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Who would Beijing prefer as US president: Clinton or Trump?

Would a Trump or a Clinton presidency be preferable from a Chinese perspective?

That question has come into a sharper focus following the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton last week.

The both candidates may not have agreed on much of anything but they appeared united on beating China like a piñata, with Trump leading the charge. The Republican candidate accused China of stealing American jobs, devaluing its currency to cheat at global trade, and failing to rein in North Korea, while his Democrat opponent pledged tough responses to possible cyberattacks from China and other countries.

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China-bashing has become a fashionable theme in US presidential debates over the past two decades, and is expected to feature again in the next two scheduled clashes between the candidates.

Handling China’s rising economic and military power will be one of the most complex challenges facing the next American president, so interest has been building in China as to which of the two would be preferable to ensure Sino-US ties, arguably the most consequential relationship between any two countries in the world, continue broadly along the lines of co-operation instead of confrontation.

Publicly, the Chinese leaders have refrained from weighing in despite the increasingly fiery attacks on China from both candidates. Last month, Premier Li Keqiang offered the standard textbook reply in a meeting with top US executives in New York by saying that the Sino-US ties were destined to improve no matter who is elected.

The mainland leadership has long accepted that China-bashing is part of the fear-mongering and sensationalism that have framed the presidential debates, in which the candidates’ tough rhetoric may not usually translate into action and the winners often moderate their stances once inside the Oval Office.

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Getting the lesser of the two evils is the best the Chinese leaders can hope for but deciding between Clinton and Trump can be a tall order, at least judging from their rhetoric and record on China.

Clinton is well known for her tough stance on China’s human rights and its authoritarian political system. Whilst secretary of state under Barack Obama, she was widely seen as a leading player behind Washington’s “pivot to Asia” in a move aimed at containing the rise and influence of China in the region, to the strong displeasure of Beijing.

In contrast, Trump’s political and diplomatic inclinations were largely unknown in China until his campaign for the Republican nomination began gathering momentum last year. Prior to that, he was more famous for his flamboyance, associated with high-profile property developments and reality TV.

Since his campaign began, his blunt and often outrageous comments on China, including accusing China of “raping” the US and a promise to impose a 45 per cent tariff on imports from China, have rattled some Chinese officials and ordinary people alike.

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But overall he has remained politically enigmatic. While he relentlessly attacked China for causing economic woes for the US, the Chinese are pleased by his vows to dismantle the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which excludes China and is seen as an attempt to curb its influence.

Also music to Chinese ears was his repeated questioning of America’s military commitment in the region at a time when China’s assertive stance on territorial disputes, including those over the South China Sea, has caused unease in the region.

And Trump rarely attacked China’s political system or human rights record.

As a result, there have been some suggestions over the past few weeks that China might actually prefer Trump to Clinton, taking all factors into consideration.

Of course, making that assumption is still premature. As far as politics and international diplomacy are concerned, it is arguably better for Beijing to deal with someone it knows so well.

Having said that, the history of the Sino-US relationship has shown that the bilateral ties made breakthroughs often when the US president was a Republican. The oft-cited reason is that the Republican Party is generally pro-business and trade, and focuses less on China’s human rights and political system.

Richard Nixon, a staunch anti-communist, paved the way for the resumption of diplomatic ties by travelling to Beijing in 1972.

During George W. Bush’s second term in office, the Chinese media described ties as “the best ever” – despite the spy plane incident, which occurred just ten weeks after Bush began his first term in 2001, sending the relationship to an all-time low.

But Trump is not a typical Republican candidate. It is telling that many of the party’s stalwarts, including the Bush family and major US corporations, have so far refused to endorse him publicly.

Such a signal is unlikely lost on Chinese officials.

Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper