Given that Donald Trump has hurled insults, imposed sanctions and talked repeatedly about Chinese responsibility for the Covid-19 pandemic, you might think the Chinese must dislike or even resent him. That is true of most Chinese. However, some think he might actually be one of the best US presidents – at least from China’s national perspective.
In fact, Trump’s quasi-fans have given him a semi-endearing, semi-sarcastic nickname: Chuan Jianguo 川建国. Jianguo translates as “founding or building the nation”and is quite a popular name for men– especially so during the two decades following the founding of the People’s Republic. So, Trump’s Chinese nickname means “Trump builds (our) nation”.
The nickname first appeared in 2018 when a story on a science news website alleged that Trump’s uncle John G Trump, a renowned scientist and a director of MIT’s High Voltage Research Laboratory for over 30 years, had helped a visiting nuclear physicist from China to make equipment that later contributed to China’s detonation of nuclear bombs.
I tried to verify these claims but couldn’t find much credible information in support. However, I did see an entry on Encyclopedia.com’s Science page on the scientist in question – Zhao Zhongyao, who was sent by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government to study nuclear science in America in the late 1940s. It stated that Zhao spent six months in 1949 with John Trump at MIT and learned about high-voltage Van de Graaff generators. He also purchased crucial parts for the machine, which were later shipped back to mainland China. In 1950 he apparently overcame various obstacles to return to his native land, instead of going to Taiwan where the Nationalists had retreated following Chiang’s loss of the civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communist Party.
But rather than because of Trump’s uncle’s possible role in China’s nuclear development, people use the American president’s nickname today because of some of the unintentional consequences of his own policies towards China.
After launching a trade war in 2018, the Trump administration demanded that China step up its economic reforms and further open its market to foreign competition. This has excited reform-minded Chinese because they believe such changes will make China more competitive in the long run.
Another new title was coined for him – “reverse-enforcer-in-chief” – because his support for sanctions and economic blockades is believed to have served as a much needed wake-up call for China’s business community to work hard, play by the rules and speed up home-grown research and innovation.
Another Trump policy that is perceived positively by many Chinese is the increased scrutiny of Chinese students wanting to study in America. This policy, combined with much of his anti-China rhetoric, has largely curtailed a brain drain of younger talent from China to the US that started after Deng Xiaoping’s historic 1979 visit to America.
Trump’s inward-looking ethos has also led to the American exit from important international treaties and institutions, such as the Paris Climate Agreement, UNESCO and the World Health Organisation. Chinese thinking here is that the withdrawals have provided an opening for China to step up as a global leader, taking on more of an international role.
More broadly, many Chinese relish how Trump’s erratic behaviour and transactional mentality has undermined his country’s global image, even among America’s historical allies. No wonder that Hu Xijin, editor of the nationalistic Global Times, tweeted of Trump in May that the Chinese “wish for your re-election because you can make America eccentric and thus hateful for the world. You help promote unity in China”.
In this view four more years of Trump will only make America weaker and China stronger. That’s why “Trump builds our nation” resonates as his nickname with so many Chinese.
A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at [email protected]
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