Donald Trump formally accepted the Republican presidential nomination last night. Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail shows an obsession with China on par with his determination to build a wall on the Mexican border or expel undocumented immigrants from the country. A viral montage last year counts Trump saying the word “China” 234 times in his public speeches. Trump accuses China of stealing U.S. jobs and cheating in trade deals while also insisting that he “loves” China and Chinese people.
China returns his love-hate attitude with a similarly mixed rhetoric. Chinese Finance Minister Lou Jiwei called Donald Trump an “irrational type” back in April in an interview with The Wall Street Journal and said the United States “wouldn’t be entitled to world leadership” if it followed the trade policies that Trump proposed toward China. Lou is so far the only senior Chinese official to publicly comment on Trump. Although the rest of China’s leadership tries to remain silent on this matter, major Chinese media outlets—usually seen as Beijing’s mouthpiece—have been closely following Trump since the beginning of his campaign. They have described him as a “big mouth,” a “clown,” and someone who is “eccentric and capricious.” Trump is sometimes portrayed as a joke to Western democracy. One Xinhua op-ed in March claimed that the “Trump phenomena shows the U.S. public is getting weary of party politics” and that “the democracy America advocates has boundaries.” In responding to Trump’s accusations on issues of China trade and the South China Sea, Global Times, a tabloid affiliated with People’s Daily, says he is just “talking nonsense,” and “if he could move forward with the [anti-China] campaign, then we should show him what China can do when the time comes.”
However, as Trump’s chances to win the White House have increased, there has been greater nuance in the Chinese media portrayal of him. Interface, a website that targets China’s growing middle-class, published an article which said that it’s “better to have a U.S. [p]resident that only cares about trade than someone who aggressively promotes democracy and bolsters U.S. allies in Asia.” It added: “China should welcome Trump to become the next president because his administration will be more friendly towards China than Obama’s as long as we make sure he makes profit.” A Financial Times article even calls Trump China’s “natural choice” because Chinese leaders have long despised Hillary Clinton for her outspoken criticism of their human rights record and her “pivot to Asia” in her tenure as secretary of state.
Unlike the official Chinese media’s shifting attitude, popular opinion as expressed in social media has been more consistently favorable towards Trump. In a late March poll of 3,330 Global Times readers, 54 percent of respondents said they supported a Trump presidency—well above the 36 percent of Americans who currently do. On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like micro-blogging website, there are at least 10 Trump fan groups with over a thousand followers—these include “Trump Fan Club”(1,667 followers), “Trump: Light of the World” (3,445 followers), and “Trump Commentary” (2,706 followers). One fan tweeted that Trump displayed a “majestic demeanor” when he took the stage the first day of the Republican National Convention.
The Chinese internet users who support Trump do so for a number of different reasons. Many see him as a successful businessman and respect him for that. His image resonates with China’s obsession with fortune-seeking today, and people believe that his pragmatic way of conducting business, when translated to politics, would play to China’s advantage. Some believe that the stability and development China enjoys today can be attributed at least in part to the Communist Party’s iron-fisted leadership, and Trump might be a similarly powerful leader. Most enjoy watching him as the “reality show star” of the U.S. presidential campaign. The fact that he is running is the biggest reason they actively follow the campaign.
On the popular question-and-answer site Quora, one user asked: “Do educated mainland Chinese like Donald Trump?” The question generated 21 answers, mostly by mainland Chinese. Many of the answers revealed a different side of Trump’s popularity in China: his proposed ban on Muslims immigrating to the United States. The social and political unrest in the Xinjiang region, home of China’s Uyghurs, has triggered widespread fear and anger towards Muslim people on Chinese social media. Trump’s harsh rhetoric about Muslims plays well with this audience.
Overall, therefore, it seems that Trump’s mixed messages on China have produced similarly mixed messages from China on Trump. While official channels tend to disparage him, the candidate’s unique background and style seem to resonate with many Chinese internet users. Of course, only American citizens will actually cast ballots in November—but keeping a finger on the pulse of public opinion overseas helps illuminate what U.S. foreign relations might look like under one candidate versus another. Next week, we’ll take a look at what Chinese media and people are saying about Hillary Clinton.
Falling apart? The politics of New START and strategic modernization
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.
Over the arc of his presidency, Trump has shed himself of cabinet secretaries he doesn’t trust and surrounded himself with loyalists. That will continue and escalate. But the big problem is, he doesn’t know where he’s going.