BEIJING — China features prominently in the rhetoric of presumed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who accuses the country of stealing American jobs and cheating at global trade. In China itself, though, he’s only now emerging as a public figure, despite notoriety elsewhere for his voluble utterances, high-profile businesses and reality TV show.
And although Chinese officials and state media have denounced Trump’s threats of economic retaliation, many Chinese observers see a silver lining in his focus on economic issues to the near-total exclusion of human rights and political freedoms. That appears to make him an attractive alternative to his likely rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton, who is regarded as far more critical of China’s communist system.
Trump “could in fact be the best president for China,” Hong Kong Phoenix Television political commentator Wu Jun said during a recent on-air discussion.
“That’s because the Republican Party is more practical and Trump is a businessman who puts his commercial interests above everything else,” Wu said. Clinton, on the other hand, “might be the least friendly president toward China.”
Despite his frequent evocations of China, it’s not clear how familiar Trump actually is with the country. While he’s claimed to have made “billions of dollars dealing with China,” he has no known investments in the nation, and it isn’t clear what influential figures he knows in the Chinese political and business realms. Chinese are, however, customers for Trump’s hotel, golf course and real estate ventures, while Trump-branded clothing and accessories have been made in China.
Trump mentions the country so often that a popular YouTube compilation video exists in which he says the word China more than 200 times in just over 3 minutes. His various statements on China range from the blunt (“We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country”) to the anodyne (“I like China very much”).
Still, Trump was largely unknown in China until his campaign for the Republican nomination began gathering momentum last year.
Though China’s government rarely comments on American political campaigns, Trump’s advocacy of a 45 percent tariff on imports that would hit China hard has been lambasted by Finance Minister Lou Jiwei, who called Trump “one of those irrational types” and said enacting such a tariff would cost the United States its global leadership.
“Don’t even think of being the big boss anymore,” Lou said in April.
Trump’s comments might’ve sparked a stronger response if Chinese hadn’t already grown accustomed to American candidates making strong comments about their country during elections, only to moderate their positions once in office, said Nanjing University foreign relations expert Zhu Feng.
“The most important thing is that he or she be solid in their knowledge about China and know how to strike the right balance,” Zhu said.
Many Chinese may also be relieved that Trump is focused so relentlessly on China’s role in the US economy, rather on the country’s authoritarian political system, human rights record or policies toward Tibet and the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Trump’s questioning of US foreign military commitments is also sweet music to the ears of Chinese nationalists who want China to dominate in Asia and challenge US dominance in the rest of the world. His opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which excludes China and seeks to offset Chinese influence, also goes down well in Beijing, though he has also criticized China’s construction of man-made islands in the South China Sea.
The Chinese public, meanwhile, seems unfazed by Trump’s anti-immigration stance, with its overwhelming focus on Mexico, and the candidate’s vow to bar Muslims from entering the United States. That could reflect anti-Islamic sentiments that have grown in China following a series of deadly attacks by radicals from the Muslim Uighur minority, even while the government promotes ties with the Islamic world.
In contrast, many Chinese have qualms about Clinton that date from a speech she gave at a UN conference in Beijing in 1995 that focused heavily on human rights, to the displeasure of the hosts.
As a former secretary of state under Barack Obama, Clinton is also closely associated with Washington’s “pivot” to Asia that includes an increase in the US military presence in the region. Beijing has been strongly critical of the policy shift, which was largely seen as prompted by China’s robust assertions of its South China Sea maritime claims.
Interest in Trump here is rising. Why? Because Chinese have long regarded American elections as a particularly dramatic type of spectator sport. The process of working for a candidate and taking part in rallies and political campaigns doesn’t exist within China’s staid, authoritarian political system.
U.S. politics is also a topic on which the tightly leashed state media is relatively free to report, so discussion of Trump, Clinton and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders rages on social media platforms and podcasts. Many have also noted that Trump’s personality-driven, publicity-fed style is also a familiar archetype for Chinese known for their love of high-profile business moguls such as Alibaba’s Jack Ma.
Although no polls have been taken, Chinese public sentiment toward Trump appears mixed. Comparing him to a figure from folklore known for sowing chaos, the official Global Times newspaper proclaimed him a symptom of an “American disease.”
“I don’t think many people knew him as a businessman before the campaign,” said Shanghai IT engineer Kong Kong, who is unimpressed with Trump’s vaunted political outsider status.
“Politics is not entertainment and simply being fresh may not be a good thing,” Kong said. “A lack of political experience and an excess of personality may lead to an imbalance among interest groups and an abuse of authority, which are not good things for America.”
Zhong Heng, a Shanghai paralegal, says she regards much of what Trump says as bluster. “He’s like an artificial performance-enhancing drug being fed to the American people,” Zhong said.
Trump, though, does seem to have won some Chinese supporters, particularly online. There, chat groups such as “Donald Trump Super Fans Club” and “God Emperor Trump” have popped up in recent months. One posting in a Weibo messaging service chat group was unrestrained in its enthusiasm.
“The more I know about Donald Trump,” it said, “the more I feel that he’s not only saving the US, but also the entire world.”