China and the World, Talking Point

Playing the Trump card

How The Donald’s presidential bid is going down in China

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in De Pere

My presidency is going to be huge – it’s going to be really, really good... except for China – hugely bad for China

In the 1995 Hollywood flick The American President Michael Douglas, who plays the commander-in-chief, finds his love interest under attack from a rival candidate. In a tense moment the reelection-seeking president delivers a rousing speech: “If you want a character debate Bob [the Republican presidential hopeful], you better stick with me because Sydney Ellen Waid [Douglas’ love interest] is way out of your league.”

A similar approach was employed last week in the increasingly bitter Republican Party primary, after frontrunner Donald Trump threatened to “spill the beans” on the wife of rival candidate, Ted Cruz. In response the Texan senator hit back, using exactly the same line, but substituting Sydney Ellen Waid’s name with that of his own wife.

But Cruz didn’t credit the movie. So the Trump campaign was soon tweeting that the conservative politician had run out of ideas of his own and had resored to plagiarising Hollywood scripts.

Of course, no one could accuse Trump of copying others. He has a stock of original soundbites, some so unexpected that they seem to have been conceived only a split-second before he utters them (such as the comment this week on punishing women for “illegal” abortions, which he later had to clarify).

Over in China, Trump’s idiosyncratic candidacy is a source of both concern and delight for the Beijing leadership. Stoking anxiety are Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on Chinese goods, a move likely to spark a trade war. But the circus surrounding the Trump campaign is giving China’s leaders rhetorical ammunition of their own, and the state media has been using it to point out how flawed the American democratic system must have become to arrive at this point. The implicit argument: why would you want to copy such a system?

How do the Chinese view Trump?

“I tell you he is indeed insane. I will have to emigrate to Mars if he becomes American president,” Hong Kong real estate developer Vincent Lo said of Trump last year in an interview.

Lo knows a thing or two about his fellow property mogul. Back in 1994, when, according to the New York Times, Trump was “struggling to emerge from millions of dollars of debts”, Lo led a Hong Kong consortium that supported Trump in a deal for Manhattan apartments.

The Hong Kong investors divested their stake for $1.3 billion in 2005 but were then sued by the US property mogul, who reportedly shared in the $500 million profit but felt that they had sold too cheaply. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2006.

Till recently many in mainland China aren’t as familiar with the American tycoon as Lo. Six months ago a reporter from CBS showed Trump’s picture on a Beijing street and asked passersby who he was. “Is it Jeb Bush?” one student asked. “Eh… Joe Biden?” the same man guessed again.

Prior to entering the race for the White House, Trump was mostly known in China as the billionaire host of the reality show The Apprentice – a series that inspired the popular copycat Win in China (see WiC44). And like many of the political pundits in the West, most Chinese weren’t sure whether to take Trump’s presidential ambitions too seriously. This was underlined by the nickname he was given by internet users: ‘Broken Bed’ (which sounds like the English word ‘trump’ in Mandarin, see WiC293). He was also labelled as ‘America’s Chen Guangbiao’, in reference to a self-proclaimed tycoon and philanthropist with a similar penchant for generating newspaper headlines (see WiC183).

The Chinese media assumed there was a commercial angle to Trump’s political campaigning. “One of the purposes of running for president is to promote oneself, to become more famous. The nationwide exposure he gains is hard to measure in monetary terms,” CBN newspaper suggested last September.

But six months ago the Global Times may have best summed it up: “The Chinese people have found it bizarre that serious presidential elections have become a sideshow for candidates of questionable quality.”

Now Trump is starting to become a bigger hit?

In recent weeks his campaign success has led to his getting more attention in China. But like many of The Donald’s comments, the response has often been bizarre. Take a story in the People’s Daily last month about online searches for Shenzhen Trump Industries, a maker of toilet seats that has gotten attention because it shares the same name as the presidential wannabe (the newspaper had to tell its readers he has no known affiliation with the firm).

Nonetheless, the Global Times believes that Trump has started to garner more Chinese supporters, with the number of followers on weibo accounts such as ‘Trump Fan Club’ and ‘Great Man Donald Trump’ rising. There were at least 1.5 million mentions of Trump’s name on weibo as of Thursday this week, and a poll conducted by the website showed that 1,800 respondents, or 54% of those polled, favoured him to become the US president.

Why they might be backing Trump for the top political job is more complex, however.

“Many in China are accustomed to hearing US presidential candidates criticise their country, but few have done so with as much volume or variety as Mr Trump,” the Wall Street Journal has reported.

But the newspaper then went on to note that many of the most popular weibo comments about Trump are expressing the hope that he will win the presidency and then undermine the global reputation of the US.

“Chinese people aren’t afraid of a hardline US president. They’re afraid of a smart US president. But can you guarantee he’ll continue to be an idiot once he’s in office? It’s hard to say,” Shi Yinhong, an expert on US-China relations at Renmin University told the Journal.

Other supporters of Trump see him as the best of two nasty options, especially when Trump’s likely Democrat opponent comes into the equation.

“The [Democrats’] pivot to Asia policy and Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy against China have caused dissatisfaction among Chinese netizens, while Trump’s outspokenness and straightforwardness have gained him more support,” the Global Times suggests.

That said, the Chinese love a conspiracy theory. On the website Zhihu, a question-and-answer platform for self-proclaimed liberal intellectuals, there is heavy speculation that Trump must be a double agent sent by the Democrats to destroy the Republican Party from within. The ultimate objective: to make sure Hillary Clinton becomes the first female President in November. (The theory seems to have been provoked by a comment by Jeb Bush. “Maybe Donald negotiated a deal with his buddy Hillary Clinton. Continuing this path will put her in the White House,” the former Florida governor tweeted last December.)

A gift to Beijing’s propagandists?

China’s state media has long proclaimed that the American political system isn’t superior to the more authoritarian model in China. And understandably, the propaganda mouthpieces have got noisier on this score as the race for the White House has become more surreal.

“The US presidential election has become an entertaining drama that illustrates the malfunction of the self-claimed world standard of democracy,” Xinhua news agency proclaimed last month. “This is vivid proof of the malfunction of US democracy, as people are not choosing a president who is responsible enough to lead the country, but to vent their grievance and anger over the reality of the current government and politicians.”

Another columnist wrote on that the fairytale surrounding Barack Obama’s 2008 election was well-and-truly shattered. Instead, Trump’s rise was transforming the presidential race into “an unprecedented joke”.

The Global Times looked back across history as part of its own assessment of Trump’s campaign, launching a full-frontal attack on the US political system.

“Trump has even been called another Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler by some Western media… Mussolini and Hitler came to power through elections, a heavy lesson for Western democracy,” the newspaper warned in an aggressive editorial which castigated Trump as “a clown” and a “big mouth”.

“The rise of Trump has opened a Pandora’s box in US society. Trump’s supporters are mostly lower-class whites, and they lost a lot after the 2008 financial crisis. The US used to have the largest and most stable middle class in the Western world, but many are going down,” the Global Times suggested in its thesis as to why the American political system is becoming more dysfunctional.

Even some of China’s notoriously inscrutable leaders have struggled to disguise their sense of bemusement.

At a news conference at the end of the annual meeting of the Chinese parliament last month, Premier Li Keqiang told reporters that the fight for the White House “has been lively and caught the eye of many” before returning quickly to the duller observation that “no matter in the end who wins the laurel and serves as president, the underlying trend of China-US relations will not change.”

So does Beijing want President Trump?

“I beat China all the time” is just one of the tycoon’s famous rants. And certainly, Trump looks to have a more confrontational view of US relations with the Chinese than Hillary Clinton (see WiC242 for a review of some of Clinton’s thoughts on China).

In an interview with the New York Times this week, he hinted that he was ready to risk a trade war with the Chinese in pursuing his ‘America First’ foreign policies.

“We have tremendous economic power over China,” Trump said. “And that’s the power of trade. Because they use us as their bank, as their piggy bank – they take but they don’t have to pay us back. It’s better than a bank because they take money out but then they don’t have to pay us back,” he declared, insisting that he would block China’s access to American markets if the stand-off over territorial claims in the South China Sea got any worse. (Mind you, Beijing would welcome another of Trump’s suggestions: that he would withdraw US troops from Japan and South Korea.)

Of course, there have been compliments for China as well, with Trump claiming to love and respect the country and its people at other points during his campaign. So the Chinese media can be forgiven for moments of confusion. “​What’s going on? Could Trump’s feelings toward China be more tangled or his logic more deranged?” the Global Times has asked. “He says he loves the wealth China has brought to the US, while also saying China ‘raped’ the US.”

Respect for his business achievements is relatively thin on the ground too. Some have pointed out that four of his companies have filed for bankruptcy, for instance, while many see him as more of an example of fuerdai (or ‘second-generation rich’) than a self-made man.

An article in Caijing magazine last year made the same point: “He was born into a real estate family, went to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and took his father’s company into high-end real estate – truly, he is a fuerdai.”

There are also questions about whether Trump would really turn out as the much tougher negotiator with China that he promises to be. “A businessman like Trump goes for the big deals, and will certainly try to seek win-win solutions. Trade is based on consensus. A trade war just won’t be the ultimate goal for a businessman,” a widely forwarded article on WeChat suggested. “His hawkish quotes [against China] are just a bargaining technique. Trump asks for 40, China counters at 10, the final deal is 20. This is business.”

That would be a better situation than a Clinton presidency, the same post continued: “Career politicians’ [such as Hillary] make attacks on China based on morality. Those are more difficult to negotiate.”

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