Wednesday May 27, 2020


November 8, 2012


On November 6, the long-awaited U.S. presidential election took place, with incumbent Barack Obama winning another four-year term in the White House. The election cycle was followed closely around the world. China was no exception; both China’s mainstream media outlets and its informal online communities kept interested Chinese citizens abreast of each new event in the presidential campaigns. As Tea Leaf Nation, an e-magazine devoted to China’s internet culture, pointed out, on America’s Election Day “U.S. Election” (美国大选) was the top trending term on Sina Weibo, which is often called China’s Twitter. “Obama” (奥巴马) and “Romney” (罗姆尼) were ranked second and sixth respectively.

Such interest in America’s election is hardly surprising. Given the intertwined relationship between America and China, a potential leadership change in the U.S. would have a real impact on China. The reverse is also true–many Americans are equally interested in the upcoming Chinese leadership transition, which has been covered extensively in Western media sources. However, the 2012 American election cycle held special import for U.S.-China relations, as both the Republican and Democratic Parties singled out China for criticism. Although there was a tendency in Western and Chinese media to dismiss the “China-bashing” as mere rhetoric, many Chinese media sources remain pessimistic towards future U.S.-China relations, expecting disagreements over economic and trade issues to continue.

Reactions in China to Obama’s re-election were mixed. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao both extended their official congratulations to President Barack Obama after the election. President Hu in particular pointed to the “positive progress” made during Obama’s first term, especially the “good results” produced by high-level meetings at the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue as well as the People-to-People Exchange. Both Hu Jintao and Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei expressed their wish that U.S.-China relations will continue to see “steady, healthy, and stable development” in the future. Many of China’s netizens, who tend to be young, urban, and well-educated, also expressed their support for Obama online.

China’s media analysis was not quite as rosy, with most newspapers in China (as in the West) listing the varied and difficult tasks Obama must face for his presidency to be considered a success. Foremost among these is shoring up the American economy, especially with the so-called “fiscal cliff” looming at the end of this year. Commentaries in Xinhua and People’s Daily seemed pessimistic about Obama’s ability to govern effectively, and expressed concerns that America might enter another recession that could badly damage China’s own export-driven economy. An article in the People’s Daily entitled “Obama Wins Re-election; America Still Beset by Difficulties” took special care to note the many broken promises Obama made before his first term, implying a deep level of skepticism towards his governing ability and America’s governmental system in general.

In terms of the U.S.-China relationship specifically, Obama’s reelection seems to promise some amount of stability. However, Obama’s administration is likely to undergo a large a amount of turnover. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta are all expected to step down during Obama’s second term. Their replacements will have a major impact on Obama’s China policy going forward.

Despite the expected personnel changes, Obama is likely to continue the “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia that his administration unveiled in the fall of 2011. Under this policy, America will seek to increase its economic, diplomatic, and military ties to countries in the Asia-Pacific region. When it comes to foreign policy, executing this “pivot” correctly may prove to be one of the Obama administration’s largest challenges. The U.S. must walk a fine line between proving its enduring interest in the region, including support for its long-time allies, and using overly provocative actions that will cause friction with the already-suspicious Chinese government. There is also speculation, both in America and China, that the U.S. will not be able to fully implement the pivot due to pressing concerns in other areas such as Iran.

Whether or not Obama is able to carry out the pivot as he envisions it, Chinese media have already taken a pessimistic view of U.S.-China relations that is at odds with the official congratulations and expressions of hope put forward by Chinese leadership. Analyses in the major Chinese newspapers expect U.S.-China relations to maintain the current uneasy balance between cooperation and competition. Many articles predict that trade and economic relations may actually worsen. The combination of a U.S. campaign season filled with anti-China rhetoric and near-simultaneous leadership transitions in both the U.S. and China will likely keep tensions in the relationship high in the near future, even while both American and Chinese leaders remain committed to working towards in the long term.


For more information on Barack Obama’s reelection and its repercussions for China, please see the following news sources:

AFP – “Obama mulls new cabinet picks

China Daily – “US-China relations to stay the course in second Obama term

China Digital Times – “China and America: Four More Years

Wall Street Journal – “U.S.-China Ties Set for Recalibration

New York Times – “Warm Words From China, With a Subtext of Warning

Tea Leaf Nation – “Chinese Internet Users Congratulate Obama, Lament Lack of Voting at Home

Xinhua – “Hu congratulates Obama on re-election


For Chinese language commentary on Barack Obama’s reelection, please see the following news sources:

Oriental Daily (东方早报) – “奥巴马还需向外国人证明自己

People’s Daily (人民网) – “奥巴马赢得连任 美国仍荆棘载途

The World (环球网) – “奥巴马连任延续美国亚太战略 中美关系引关注

Xinhua (新华) – “奥巴马何以赢得连任


Compiled and edited by Shannon Tiezzi.