Thursday, November 10, 2016

Why are some Chinese happy about Trump's victory?

Trump's victory has most of the liberal, right-thinking people in the US and the entire Western world reeling in shock and apprehension. Many of my acquaintances fit into this category, and they are none too happy today, as my social media feed is clearly showing.

But the circle of my acquaintances also includes another major group, in other words sophisticated, mostly young Chinese, and in this group the reaction would appear to be quite different. Both judging by things I have heard in person and on social media, it would seem that among the sort of Chinese who follow the US elections, sympathies actually lie more on Trump's side.

In the run-up to the elections, the Chinese media had an easy job of holding up the divisive, bad-tempered race between Clinton and Trump as an example of how US democracy and even "Western democracy" are in decline and don't really work. On some occasions, Trump's gaffes and laughable antics were directly held up as an example of the ills and the corruption of the American system.

All the same, it was already obvious that many Chinese citizens were hoping for a Trump victory, or in any case disliked Hillary Clinton. In fact, Trump's odd popularity in China had already been the object of reports in the international media. Part of the reason for this lay in Clinton's more hawkish positions on foreign policy, and towards China in particular. The perception was that a Clinton presidency would be more decisive in resisting China's territorial claims in the South China Sea and more uncompromising regarding the other geopolitical disputes between the two powers. Clinton was also considered to be more keen to promote those terrible American values of democracy and human rights around the world, while Trump was perceived to be more focused on internal matters and the economy.

Thus, in spite of the fact that Trump has described global warming as a Chinese hoax, has often repeated the line that China steals American jobs, and has called the Chinese leaders clever currency manipulators, the perception in China was that Hillary Clinton would be more inimical to Chinese interests. A line one hears is that "while a Trump presidency is more likely to challenge China economically, a Clinton presidency is more likely to challenge China geopolitically".

There may be some truth in this. Trump is an isolationist who has publicly questioned whether the US should defend its NATO allies in the event of a Russian attack. His view is that the rest of the world should "fix its own problems". It is legitimate to wonder whether he will be enthusiastic about supporting US allies in East Asia, which include Japan, South Korea and crucially Taiwan. At the same time, it strikes me that Trump is an unpredictable character who might reverse his views once in power, and be very hawkish about certain issues. But still, chances are that he will be less interested in East Asian geopolitics (and less shrewd in his interventions).

One might think that the Chinese would be more worried about the possibility of Trump setting higher tariffs on Chinese imports and restricting foreign trade, which might actually affect people's livelihoods in China. But unfortunately the strength of popular nationalism and the influence of the media is such that many Chinese are genuinely more concerned about the sovereignty over some patches of sea they will never visit than they are about their economy.

Another reason for the Chinese public's sympathy for Trump might just be their cultural distance from the United States, and their lack of personal experience with an electoral system. America's "culture wars" are obviously rather abstract to people in China. The illiberal values propagated by Trump, his racist comments and misogynist jokes, may not necessarily seem as shocking to people who do not share a Western sense of political correctness. Describing refugees as a threat cannot seem all that terrible in a country where North Korean refugees are happily deported back to North Korea. And the immigrants who have been the targets of Trump's rhetoric are generally Muslim or Latino, not Chinese (in which case I'm pretty sure the reaction would be different).

Another line one sometimes hears in China is that "Trump is a businessman, so he will know how to fix the US economy". I have heard the same line repeated innumerable times in Italy by Berlusconi supporters, so I know exactly how empty it is. But Trump's identity as a demagogue millionaire with no political experience might not be so recognisable or so unpalatable to people in China. There are after all no exact translations for words like populism and demagogue commonly used in China (populism is translated as 民粹主义, but I have never heard anyone use the word in speech).

Of course, not all the Chinese with an opinion are happy about the result. A Chinese ex-colleague who is an activist for gay rights (and lesbian herself), and is now getting a post-graduate degree in Washington University, wrote a long post on Wechat today. She said that this morning all the students in her school received a letter from the dean, who as an "immigrant Latina lesbian" reaffirmed the school's commitment to diversity and inclusion. But she also lamented that racism and homophobia would get worse in the US now that they have political backing, and said that a friend of a friend was told by a white person on the street to "go back to China". She finished off with: "(in Chinese) Hillary lost, the new liberalism is slipping away, and the world that we are about to enter is not going to be a better one. A phrase is constantly reverberating in my heart today: (in English) there's no place in the world that we can live now."