China watches Huntsman, perhaps more than Republican voters


John Huntsman, US Ambassador to China at the time, with US President Barack Obama and Chinese Ambassador to the US Zhou Wenzhong. At the Great Wall of China in Badaling, outside of Beijing, China on November 18, 2009.


Saul Loeb

BEIJING, China — China is keeping an eye on Jon Huntsman, especially as the former ambassador who made waves here begins to surface a bit from among the fluid field of Republican presidential candidates.

Since he announced he was running for the GOP nomination, the relative moderate Huntsman has had a difficult time gaining any traction among potential Republican voters, barely registering recognition among likely voters.

In recent weeks, the former governor of Utah who was President Obama’s man in Beijing for two years, started to make an impression, although he still remains in last place in opinion polls. He was, however the GOP candidate with top percentage gain in Twitter followers this week, so he’s getting some attention.

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Huntsman probably polls better in China, where he’s been at the center of more than one internet controversy this year regarding America’s intentions toward this country.

The most recent hubbub arose when Huntsman was discussing American foreign policy during a Republican presidential debate last month. The former ambassador, who sparked online outrage by turning up at a McDonald’s last winter where Chinese activists had called for a “Jasmine Revolution,” seemed to vocalize one of China’s persistent fears — that the US is behind conspiracies to undermine the Chinese regime.

“We should be reaching out to our allies and constituencies within China,” Huntsman said. “They're called the young people. They're called the internet generation … they are bringing about change, the likes of which is gonna take China down.”

Huntsman’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment this week.

The nationalistic Global Times newspaper was one of the first to react to his debate comments, in an editorial.

“Huntsman has decided to blaze a trail to attract public attention, unintentionally giving away a secret among US politicians,” the newspaper wrote. “Even taking into account the complexity of the context of the comment, 'taking China down' should not be simply seen as a slip of tongue.”

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“It perhaps reflects the real thinking of many US political elites,” the paper said.

China has long been prone to blame domestic problems on influence from external forces. The Dalai Lama, for instance, is faulted for unrest in Tibet although he’s been in exile for decades. Foreign powers like the United States are a top suspect in most high-level Chinese government conspiracy theories.

Huntsman’s comments have made the rounds on China’s massively popular microblogging platform, Sina Weibo as well. But more cynical users saw humor in the remarks and the overheated response that followed from official channels. One poster said sarcastically that Huntsman is wrong about how to “take down China.” The focus should instead fall on corrupt Chinese officials and their children who hold American passports, the author wrote.

“…if the US really wants to ‘take China down,’ there is an even easier way to do it than to rely on [Chinese] netizens,” the author joked.

But as official media and some internet users reacted to Huntsman’s comments with indignation, experts who watch US-China relations here say he wouldn’t be a threat to this country or government.

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“He is certainly not pro-China. No Americans are pro-China or dare to say they are,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “But he is not anti-China either despite his open criticism of China. In the meantime he is not against tackling the rise of China. “

Wang Dong, a US-China relations expert at Peking University, said that, in fact, Huntsman is probably better for China than others in the GOP presidential field.

“Compared to the other Republican candidates, Jon Huntsman is a lot softer on China,” said Wang.

“I think he is just doing what an American politician is supposed to do,” he said. “It is unnecessary for us to over-analyze that particular phrase. He is just trying to be a normal politician.”