China knows which Democrat it would like to run if Biden steps down

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After President Joe Biden’s catastrophic debate performance, Gavin Newsom has emerged among a handful of names being floated to replace him. In China, that would be a popular outcome.

Since Biden stumbled against Donald Trump last week, Chinese social media users have posted photos and video clips of the California state governor, who was a hit during his visit to the world’s No. 2 economy last year. 

One clip of Newsom reaffirming his support for Biden as the Democratic nominee was viewed 80,000 times on China’s X-like Weibo platform. Underneath, users said the governor had a “presidential temperament” and “the perfect resume” for the top job. 

Blogger Zheng Jun, whose account has some 3 million followers on the site, wrote the governor was “the most prepared to step up when the opportunity comes along.” 

So far, it’s unclear if that moment will arrive anytime soon. Biden has vowed to remain the Democratic nominee in the November vote, even as calls grow within his party for a replacement.

President Xi Jinping gave Newsom an audience in Beijing last October, in his first meeting with a US state governor in six years. During that weeklong trip, the Democrat hailed China’s success as a boon for the rest of the world, as he pushed for progress between the two sides on climate change. 

“Newsom represents a fresh but also positive and more sober-minded politician in the US,” said Henry Wang, founder of the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think tank. “He could be a cool head among this anti-China US consensus.” 

Newsom understands the benefits of business ties to China better than other American politicians because of California’s large economy and its Chinese-American population, Wang added.

Newsom’s visit to China came at a fraught time in bilateral relations, with the two nations at odds over Beijing’s territorial claims on self-ruled Taiwan and Biden’s curbs on the Asian nation’s access to cutting-edge chips. He managed to find common ground by focusing on areas of cooperation.

The American stuck to climate change and state-level initiatives during the Hong Kong leg of his trip — despite calls from US senators to condemn Beijing’s repression of human rights in the city. Local officials appreciated that a US politician came with a positive message, according to a person familiar with the matter who didn’t want to speak publicly.  

In the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, Newsom was photographed giving a thumbs up inside a BYD Co. car, a sector that’s become a major source of tension in bilateral relations. Biden announced 100% tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles in May, as US officials accuse Beijing of flooding the world with a surge in cheap exports.

Chinese media showered Newsom’s visit with praise, with the ruling Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper citing experts who called it a “resounding success.” Another state-backed outlet said the prominent Democrat was a “model” in promoting US-China ties, during a trip that raised his profile overseas.

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That stands in contrast to the criticism reserved for a flurry of Biden administration officials who have visited Beijing to steady ties over the past year. The Global Times called Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to China in June 2023 “insufficient,” and noted he wasn’t given a red carpet on arrival in Beijing.

Newsom, 56, also attracted attention in China for joining a group of schoolchildren in Beijing for a basketball game, displaying his vitality as Biden, 81, faces growing scrutiny over his health. 

Still, some Chinese citizens expressed concern online after the debate that Newsom also had political weak spots. His West coast background was perceived by some as a potential problem — California has never produced a Democratic president. Others said it would be better for him to run in 2028, rather than “sacrifice” himself this year.

Overall, the idea of a candidate who isn’t threatening huge trade tariffs on China, and had displayed a positive attitude toward Beijing, was appealing to many in the Asian nation.

“I made the point that I’m here with an open hand, not a closed fist,” Newsom said last year. “I’m mindful of the strategic red lines in our relationship, but I’m also mindful that we’re more than capable of managing them.”

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