China calls Trump's claim of election meddling 'totally far-fetched and fictional'

U.S. and Chinese national flags fly outside a company building in the Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone in Shanghai on Oct. 22, 2013.

BEIJING — China is flatly denying President Donald Trump's accusation that it is interfering in November's midterm elections, implying that it is the United States that has a track record of meddling in other countries' business.

With an acrimonious trade dispute rumbling on and amid an increasingly fractious security environment, the latest tit-for-tat could worsen the relationship between the world's two largest economies.

"I believe the international community knows very well who is most used to meddling in the internal affairs of others," Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told reporters Thursday. He did not name the United States directly but was responding to a question about Trump's assertion Wednesday at the United Nations that Beijing was attempting to influence the midterms.

"They do not want me or us to win because I am the first president to ever challenge China on trade," Trump said at a U.N. Security Council meeting, "and we are winning on trade - we are winning on every level."

But the president and his top aides offered no evidence or even anecdotes to support the contention that China was meddling.

Trump's ire appeared sparked by a four-page supplement that the China Daily, an English-language publication owned by the Chinese government, bought in the Des Moines Register on Sunday.

Asked about the newspaper ads, Geng said the idea that they amounted to election interference was "totally far-fetched and fictional."

"We advise the U.S. side to stop its unwarranted accusations and slander against China and refrain from wrong words and deeds that might hurt our bilateral relations and fundamental interests," he said.

The pages in the Des Moines Register were laid out newspaper-style, with a small note at the top labeling them as a China Daily supplement. The lead headline declared, "Duel undermines the benefits of trade" - exactly the same message that has been plastered across China's state-owned newspapers these last few weeks as the government tries to hammer home the message that the trade war is bad for Americans.

Another headline read, "Dispute: Fruit of a president's folly," although there was lighter content, too - about robotics and a fashion entrepreneur and President Xi Jinping's "fun days in Iowa."

China, among other countries, has a long history of using ads in newspapers, including in The Washington Post, to get across messages that it would have trouble persuading professional journalists to print.

Iowa was the perfect target for China for a number of reasons. For one, its status as the first state to vote during presidential primary season gives it outsize influence over the U.S. electoral process.

Second, it has a special status in the bilateral relationship. Long before he became China's president, Xi traveled to Muscatine, Iowa, to learn about agriculture. There, in 1985, he met Terry Branstad, a first-term governor. Thirty-two years later, with Xi now president of China, Trump sent Branstad to Beijing as American ambassador to capitalize on their long, Iowa-born relationship.

Third, Iowa, a major grower of soy beans and producer of pork, stands to suffer greatly from an extended trade war.

China has slapped a 25 percent tariff on soybean imports, and there are already signs that Chinese buyers, who account for about 60 percent of the global soybean market, are looking to other producers, such as those in South America.

Iowa farmers are projected to lose up to $2.2 billion from U.S. trade wars, according to a new Iowa State University study cited by the Register this week. The ripple effect would hit state tax receipts and could affect manufacturing and other jobs, too.

The Iowa governor's race is shaping up to be very close. The latest polls suggest that Fred Hubbell, the Democratic candidate who vows to increase the state's exports, has an edge over the incumbent Republican, Kim Reynolds.

"Anyone who knows anything about China could have told Donald Trump that China would look for ways to retaliate," said Paul Haenle, a former China adviser to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

"And now Trump is worried about being blamed if there is a GOP loss in Iowa, so he's trying to get ahead of that," said Haenle, now director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing.

Chinese analysts were perplexed that Trump would label this kind of newspaper advertising interference when it was much more transparent than what Russia is accused of doing in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election.

Russian operatives stand accused of stealing emails from the Democratic National Committee and using social media to sow misinformation and heighten political tension ahead of the vote. Twenty-five Russians and three companies have been indicted on charges of involvement in this effort as a result of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the election.

In an address in South Carolina on Wednesday, Daniel Coats, Trump's director of national intelligence, said that China was "more methodical" than Russia.

"In contrast to Russia, China often executes its strategy in a more deliberate and subtle manner that tends to generate less media and public attention," Coats said. Chinese authorities use "all of the capabilities at their disposal to influence U.S. policies, spread propaganda [and] manipulate the media."

The accusations against China are "not helpful" at this tense time in the bilateral relationship, said Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai.

"How can the Chinese government present evidence that it hasn't done something? The U.S. needs to present the evidence," he said. "By making these accusations without presenting evidence, Trump is degrading America's credibility."

The Global Times, a nationalist tabloid that often reflects the government's thinking, said Trump's accusations are part of his "creative campaign strategy" to malign China and try to attract more votes for Republicans in the midterms.

The paper did not mince words about the American president's recent rhetoric. "Trump routinely applauds himself for his achievements and has already declared victory over the trade war against China," it said in an editorial. "However, if all of it were true, then Trump wouldn't have worry about China's alleged meddling in U.S. elections."

The trade dispute shows no sign of ending anytime soon. But China is always open to negotiations, Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng said Thursday.

"Whether it is possible to restart consultations and negotiate depends entirely on the U.S. side," he said. In any case, he added, "China's determination to safeguard its interests and its rights to develop will not change."

Shen of Fudan University said it was too early to say how far the dispute would spread.

But, if Trump's allegations were true, then interference could be good for a majority of Americans, he said. "Every coin has two sides," Shen said. "If China has interfered in the elections, probably most Americans would be happy because they want to bring Trump down too."

The Washington Post's Yang Liu contributed to this report.

First published in The Washington Post.