they say.”

He described the election as “the craziest one in American history” because people were tired of political corruption and Trump could be the one to change it.

Although he expected few changes in his life in China after the election, Castillo said there could be big changes in Washington.

“The Democrats and the Republicans are going to have the worst time ever after the election as a lot of people are going to leave both parties and register as independent,” he said.

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Castillo said the third and final presidential debate was the clearest, with the two candidates staking out their positions on issues ranging from marriage and abortion to immigration and taxes, which made people “more confident to vote for them”.

The American business community in China is also watching the election closely.

For China and the rest of Asia, a Trump presidency is too big an unknown

As the world’s two biggest economies, economic and trade ties between the US and China are more important than ever amid global economic gloom, especially when bilateral tensions have risen over the South China Sea and North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.

China has become something of a political football in the presidential campaign, with the first two debates between Clinton and Trump linking it to everything from trade concerns to debt, cybersecurity, combatting terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

Meanwhile, China’s rising protectionism and slow progress in opening up its markets, as well as forced technology transfers and tightening internet censorship, are prompting more concern among American business players in the Chinese market.

‘Very uncomfortable’ with Trump

A long-term Republican, Timothy Stratford, managing partner in the Beijing office of a Washington-headquartered international law firm, said most people like him, who were focused on foreign policy, felt “very uncomfortable” with the idea of Trump serving as US president.

Stratford, a former US trade official who is advises international clients doing business in China, said he planned to vote for Clinton, because she would bring “a more steady hand” to managing the challenges in the bilateral relationship, compared with her “provocative” and “unpredictable” opponent.

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But no matter who wins, Stratford expects the bilateral relationship will pass through “a period of adjustment” during the next US president’s term of office. He said ongoing changes that reflected China’s rise and external factors such as the evolving situation on the Korean Peninsula had created challenges that would require each side to make certain adjustments in the way they managed ties.

Trump has said he would impose a 45 per cent tariff on US imports from China. Stratford said that would “have an extremely destructive effect on bilateral relations and the economic welfare of both countries”.

“If we have this type of adversarial relationship, this would seriously damage the climate for doing business, but I don’t think that things would deteriorate to that point, because both US candidates and the leaders of China all recognise that constructive relations between the United States and China are important economically for both countries,” he said.

AmCham China chairman James Zimmerman told the Post that China-related topics raised during the campaign reflected the rising concerns of the American business community in China, especially “over restrictions on market access for American goods, services and technology”.

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“While campaign rhetoric is not government policy, we can indeed anticipate that in 2017 there will be a heightened level of attention to the basic fairness of the bilateral trade and investment relationship, and whether reciprocal treatment is afforded to American companies to ensure that they have the same opportunities in the China market as Chinese companies have in the US and other global markets,” he said.

‘Neither Clinton nor Trump is best for America’

Registered Republican Frank Parker, a property investment consultant at Altals Blue Property in Shanghai, said this year’s election was one of the most disappointing he’d seen, and he believed most Americans shared that opinion.

“I don’t think either of them is best for our country at this moment,” he said, while adding that he would vote for Clinton due to global security concerns.

He said that in the third presidential debate his “conservative values on the economy and foreign policy were better represented” by Trump, but he lacked “confidence in his demeanour and his ability to implement such polices”.

“I will still, and unpleasantly, be holding my vote for Hillary Clinton at such a time as I feel she is the best candidate from the choices presented to me,” Parker said.

Though Clinton is widely seen as the candidate of choice among most of the millions of American expatriates around the world, some are shunning both major candidates.

Steve Siringer, a 39-year-old schoolteacher in Guangzhou who said he had decided to live overseas because the US government was divided and the system was broken, voted for Johnson.

“I think that she [Clinton] is extremely untrustworthy and he [Trump] is an egomaniac, very, very strange,” he said, “I think it’s the worst choice between two people in recent [US] history.”

Another Guangzhou schoolteacher, Lisa McLeod Chambless, said she planned to vote for Clinton.

“I have said somewhat jokingly, because I really do have to go back to the states after this year, that I would consider staying here if Donald Trump is elected just because I hope to avoid living in our country with somebody like him as a leader,” she said.

Additional reporting by Mimi Lau in Guangzhou and Alice Yan