The Trump Phenomenon in China: Why is he so popular so far away?
This article is part 3 of a series on Chinese perspectives towards the US 2016 Presidential Election. Part One, which focuses on Chinese student opinions towards Donald Trump, can be found here. Part Two, which discusses the Chinese Government’s stance on candidates, can be found here.
November 8th was a sad day for many liberal Americans, who witnessed perhaps the greatest shock of their lives: Donald Trump, the man some called “racist”, “misogynist” and even “psychopath”, was elected as the 45th President of the United States. Protests emerged the very night of the elections, with people taking to the streets, shouting radical slogans and even barricading the highway. The global media were also shocked by this outcome and many of them came out with radical titles, in which Trump’s image as both “the president-elect” of the US and “racist, misogynist and psychopath” were depicted to show their astonishment.
However, across the Pacific Ocean, thousands of Chinese netizens are celebrating Trump’s success. In Zhihu, a Chinese Q&A social network similar to Quora, people have started an online carnival under questions such as “How do you see the result of the 2016 US Presidential Election”, applauding Trump’s victory with great enthusiasm. Many claimed that “it is a victory of the silent majority against the hypocritical elites”, or else that “it is the sign of the resurrection of the US from the sabotage by the hypocrisy of political correctness”. But it was not just this excitement that makes Zhihu spectacular: just one month before the election, when liberal Americans and the press were still very much confident a Clinton victory, many users on Zhihu had already predicted that Trump would eventually win the election. They voluntarily translated Hillary and DNC emails released by Wikileaks into Chinese, wrote thousands of analyses on them and predicted that the polls of the major US media giants were not to be trusted, given how little attention they were giving to these scandals. At the same time, they believed Trump’s supporters would remain resolute and become firmer in supporting him. To most American media and liberal intellectuals, these assessments seemed ridiculous before the election; but after the events of November 8th, they seem more like legitimate explanations.
But now, with a Trump presidency on the horizon, they have also come to the question whether they really understand the country they have been living in for so long.
Some overseas Chinese students who have spent a long time in the US (usually more than 2 years) don’t understand this prevalent “Trump phenomenon” at home. Like US college students, they have great support for Hillary Clinton and everything she seems to represent in this election: race and gender equality, tolerance of sexual orientations, and environmental protection, among others. However, when they are asked the reason why their fellow Chinese at home favor Trump more than Hillary, they give answers similar to the characterization of Trump supporters by American liberals: misunderstanding, ignorance, racism, and sexism. But now, with a Trump presidency on the horizon, they have also come to the question whether they really understand the country they have been living in for so long.
So, what makes the Chinese people so enthusiastic in their support to Trump? Are they really, as these long-term overseas students suggest, just “ignorant” about the situation in the US? If so, how did so many of them manage to predict the result of the US election?
More interestingly, “Make America Great Again” actually caters to the prevalent Chinese slogan “Realize the great resurrection of the Chinese nation” (实现中华民族的伟大复兴)
One of the biggest strategies Trump used during his campaign is the strong and explicit advocating of nationalism. Trump’s famous slogan “Make America Great Again” is actually an explicit call for the rise of nationalism in the US, which has almost become a negative term in modern western civilization, given the fact it caused the two World Wars and almost destroyed the West. However, in the eyes of Chinese people, nationalism is a positive term that demonstrates the Chinese people’s ambition to become a leading global power. More interestingly, “Make America Great Again” actually caters to the prevalent Chinese slogan “Realize the great resurrection of the Chinese nation” (实现中华民族的伟大复兴), which triggers a lot of positive feedback among the nationalistic Chinese netizens.
Hillary’s unfavorable reputation in the eyes of many Chinese netizens, both as a diplomat and a professional politician, has also contributed to Chinese support for Trump. During her time as the US Secretary of State, Hillary was perceived as a hawkish diplomat coercing China in the Asia-Pacific region. She also publicly criticized China’s human rights records under many circumstances, which has left a terrible impression in the eyes of many Chinese. In addition, the identity of a politician in China is often equivalent to “a person not to be trusted”. Hillary’s rich experience in politics and the Wikileaks emails have augmented Chinese distrust of politicians, making her even more unpopular. Trump, on the contrary, is a businessman with almost zero experience in politics, which in return leave the Chinese an impression of “a cleaner figure” and “a challenger of the current corrupt US political establishment”.
California, as many Chinese have believed, is one of the “bluest” states in the US standing for race equality. However, the introduction of the California Senate Amendment of Constitution No.5 (SCA 5) changed this impression drastically: SCA 5 aims to repeal the California Proposition 209, which prohibits state government institutions from considering race, sex or ethnicity; essentially making affirmative action policy more feasible. It was proposed by Democratic Senator Edward Hernandez, who intended to realize an allocated quota for each ethnic group in terms of public education enrollment, so as to raise the level of education equality in California. As good as it sounds, SCA 5 endangers the number of the Asian American students in the state public education system: the percentage of Asian Americans in top public schools in California has always been much higher than the percentage of Asian Americans in the region. As a result, many Chinese American groups strongly opposed the SCA 5 and spoke about it openly on social media both in the US and China. For some Chinese at home, this became evidence of the hypocrisy of the Democratic Party, sacrificing the interest of the Chinese minorities for the sake of other minority groups. Although the SCA 5 was ultimately put on hold in 2014, it still triggered a wide distrust of the Democratic Party within the Chinese Americans and native Chinese, causing many of to support Trump during the election. Some of them even proposed that the “political correctness” actually excludes Chinese Americans, making them invisible in the campaign for equal rights.
Finally, the growing calls for getting tough on radical Islamic terrorist groups in China also contribute to their support for Trump. During the presidential debate and on many other occasions, Trump has repeatedly called for the cooperation between the US and Russia to crack down on ISIS and other radical terrorist groups. And in contrast to Obama and Hillary’s attitude of refusing to address the term “radical Islam”, Trump speaks openly on this issue and has vowed to bring them down with tougher methods, creating another wave of popularity for him among some Chinese netizens. After the major terrorist attacks in Xinjiang and Kunming, these Chinese have become much more aggressive in their rhetoric against radical Islamic terrorist group, and Trump’s claims are music of to their ears
The Chinese people may truly be somewhat ignorant on American racial, gender or other social issues as the overseas students have claimed, but those were not their prior concerns when they decided to support Trump. For them, politician image, foreign policy and counterterrorism are what really matter to the US, China and the world. They respect Trump’s courage of “challenging the decayed establishment” and so-called “corrupt politicians”, and actually depict him as a hero against elitism and political manipulation in the US. Whether these images are true or not, the Chinese support for Trump offers a very distinct perspective in viewing the Trump phenomenon. Since nearly half of the participants of the elections voted for Trump and made him the President-elect, there is great importance in understanding the mindset of these Trump supporters. As the old Chinese saying goes: “当局者迷，旁观者清” (when the insiders are confused, sometimes the bystanders see the issue more clearly).