. . .
What’s the reaction to a Trump Presidency in the Middle Kingdom?
. . .
Around midday at the popular expat bar Londoner in Xiamen, China, most of the Americans and Europeans sit transfixed and open-mouthed as the shocking results pour in on Election Day from the land of the free and the home of the brave. Unfortunately, that freedom and bravery seems to extend at this moment to choosing a smug and loud-mouthed development tycoon as our representative to the world. Donald Trump will be America’s next president.
Alone among the foreigners is a single Chinese face, Anna’s, who gazes at the increasingly frantic CNN coverage with a uniquely objective expression. After asking me questions about the electoral college and what all the colors mean on the map of the states on the TV, she turns to the other patrons at the bar and watches their horrified facial contortions, impassioned debates and hand wringing with bemusement.
Most Chinese citizens are politically apathetic, understandable since most of them have little say in politics. For Anna, the fascination of watching foreigners at a bar on Election Day is similar to my own fascination at seeing Europeans at a pub during a soccer game. You can understand what all the fuss is about intellectually, but not emotionally.
Contrary to the vision many Westerners may have of a closed, authoritarian China with little knowledge of the outside world, the truth is that many Chinese, especially those in the large cities, are as well-informed as Americans on the histories and policies of both candidates. Many are not only familiar with all the shallow gossipy tripe hurled around from both sides, but on the substantive policy differences as well, particularly regarding China.
When we were planning this blog, Anna and I actually set out to ask random people at a shopping mall in the center of town about their views on the candidates. Most had heard of Clinton and Trump, but few had substantive opinions.
The first man we talked to told us he didn’t have a strong impression of Trump since he was new to politics, but that he didn’t view Hillary favorably since she hadn’t shown much friendliness toward China.
The next string of strangers we interrogated were mostly just baffled at being accosted for their opinion on a foreign election. We encountered a man from Taiwan who initially didn’t understand the Mandarin terms we used to refer to Hillary and Obama, since they apparently use different translations of the name in Taiwan. He went on to say that he supported Hillary since he thought it was important to elect her as the first female President.
We went on to ask three more people who had no opinions on either candidate, one employee at the mall even asked “What do they sell?” upon hearing the candidate’s names, mistaking them for shop titles.
We finally encountered a young student who was knowledgeable on the issues. She said that this election was interesting since Trump is totally different from Obama, more of a crass merchant than a scholar and gentlemen, and that his economic ideas were ridiculous. The student didn’t understand why so many Americans support him and was surprised to learn that he was doing well in the election. She said she was in the habit of reading news and liked to learn about what was happening in other countries.
Undoubtedly if we had asked a similar number of random strangers in an American shopping mall about their views on Hillary or Trump, their reactions would have been more emotionally charged but likely not better informed, as polls have consistently shown.
In the months before Election Day, Chinese social media was aflame with references to the US Presidential Race with comments expressing curiosity, confusion, speculation and derision. In a fascinating article for Sixth Tone, University of Texas doctoral candidate Lu Shuning wrote of how the widespread mockery of the American candidates on Chinese social media reflected a society hungry for political satire, but with few safe domestic targets. He writes,
“Through creating, adapting, and spreading memes, the powerless can feel empowered, the deprived can feel fulfilled, and the isolated can feel connected.”
In another bizarre online stunt, some self-styled election analysts filmed a monkey seemingly predicting a Trump victory. As reported by the TheSun.co.uk, Geda the macaque, who has correctly predicted the outcome of soccer matches, including Portugal’s Euro 2016 win, opted to smooch a cardboard cutout of Trump over Hillary. Those of us who laughed at the absurdity of this prior to Election Day might now be sheepishly soliciting this simian for stock tips.
Other comments on Chinese weblogs were more barbed in their condemnation of the American political system. An article from the Daily Caller quotes a Chinese business owner’s comments
“In the past, I thought the US had the best education and most developed democracy in the world, but now what do they have for president? Either a crazy guy or a swindler.”
China’s governing elites have been quick to agree with online sentiment. The Daily Caller quotes Communist official Fang Xinghai as saying,
“[China’s non-democratic system] has allowed China forty years of uninterrupted growth within a stable system. Quiet deliberation is a more effective form of policy than a public shouting match, because policy making is complicated.”
Who exactly these same elites preferred to see in the Oval Office has been difficult to gauge. On the face of it, both the governing intelligentsia and the broader public seemed to prefer Trump over Hillary. According to a Global Times poll, 54 percent of Chinese citizens would vote for a Donald Trump presidency. Chinese attitudes toward Hillary have soured over the years, seeing her as the main architect of Obama’s “pivot to Asia” during her tenure as Secretary of State which aims to strengthen the US’s alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan and thus constrain Beijing’s influence.
And as in other areas, leaked emails from Wikileaks have haunted Hillary in the court of Chinese public opinion. Two emails in particular stand out, including one in which she writes of the US’s threat to “ring China with missile defense,” unless it did more to rein in North Korea, a threat which China fears has materialized in the US’s proposed deployment of THAAD in South Korea.
In another email she makes the unwise and historically controversial claim that the US has as much claim to the South China Sea as China does. Such comments have stoked outrage in China, eliciting comments like,
“Hate her! I’ve long been disgusted with her”
“Female version of Hitler.”
And while Trump has publically bashed China’s economic policies, many of Trump’s own proposals would stand to benefit China. Trump has shown little interest in advancing human rights or in China’s paltry human rights record. His isolationist stance, suggestions of scaling down the US’s commitments to its allies in East Asia and vow to scuttle America’s commitment to the Trans Pacific Partnership (which excludes China), would all be a boon for Beijing.
Trump has also suggested levying high taxes on imports from China, which could help drive China’s economy away from manufacturing and export toward service industries and domestic consumption, which is what many Chinese reformers in the government hope to achieve.
Nevertheless, according to PRI.org, many Chinese officials had stated their preference for a Hillary win, the journalist Stone Fish wrote of his conversations with such pro-Hillary officials,
“They realize that Trump would be such an unmitigated disaster for America and America’s place in the world . . . And that a lack of stability globally would be bad for China as well.”
But now Trump has won the election and he’s already made good on his promise to end the US’s commitment to the TPP. Reactions in China to his victory were largely favorable, as reported by Sixth Tone.
In any case, a new day has dawned in America, and as this hyper-polarized election sent reverberations around the globe, it’s a new day for the world as well.
Follow us on Twitter (@AmoyFrom).