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Suspicion of US rife as White House contenders batter China

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BEIJING – It isn't only the U.S. presidential candidates who have had to withstand a verbal pummeling during the race -- China has been the subject of some of the most sustained attacks from Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, both of whom seem to be competing for who can be toughest on the world’s second-largest economy.

Romney has called China "a currency manipulator" and pledged to "crack down" on the country. Obama, meanwhile, has described China as an adversary, and said his administration was sending "a very clear message that America is a Pacific power and we are going to have a presence there."

In the final presidential debate, Mitt Romney says the country needs to get tough on China on currency manipulation and counterfeit products.

China was mentioned 32 times during the last presidential debate. This appeared to have prompted China's netizens, who tend to be younger and better educated than average, to take to online feeds in droves to watch Obama and Romney fight it out.

With its own seismic political transition in-the-works, reaction to American fighting talk has ranged from the philosophical to the plainly disinterested, a mood of suspicion replacing the euphoria that infected many young Chinese after Obama's election in 2008. 

An October 17 editorial published by state-run news agency Xinhua called Obama and Romney’s China-bashing "a ritual" that "leaves Americans with the impression that China is responsible for their country’s decline."

"There are plenty of other U.S. politicians who have built their political popularity and career by chastising the Chinese government and its policies," another Xinhua editorial said. "U.S. politicians have a notorious record of rounding on China during election seasons and then quickly changing their course of action after taking office."

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Despite the official and semi-official take on the race, many regular Chinese approached by NBC News said they weren't following the U.S. election --  an indication that issues like high inflation, rising property prices and a slowing economy have a more immediate impact on people's lives. 

"I have no idea. It has nothing to do with me," 22-year old Liu Ziyu, a recent college graduate, told NBC News when asked who he would like to see win the race.  

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Luan Ke, 23, an editor and journalist at a Beijing newspaper echoed a popularly held opinion when he said neither candidate would really change the relationship between the world's remaining superpower and an emerging power.   

"I don't think there is any essential difference between the two," he said. 

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Luan and others pointed to a growing list of issues plaguing the Sino-U.S. relationship. The United States has accused China of undercutting American competitiveness and jobs by circumventing trade laws and undervaluing the yuan to help its exporters. 

China has indeed kept its currency cheap by indirectly pegging the yuan to the dollar through the purchase of $1.15 trillion in U.S. bonds, making it the second largest holder of American debt after the Federal Reserve.

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But while this issue is frequently used to show Beijing's inordinate power over the American economy, most experts acknowledge that the risks go both ways: A unloading of U.S. bonds would likely cause the dollar to plummet in value, but at the same time send the yuan soaring, dramatically raising the price of its products internationally and possibly sparking skyrocketing inflation due to runaway commodity prices.

The Obama administrations' three rounds of quantitative easing -- the act of injecting currency into the money supply – has angered Chinese policy makers because it devalues the dollar and makes its products more expensive internationally. 

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The two countries have also been involved in a tit-for-tat trade spat. The Obama administration has won international rulings on trade issues ranging from the dumping of Chinese tires to cheap steel on the American market. In return, China has countered with its own protective tariffs on American auto parts and chicken feet.

Meanwhile, the United States' re-engagement with the Asia-Pacific region – dubbed a "pivot" by the White House – comes as China transforms itself into a modern and confident fighting force. Territorial regional disputes have become hot-button issues for China, which Beijing is increasingly unafraid to push back on. 

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Throughout the campaign, Chinese state media has reminded viewers and readers of the chasm that often exists between American candidates' rhetoric and their policies once in office. For example, in 1992, candidate Bill Clinton pummeled President George H.W. Bush for dealing with China's ruling Communist Party, whom Clinton famously dubbed the "butchers of Beijing."

Just eight years later, candidate George W. Bush accused lame duck president Clinton of being soft on China, slamming him for declaring Beijing "strategic partners."

Despite the knowledge that American campaign rhetoric often doesn't match the reality once a president is in office, observers have been keeping a close eye on the U.S. campaign trail and the changing relationship between the two countries.  

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"America's refocus and return to the Asia-Pacific region has brought increased challenges to the Sino-U.S. relationship," Zhang Guoqing, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of American Studies, told NBC News. In particular, there is growing anger and frustration at what is seen as obstructionism on the part of the Obama administration, which is blocking high-profile industrial firms like Huawei and Sany from investing in strategic industries like energy and telecommunications. 

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Despite American efforts to re-label the pivot as a "rebalancing" of its diplomatic and economic resources as well as its military ones, China’s attention has largely focused on the U.S. shift militarily. So suspicion of the United States’ changing role in the region has run rife on Beijing’s streets.

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"(The United States) might suppress China and prevent it from being the boss in Asian-Pacific region," Chen Huaijie, a 32-year old voice-over artist for a Chinese state broadcaster, told NBC News. 

Regardless of who wins next week, expect China to approach the president-elect warily but, given the country’s growing prominence on the world’s stage, confidently.  

NBC News’ Li Le and Yanzhou Liu contributed to this report.

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