Republican nominee Donald Trump speaks during the presidential debate in St. Louis. (Reuters)

What happened to China, China, China?

In early debates, Donald Trump zoomed in on the world's second largest economy as a symbol of American decline. China was an always "winning" powerhouse, ready to '“steal" American jobs. The China he conjured was a perfect foil for an America-in-retreat. But he never mentioned that China's economy was hurting, too.

In Sunday night's presidential debate, China barely figured as the candidates clashed on issues ranging from sexism to Wikileaks to Islamic State militants. It was more than half an hour before the word 'China' was mentioned — but it was once again mentioned in a revealing wary.

China was not a policy question, per se.  There was no discussion of U.S. strategy in East or Southeast Asia, no comment on the conflict in the South China Sea, no answer about how to work with China — or not — to thwart nuclear development in North Korea.

Instead, China was an aside. A member of the audience asked a question about U.S. tax policy. They wanted to know what specific U.S. tax provisions Trump would use to make sure the wealthiest Americans pay up. After a talking about his plans to lower taxes, Trump returned to his promise to help the America prosper:

Trump: But she is raising your taxes and I'm lowering your taxes. That in itself is a big difference. We are going to be thriving again. We have no growth in this country. If China has a GDP of 7 percent, it's like a national catastrophe. We're down to 1 percent.

The comment in some ways epitomizes how the candidate has talked about China over the course of his campaign. In his mind, China is less a question of foreign policy than a way to reflect on the United States.

The reference to China's GDP growth rate being a “national catastrophe" was intended  to show Chinese strength, but hinted instead at a weak spot.

After decades of double-digit growth, China's economy is slowing down. The Communist Party cadres that steer the Chinese economy have  fretted for years about the impact of slower GDP growth. They worry that the end of boom times will lead to social unrest.

China's government this year predicted GDP growth of 6.5 to 7 percent — a figure many believe is high. For years now, China-based economists and foreign analysts have raised the alarm over the pace of much-needed economic reforms and a “larger than subprime" housing bubble that threatens to burst.

The decline in GDP growth is part of a painful shift from manufacturing and heavy industry to things like services and tech. As that happens, China is likely losing, not gaining manufacturing jobs. Some U.S.firms are actually moving jobs back home.

These days, China is perhaps not as big a “winner" — or America as much of a loser — as Trump suggests.

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