One of the most feared punishments in imperial China was called chaojia, a term for ransacking a house and confiscating all of the possessions within. Action like this was sometimes taken against senior officials that had fallen from grace. It was not uncommon to see the punished mandarins subsequently exiled or even executed.
Easily the best-known example of chaojia in Chinese history related to Heshen, reputed to be the richest man in the world during the eighteenth century. A trusted aide of Emperor Qianlong, Heshen also went down in history as probably the most corrupt official in the Qing empire. Just a week after Qianlong’s death, the new emperor gave a silk cord to Heshen to hang himself. His belongings – as reported by royal investigators – were said to be worth 15 years of the Qing empire’s annual income (see An A-Z of Chinese History).
Over the past fortnight chaojia has resurfaced as a buzzword across Chinese social media in a wide ranging discussion about a man who was arguably the world’s most powerful politician just a couple of years ago. Chinese bloggers have been using the term as a metaphor for the predicament of Donald Trump, whose home was raid by FBI agents last week on allegations that he had fallen foul of his own country’s espionage laws.
So how has this political firestorm in the United States been perceived in China, a country that has been branded as America’s greatest ‘strategic competitor’?
Are Chinese state media outlets holding fire on how to respond to the latest news?
Trump is still a top draw in terms of social media traffic in China. His popularity is underlined by a slew of interesting nicknames, like Chuan Jianguo, which translates as ‘Trump building the nation’ (Jianguo was a popular name among Chinese in the 1950s when the country was trying to rebuild after years of conflict). The monicker is a sardonic recognition for how many of his administration’s policies ended up proving more damaging to US interests – and in turn boosted Chinese ‘nation building’ – as well as how many of his actions had exposed some unattractive truths about the American political system.
Chinese state media has turned increasingly vocal on Washington’s ‘internal affairs’ in recent years and taken every chance to trash the American system. The excitable Global Times and other high-volume social media accounts affiliated with state-run newspapers have offered extensive commentaries on various political debacles in Washington, such as why Trump sacked FBI director James Comey in 2017 and how his Republican allies blocked the nomination of Merrick Garland a year earlier to be a Supreme Court judge.
The latter, of course, is now the US attorney general that signed off on the warrant for FBI agents to raid Trump’s home in Florida.
Beijing’s media mouthpieces have stayed largely silent this time around and refrained from offering a fuller response. However, in one of the few reports about the raid on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence, the Xinhua news agency reported this week on rising concerns about political violence in the US. “Violent threats and calls for ‘civil war’ erupted on pro-Trump forums online, with some far-right figures publicly spreading violent rhetoric,” it noted. After an armed man was fatally wounded trying to attack an FBI office in Ohio, Xinhua took further note, warning of an increase in deadly threats posted on social media against federal officials and facilities.
That said, even the nationalistic tabloid the Global Times has kept a low-key stance on the latest drama around Trump – which might yet see the former US president indicted. But it did cite Diao Daming, an associate professor at the Renmin University in Beijing, to point out this is further proof of the “catastrophe of American democracy”.
“Some still believe that they could at least focus the discussion on economic matters during the election [the November mid-terms]. Now Trump’s case means that partisan struggle will dominate the election, and that the US is actually offering the voters only two choices – the incompetent [Joe Biden] and the guilty [Donald Trump],” the newspaper scoffed.
Netizens are taking aim at Trump’s latest controversy, though…
On social media, government censors have been happy for bloggers to be much more biting in their deliberations on US politics. Most commentators believe Trump breached protocols in handling classified documents – but also seem to believe that few former presidents would come away unscathed if the US Department of Justice (DoJ) applied the same standards to others.
In a thread that has triggered more than 2,000 replies on Zhihu, China’s most popular question-and-answer forum, a contributor called ‘Flying Panzer’ cited reports in American newspapers that it is actually a ‘tradition’ for outgoing presidents (including Barack Obama) to keep hold of a trove of documents that reference key moments of their decision-making.
“At the end of the day Dong Wang [another popular nickname for Trump, meaning ‘the king who knows’, a reference to his catchphrase of ‘I know more than anyone…’] took the documents home in large suitcases under bright daylight. He didn’t hire a top Russian agent to steal them from the White House,” Flying Panzer claimed.
The numerous legal cases against Trump, Flying Panzer also concluded, were driven by “political motives” and he advised onlookers to read Mark Twain’s Running for Governor should they want to understand more about the seamy underside of American politics.
Seaside’s Cicero, a WeChat-based blogger who focuses on American politics, noted that Garland’s DoJ had also parted ways with two unspoken rules of US politics by giving the green light for FBI agents to raid Trump’s home. The first: that there is no political retribution against former presidents. And the second: that perceptions of political interference by the DoJ are best avoided at all times, but especially during election periods.
“The FBI’s action made me think of HBO’s drama Rome… First the Senate declared Caesar a public enemy, only to drop all grave accusations against the emperor once he handed over the control of the Roman army,” Seaside’s Cicero recalled, suggesting that the Democrats main goal could be trying to block another Trump presidential run in 2024. “This is actually a very common tactic in Western political struggles, with politicians flagging a serious accusation and forcing their opponent into making a compromise [such as not running for re-election].”
Houshayueguang, another much-followed blogger on weibo who identifies himself as a ‘ziganwu’, or ‘the 50-cent gang who bring their own rations’ (meaning bloggers that post pro-China commentary without being paid for it), doesn’t believe Biden was without prior knowledge of the DoJ’s decision either.
“The incumbent president claimed he had no idea why his predecessor would suffer the chaojia treatment. This is as ridiculous as Biden claiming he couldn’t possibly prevent Nancy Pelosi from visiting Taiwan [see page 6],” Houshayueguang wrote. “Either Biden no longer controls his administration or his administration is comprised of a group of liars.”
Citing a warning flagged by former NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik (a Trump supporter), Houshayueguang even speculated that political assassination could be next on the agenda if Trump’s opponents exhaust all other efforts to stop him from running for presidential office again in 2024.
Will Trump run again for the American presidency?
Throughout the 246 years of the American republic, several presidents have been assassinated but none imprisoned. In 1974 Gerald Ford gave an unconditional pardon to his predecessor Richard Nixon for crimes he might have committed during the Watergate scandal. But Washington-watchers in China generally believe this precedent no longer holds amid the toxic environment that is gripping much of the American political scene.
That belief seems to be shared by Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who accused the Democrats of breaking a 240-year tradition by “prosecuting your predecessor”.
Should Trump return to the White House in 2024, the first thing he would do is “raid every one of Biden’s houses”, Giuliani also warned.
All of this adds to the ‘Koreanisation’ of American politics, claims Zhan Hao, one of the most highly paid bloggers on current affairs (most of his articles carry the coveted ‘100K-plus’ label, which means they have been read more than 100,000 times on WeChat), referring to South Korea’s troubled history of prosecuting and imprisoning its retired presidents.
The latest lawsuit against Trump is also unlikely to be settled quickly, Hong Kong’s Takungpao newspaper suggested in an editorial. That means that if (as looks likely) Trump runs again in 2024 the Supreme Court may even have to rule constitutionally – should Trump be indicted – on whether he is eligible to stand for the presidency.
In the view of Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times, Trump would then play heavily on his ‘victim’ status and use it to emerge as the presidential victor in 2024.
“I suspect Trump will soon announce his candidacy for the 2024 presidential election. In this way all allegations and lawsuits against him would look like retribution against an election candidate,” Hu wrote on his own social media account. “There is no certainty that Trump will win… But he will definitely make the election as entertaining as ever,” Hu added.
A situation like this will allow the Chinese to contrast the chaos in Washington with their own leadership selection process, which will be finalised at the 20th Party Congress scheduled for the autumn (there’s no formal date announced for the key gathering but it should happen in about 10 weeks).
Of course, Xi Jinping isn’t expected to have any surprises in securing an unprecedented third term as president, with the Wall Street Journal also reporting last month that he will then attend the G20 meeting in Bali in November, where a summit with Joe Biden is expected to occur.
Should the pair meet – with US mid-term elections having just occurred – the backdrop to the American political scene may look even more combustible. Since 1865 – when the American Civil War ended in the defeat of the breakaway Confederacy – the US constitution has proven a staunch bulwark against political unrest at home, allowing Washington to project American authority abroad. But an increasingly vocal group of US commentators worry about a rising tide of domestic belligerence and the potential threat it poses to the republic.
Take Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for her history of Abraham Lincoln. On Wednesday she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that she had downplayed previous warnings about the dangers of civil war, following the January 6 attack on the Capitol. However, she now admits to being much more worried about the depth of political polarisation in America. She also listed out a series of parallels between today and the 1850s – a period when the United States last found itself marching towards civil war.
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