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China’s 2020 election ‘indicator’ showed a closer race than U.S. polling

November 5, 2020, 11:11 AM UTC

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Days ahead of the U.S. presidential election, the New York Times and NPR dispatched reporters to the sprawling wholesale market in Yiwu, in China’s eastern Hangzhou province, to interview local vendors selling hats, T-shirts, flags and other merchandise for the Trump and Biden campaigns.

It’s a clever (if obvious) journalistic trope. A vast share of the “Ridin’ with Biden” T-shirts and “Make America Great Again” hats carpeting the American campaign trail were actually made in China. They’re sold to global distributors in Yiwu, the world’s largest consumer wholesale market, who ship them on to the U.S.

The Yiwu vendors claim that during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, they knew exactly who was going to win because orders for Trump merchandise far exceeded those for Hillary Clinton. The Times calls this the “Yiwu Index,” and reports that this year as well, Trump paraphernalia “has been selling briskly at shops in the vast wholesale market” while bulk orders for Biden merch “have been almost nonexistent.” NPR was more cautious. It reported that this year sales for Republican and Democratic candidates were “more balanced” than in 2016.

Either way, those Chinese vendors were onto something. The Yiwu Index proved as reliable a political indicator as any in this crazy race—better than some of the most sophisticated (and expensive) polls in America, which predicted a Biden blowout right up until Election Day.

This morning, Asia awoke to the prospect that Biden, by a whisker, may have unseated Donald Trump as the next president of the United States.

Around the region, reaction was mixed.

Asian financial markets shrugged off the uncertainty Thursday. In China, stocks rose and the yuan rebounded on expectations of a less tumultuous relationship between the world’s two largest economies if Biden triumphs. Japan’s Nikkei 225 hit a nine-month high. The Hong Kong Hang Seng Index gained 3%.

The state-controlled China Daily opined that the U.S. presidential election offers “an opportunity for the world’s two largest economies to reboot their relations” that “shouldn’t be squandered.” But China’s government leaders mostly refrained from comment about the American cliffhanger.

In Beijing, the prevailing view is that the U.S.-China relationship will remain fraught no matter which candidate wins the White House. There is little affection for Trump, who has hiked tariffs on Chinese products and blacklisted Chinese companies including Huawei Technologies and TikTok. But many Chinese analysts fear Biden will hector Beijing on human rights issues that Trump mostly ignored—and likely will prove more effective than Trump in mobilizing American allies to act jointly in pressuring China to change its economic policies.

In Japan, America’s closest Asian ally, Trump’s attempt to claim victory before all votes are counted, provoked expressions of horror in the media. Leaders of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party have developed a wary rapport with Trump administration counterparts, but consider Biden an enigma. As Foreign Policy put it: “Japan Doesn’t Trust Trump and Doesn’t Know Biden.”

In South Korea, another key U.S. ally, a spokesman for President Moon Jae-in stressed Seoul will work closely with the U.S. “regardless of the election outcome.” But a Biden victory could bring big changes to American policies in Northeast Asia. Unlike Trump, who threatened to pull troops from Japan and South Korea unless they pay billions of dollars more for U.S. military support, Biden is expected to work closely with both countries to increase pressure on North Korea to denuclearize.

American national security experts tell Japan’s Nikkei Asia Weekly that Biden will try to mend frayed relations between Japan and South Korea. And unlike Trump, he is unlikely to meet personally with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un before securing verifiable nuclear concessions.

The Philippines’ rightwing president Rodrigo Duterte and India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi have developed close personal friendships with Trump. Duterte even encouraged Filipino Americans to vote for Trump. Leaders of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, by contrast, have explicitly advised overseas affiliates in the U.S. not to campaign under the party banner—a tacit acknowledgement that the party is perceived to be pro-Trump. Spokesmen for both Asian leaders have been quick to offer assurances that they can work closely with the next president no matter which candidate wins.

More Eastworld news below.

Clay Chandler
clay.chandler@fortune.com

This edition of Eastworld was curated and produced by Grady McGregor. Reach him at grady.mcgregor@fortune.com

Eastworld news

Beijing gets antsy

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The King's wealth

Thai royalty has long been a red line in the country's politics, but pro-democracy protesters in Thailand are now raising unprecedented objections to the role of the country’s monarchy. King Maha Vajiralongkorn is facing questions over his estimated $40 billion fortune. The challenge comes after the King eliminated a government agency that oversaw his wealth and consolidated the monarchy's fund into his personal coffers. Fortune 

A Samsung squeeze

Samsung, the South Korean tech giant, has long counted on China for growth, building its first factory in China in 1992. Samsung’s revenues in China mirrored China’s economic rise, and by the mid-2000s Samsung was drawing over half its global revenues from China. Now Samsung appears to be stepping away from the market by withdrawing from two of its three core China businesses. It appears the political risks of getting between China, the U.S., and Korea are too much for the tech giant to stomach. The Wire China

Vaccine diplomacy

Pressure from the U.S. and China's hawkish ambitions in the South China Sea have made some Southeast Asian countries wary about developing close ties with China in recent years. A successful Chinese vaccine may change that and provide China with a chance to increase its economic and political influence across the region. “Given the lack of alternatives, China's vaccines are increasingly seen in Southeast Asia not just as salvation, but also as once-in-a-generation geopolitical leverage [for China],” the Nikkei Asian Review writes. Nikkei Asian Review 

Surveillance state

China's mass surveillance network—the largest in the world—has rapidly expanded in recent years, according to a new report in Chinafile. Chinafile reviewed 76,000 government procurement documents and found that orders for surveillance-related products shot up 1,900% between 2010 and 2019. Cities and small villages across the country are now deploying a range of new technologies, from facial recognition to predictive policing to other tracking practices, on a scale that was previously unknown. Fortune

Coronavirus by country

Myanmar

The U.S. is not the only country holding a presidential election this month amid a surge in COVID-19 cases. In Myanmar, cases of COVID-19 are reaching record highs and its capital Yangon remains in lockdown even as voters are set to take to the polls next week. Opposition parties say that holding an election amid the country’s largest outbreak is not safe. The country is recording upwards of 1,000 cases per day for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. Still, Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi is widely expected to cruise to victory, with the pandemic dampening the chances of her facing a reckoning at the polls. The Diplomat

Markets and movers

Gland Pharma – The Indian pharmaceutical firm, backed by China’s Fosun Pharma, is expected to raise $871 million in the largest IPO for a pharmaceutical firm in India. Gland Pharma is set to debut in Mumbai on Nov. 20. Bloomberg

Meituan – The Chinese meal delivery giant is weighing a second listing on Shenzhen’s ChiNext stock exchange; its share price has more than quadrupled since it first debuted in Hong Kong two years ago. Bloomberg

Amazon – The U.S. e-commerce giant is attempting to block Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries’ $3.4 billion acquisition of Indian retailer Future Group. The potential battle in Indian courts sets up a showdown between two of the world’s richest men: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Reliance’s Mukesh Ambani. Deal Street Asia

TikTok – The video-sharing app, backed by China’s Bytedance, signed a deal with Sony Music on Monday to give its users access to Sony's catalogue of artists. TikTok and Sony have not disclosed the deal's financial terms. Reuters

Nvidia – The American tech giant is facing problems in China related to its $40 billion deal for U.K.-based chip designer Arm. Until recently, Arm’s Chinese joint venture company, Arm China, was run by Allen Wu, but he is now suing the company in China for wrongful dismissal. Wu’s lawsuit may potentially get in the way of Nvidia’s Arm acquisition. Financial Times

Final figure

$1.49 billion

In 2019, Taylor Swift helped launch e-commerce giant Alibaba’s Singles Day event to record highs, helping the e-commerce giant earn more sales in seven hours of the online shopping day than were generated during the U.S.'s Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. This year, Alibaba split Singles Day into two separate events, the first taking place between Nov. 1 and 3 and the second on Nov. 11. In the first 111 minutes on Nov. 1, shoppers purchased $1.49 billion worth of online goods. The figure is down from last year's pace, perhaps a signal that China's consumer recovery is lagging behind other economic indicators.  Fortune