BEIJING — Donald Trump took less than 10 seconds in Monday’s presidential debate to attack China.
“You look at what China’s doing to our country in terms of making our product. They’re devaluing their currency, and there’s nobody in our government to fight them. We have a very good fight. We have a winning fight. Because they are using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China, and many other countries are doing the same thing.”
Trump said China — and Mexico — were stealing American jobs, and he repeatedly called for the United States to renegotiate trade deals to stop that from happening.
“Our country is in deep trouble, and we don’t know what we’re doing, when it comes to devaluation, all countries all over the world, especially China — they’re the best, the best ever at it. What they are doing to us is a very, very sad thing.”
Let’s have a look at the facts.
The effects of trade deals are certainly debatable, and some economists make a powerful argument that China’s accession to the World Trade Organization has cost between 1 million and 2 million U.S. manufacturing jobs. China was also criticized for years for keeping its currency artificially low to boost its export industries.
But Trump is, at best, a little out of date, and he may not have the winning hand he claims.
China’s currency has actually appreciated rapidly over the past decade, and recently, China’s central bank has been intervening in the markets to bolster the yuan to prevent a depreciation.
The Bank for International Settlements compiles data on real effective exchange rates. It shows China’s real exchange rate has risen by 39.5 percent since the end of 2004. Last year, the International Monetary Fund declared that China’s currency was no longer undervalued.
“Trump's comments show a total lack of understanding of what is happening right now on the Chinese currency front,” said Andrew Polk, chief China economist at Medley Global Advisors.
More than 1.5 million people watched the presidential debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton via Sina Weibo, a popular social media platform in China. They saw their country take a starring role, as a villain.
“Trump definitely hates China,” one Weibo user wrote.
“You blame China because you cannot compete with us,” posted another.
China’s state news agency Xinhua said Trump was using an age-old tactic — blame someone else for America’s problems.
“When Trump talks about employment, he uses American politicians’ traditional techniques — talking about China!” Xinhua posted on its official social media account, before playing down his threats.
“In recent years, on every presidential election, politicians will use not objective and inaccurate statements to describe China, hoping to incite voters' anger," Xinhua wrote. "However, it is just politicians' techniques. When they become presidents, they will adjust policies toward China. People who take these politicians' statements seriously, they lose."
Some foreign-policy experts warn that Trump’s tepid support for America’s Asian allies Japan and South Korea could play into China’s hands. Trump himself mentioned both countries, along with Germany and Saudi Arabia, as nations who "we defend" but who do "not pay us."
Clinton countered that Trump had caused many world leaders to raise concerns that the United States would not keep its word. "I want to reassure our allies in Japan and South Korea and elsewhere that we have mutual defense treaties and we will honor them," she said.
In China, the exchange provoked some amusement.
“Let’s support Trump, and let China dominate Asia,” one Weibo user posted.
China came up a few more times during the debate, in reference to climate change, cyberhacking and North Korea.
“Donald Trump thinks climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese,” Clinton said at one point. Trump objected: “I did not, I do not say that.”
The truth, according to PolitiFact, is that Trump indeed made that claim in a tweet, but later retracted it, arguing it was a “joke.”
Accusations that China has hacked into U.S. government and corporate computers to steal personal information and trade secrets has become a major sore point in the relationship between the two countries.
Although Clinton mention China by name, her comments focused more on accusations against Russia, including that it hacked into the Democratic National Committee.
Trump argued that there was no proof that the attack came from Russia, and he said it could have been almost anybody else, including China — or even "somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds."
He also called on China to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program.
"China should solve that problem for us. China should go into North Korea," he said. "China is totally powerful as it relates to North Korea."
China, of course, is not about to invade North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program, and although the country has considerable leverage over Pyongyang, it will not do anything that might destabilize the regime there.
Chinese state-run newspapers occasionally seize on the chaotic U.S. presidential contest to argue that democracy is a scary idea. But some social media users here were impressed with the idea of just having an open presidential debate. “China needs elections! China needs democracy,” one user posted.
“The leader selected under this system is undebatable,” another posted. “People can see their management philosophy and ways of doing things transparently here. And this ensures that the final candidate get genuine support from the majority of people."
But others were equally unimpressed with both candidates.
“If Hillary and Trump both fall into the ocean, who will be saved?" one popular post asked.
Jin Xin and Congcong Zhang contributed to this report.