Friday, Mar 24, 2017, 12:18 PM CST – China

International

Donald Trump

Mixed Feelings

Despite Donald Trump’s tough stance on China, the prospect of his presidency is welcomed by many across the Pacific

As Donald Trump rapidly emerged as the unexpected frontrunner in the race for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, China has become the foreign country mentioned most frequently on the stump, rivaled only by Mexico.

While having said that he “loves” the country and “gets along” with “the Chinese,” Trump has been accusing China of “stealing jobs” from the US since the day he announced his candidacy. Trump has pledged to brand China a currency manipulator and impose a 45 percent import tax on Chinese goods if he is elected president.

In the months after Trump launched his campaign, Chinese officials began indirectly responding to various accusations leveled at their country. Last September, Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry, seemed to dismiss Trump’s attacks as “disturbances,” without directly mentioning the candidate. However, such commentary was subsequently dialed back, with Beijing refraining from responding to subsequent attacks on China made by candidates on both sides. 

Unexpected

However, as Trump’s campaign has gained momentum and won considerable public support despite bipartisan efforts to discredit him, interest in the businessman-turned-presidential candidate among the Chinese public has been building. The interest was likely ignited by his often harsh remarks on China-related issues.

On Sina Weibo, China’s largest microblogging site, the hashtag #SuperTuesday attracted 13.5 million clicks and 5,600 comments, with the primary focus being on Trump.

While the Chinese public has shown some interest in past presidential campaigns, especially the 2008 election of Barack Obama, never before has there been such enthusiasm over a presidential primary.

To the surprise of many, despite his hawkishness on China, the brash billionaire appears to have won considerable support among Chinese netizens. According to an online survey conducted by huanqiu.com, in which netizens were simply asked if they “liked” Trump, 59.7 percent of over 4,200 respondents answered “yes.”

Considering that the users of huanqiu.com, the online portal of the State-owned and loudly nationalistic Global Times, tend to be more hawkish, many might imagine them to be hostile to a seemingly unapologetic China-basher like Trump. His counterintuitive popularity with this group, therefore, has baffled Chinese observers in much the same way his continued success at the polls in the US has confounded the predictions of their American peers.  

Schadenfreude     

While detailed research and analysis of Chinese people’s opinions regarding Trump has not been conducted, his apparent “popularity,” reflected in the Global Times survey, needs to be viewed in the context of the growing strategic rivalry between the US and China.

To a large extent, Trump’s appeal among Chinese netizens surveyed may stem from a sense of schadenfreude. This is reflected in the little attention paid to Trump himself in online discussions of the candidate, and the overwhelming focus on his campaign’s success.

The biggest Trump fan page on Weibo, whose admins state is dedicated to “the next American President,” for example, has about 8,600 followers. Considering that China’s Weibo users number in the hundreds of millions, this is hardly impressive. Trump’s daughter Ivanka, for example, who has an account on Weibo, has about 14,000 fans, while the fan page of Russian President Vladimir Putin has more than 460,000 followers.

Instead of interpreting the survey result as indicative of a “liking” for Trump, it may be more accurate to say that his popularity in the US is pleasing to many in China, who hope to see him elected, and subsequently undermine US prestige around the world.

“Chinese netizens, who are angry with recent US policy towards China, would like to see Trump lead the US, as they believe he possesses the traits that would bring about its decline,” commented Lao Mu, a senior editor from the People’s Daily, the Party’s flagship newspaper, in explaining the result of the online survey.

According to another commentary published by the Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao, the rise of Trump is already a reflection of what it calls “great power decline syndrome.”

Trump’s ascendancy has also given many in China ample opportunity to criticize deficiencies in the US political system. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a frequently used metaphor.

In a commentary published by guancha.cn, Chen Lijian, an assistant professor at the University of Dayton, argued that Trump’s rise exposed the “myth” of the “self-proclaimed” superiority of America’s political system. Pointing to the concerted attacks made on Trump by the US mainstream media and the political establishment, which Chen called “biased and distorted,” he argued that such campaigns betray how the political elite has been controlling and manipulating the electoral process.

An editorial published on March 14 in the English edition of the Global Times adopted a different angle. Describing Trump as a “clown,” who is “narcissistic” and “inflammatory” with “abusively racist and extremist” views, the article warned that “the US had better watch itself for not being a source of destructive forces against world peace, than point fingers at other countries for their so-called nationalism and tyranny.”

Pragmatism

However, the support Trump has found in China does not all stem from schadenfreude and cynicism. For many Chinese, Donald Trump’s defiance of “political correctness” presents an image of a more pragmatic leader, an image they find easier to understand and consequently can imagine themselves being more comfortable dealing with him as a leader.

In one of the mostly widely circulated articles on China’s social-messaging app WeChat, Wo Teng, a researcher of the American political system, described Trump’s rise as a campaign of “common sense” against “political correctness.” According to Wo, the focus on political correctness has evolved a particular “political language” that has enabled the political elite to monopolize power and push their own interpretation of various social problems. This, Wo reasoned, has led to the failure to fully acknowledge and tackle these social problems.

This argument, often interpreted as “pragmatism over ideology,” resonates with many Chinese. Confucian philosophy can be interpreted as pragmatic, while a general preference for expediency over idealism has latterly been reinforced by China’s more recent history. While the ideological struggles in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s are perceived to have only brought calamity and suffering to the nation, the doctrines of pragmatism and expediency adopted since the 1980s and the discouragement of ideological debates have helped China achieve its much-admired economic development in the past three-plus decades.

As subscribers to a pragmatic worldview, many Chinese blame humanity’s most disastrous problems on the US, and more broadly what they view as the West’s insistence on political correctness. Euroamerican efforts to promote democracy during the Arab Spring are widely perceived to be a major contributing factor behind both the global spread of terrorism and the recent European refugee crisis. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s retraction of her government’s previous “open door” refugee policy was hailed in China, as in many sections of European society, as a victory for “common sense.”

“The political elite in the US has become so obsessed with reforming the world that they have ignored the aspirations of ordinary Americans to reform American society itself,” argued Li Haidong, a professor of international relations at China’s Foreign Affairs University, writing in a commentary published in the Global Times on March 22.

Impact

The same logic is also applied to mainstream Chinese perceptions of problems affecting the US-China relationship. In the past couple of years, the US has adopted a more hostile approach to China through its pivot-to-Asia policy, increasing its Asia-Pacific military presence, and strengthening military ties with its regional allies.

For many Chinese experts, US perceptions of “the China threat,” which inform its China policy, are largely ideologically driven. These same people consider Beijing’s proposal to establish “a new type of great power relationship” based on “mutual respect and mutual benefits,” an idea Washington has been reluctant to endorse, as both fair and pragmatic.

The direct result is that many Chinese tend to hold a rather negative view of Hillary Clinton, well known for her tough position and harsh attacks on China. It was during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state that the US launched its rebalancing strategy in the Asia-Pacific region, and, consequently, many Chinese might embrace an “anyone but Clinton” position on the US election.

Comparatively, Trump has consistently defied mainstream ideological lines, both left and right, on a variety of issues, with many in China viewing him as a foreign policy pragmatist who might even be relatively pro-China. Although Trump has promised to take a tougher position on Beijing if elected, it is argued that his “common sense” would ultimately prevail.

In the same online survey conducted by huanqiu.com, more than half (50.6 percent) of respondents answered that they believed that a President Trump would have a “positive” impact on China.

In a separate, widely circulated article on WeChat, Wan Weigang, a well-known current affairs commentator, said that after reading Trump’s book Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again, he concluded that Trump is “the mildest” of all Republican candidates in both his domestic and foreign policy agendas.

Regarding Trump’s China policy, Wan argued that Trump is far from hawkish. “Trump never said he would seek all-out confrontation with China... What he said is he would re-negotiate trade deals with China,” Wan argued. “Take the issue of North Korea for example. Trump believes that it is in China’s backyard, and should be handled by China.”

In an interview with the Global Times, Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, suggested that rather than focusing on establishing regional economic unions such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, which some have dubbed an “economic NATO” designed to contain China, Trump may propel forward deeper economic cooperation between the US and the Asia-Pacific region, which to a large extent would chime with objectives set by the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) initiative promoted by China.

Trump’s recently announced “America First” foreign policy guideline, which many deem equivalent to an endorsement of isolationism, further boosted such expectations. In the guideline, Trump suggested that the US scale back its role in NATO, calling on Japan and other allies to pay more for their own defense. While his comments implying that Japan and South Korea should be permitted to build their own nuclear arsenals are of concern to any serious observer in China, his general preference for a US withdrawal from international affairs, particularly from the Asia-Pacific region, is, unsurprisingly, welcomed by many ordinary Chinese.

But, just as many Americans have found Trump’s only predictable trait to be his unpredictability, how a President Trump would actually interact with China if elected remains a mystery. Despite recent friction between the US and China, the bilateral relationship has been manageable under the Obama administration. Many Chinese experts, like their American counterparts, are concerned about the potentially catastrophic impact a Trump presidency might have on bilateral relations.

But, despite all the discussion and debate over Trump in China, the Chinese, along with the rest of the world, remain onlookers. American voters, whomever they choose, once again hold the future of the bilateral relationship in their hands.

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