The first meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will reportedly take place in April in Florida. Observers have already begun to guess what issues will be put on the agenda at this two-day summit. North Korea, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and trade imbalance between the world’s two biggest economies are all thorny issues to deal with at any time, let alone during the great uncertainty created by the Trump administration.
It’s not easy to forget the strong criticism Trump had for China during his campaign. He accused China of manipulating its currency and stealing American jobs, and threatened to impose a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods. Moreover, since the election, his policies toward China have developed in unpredictable directions. Trump’s unexpected phone call with Taiwan’s president broke with diplomatic norms, sent mixed messages, and triggered tons of speculation. It also sparked an official complaint from the Chinese government. Then Trump eased the tensions by promising to abide by the long-standing “One China” policy in another phone call with President Xi Jinping.
Against this background, it’s intriguing to see that Trump is still curiously welcomed among Chinese netizens on social media. In both America and China, Trump has received much attention because of his unorthodox behavior since he announced his run for the presidency. However, when media in the United States bashed him or dismissed him as a joke, discussions on Chinese social media took him much more seriously.
Before the election, on Zhihu, a popular Chinese question-and-answer site that encourages opinion-sharing, users asked and debated questions like “how likely is Donald Trump to be elected as president of the United States?” After he became the president-elect, netizens kept discussing questions such as “how far do you think Trump will be marching forward?” and “what can we learn from Trump?” The number of followers of topics centered on Trump is huge – nearly seven times as many as the number of followers of topics on Hillary Clinton, Trump’s opponent in the election.
Of course, attention does not necessarily mean support. But there are also a great number of Chinese netizens who openly express their appreciation and respect for Trump. On Baidu Tieba, or Baidu Post Bar, one of the hottest online communities in China, supporters built a Trump Tieba with an explicit line of approval on the top of its first page – “Here is the place for Trump supporters.” As of this writing, there are 653,524 posts on Trump Tieba. By contrast, posts on Hillary Tieba are approximately one-third of that number.
It’s unusual to see the incredible generosity that Chinese netizens have shown toward Trump. Consider Trump’s swing on the “One China” policy as an example. The “One China” policy has not only long been regarded as the cornerstone of the U.S.-China relationship, but it is also a sensitive issue that easily drives the emotion of the Chinese public. For China’s authoritarian government, nationalism is a source of legitimacy. When the government spreads propaganda to manage public opinion, maintaining territorial integrity by preventing Taiwan from gaining independence is an emphasis. As a result, Taiwan separatists’ speeches always spark nationalist responses and angry boycotts among Chinese netizens.
However, netizens didn’t react angrily when Trump threw out some anti-China rhetoric, or when he spoke on the phone with Taiwan’s president. The reasons behind Trump’s moves are arguable: is he simply an inexperienced politician, or is each move a calculated part of a wily businessman’s bargaining strategy? Chinese Trump fans greatly prefer the second perspective. Moreover, when someone raised a question on Zhihu, asking whether Trump supporters regretted supporting him after seeing his tough policies on China, one of the answers was telling: “What he has done is exactly what I expected he would do as the president of the United States.” In the minds of his Chinese fans, Trump is a loyal defender of U.S. national interests, which is worth respect, even if it goes against China.
Why does Trump still have so much support among Chinese netizens? After taking a close look at the posts on Trump Tieba, three explanations appear.
First, unlike Americans’ fear of Trump’s authoritarian, strongman style, Chinese netizens appreciate it, or at least do not hate it. Thomas Jefferson once said, “People get the government they deserve.” It is not very fair to apply this quote to the Chinese case, because Chinese people do not select their government, and because public opinion in China is censored, manipulated, or even fabricated. But even recognizing those factors, it still can be observed that authoritarian figures have a certain attraction in China. Xi Jinping consolidated his power partially by cultivating a cult of personality. Songs in praise of “Xi Papa” and “Peng Mama” (Peng Liyuan, Xi’s wife) have gone viral online. Similarly, Trump has two popular nicknames on Baidu Tieba. One is “Trump Dad”; another – even more explicit – is “Emperor Trump.”
The second reason for Trump’s popularity is some Chinese netizens’ conservative preferences on certain issues and their aversion to political correctness. In some parts of China, for example, homosexuality is still regarded as an illness. Electric shocks are applied to gays and lesbians as an “effective therapy.” On LGBT issues, some Chinese Trump supporters go to extremes, such as arguing that “the U.S. should ban the spread of homosexual culture” because it is not “normal” and “misleading to teenagers.” Others hold more neutral views. They agree that LGBT groups have the same rights as “ordinary citizens,” but think they should not claim privileges under the slogan of “anti-discrimination.” These people agree with Trump that liberals and political correctness have gone too far.
Interestingly, China has well-known Internet censorship, but there’s no “thought police” to prevent people from expressing opinions that are not “politically correct.” On Trump Tieba, people never even try to conceal their anti-Muslim and anti-black racism. The terms “extreme Muslims” and “terrorists” are interchangeable, and Barack Obama is often referred to as “O-Black” or “Oba-Donkey.” In a country where over 90 percent of the population is part of the Han ethnic group, Chinese netizens are never as sensitive or aware of their tongues as Americans are. They possibly don’t even have a clear sense as to what opinions or behaviors are identified as racism. Because of different social and political norms, they don’t understand the bright side of political correctness, but simply think it is ridiculous. Therefore, Trump is adored because he is outspoken and blatant.
Finally, the image of Trump as a billionaire and pragmatist has certainly won him a lot of Chinese fans. To quote former leader Deng Xiaoping, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white. As long as it catches mice, it is a good cat.” China’s economic miracle has been guided by Deng’s famous pragmatism, and economic development has been China’s first priority for over three decades. To some degree, Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” echoes “the Chinese Dream,” that is, “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” For Chinese people who are so inspired by and obsessed with economic success, something like an “All-Gender” restroom bill almost makes no sense. It does not save America; even debating it is seen as a waste of public resources. In this sense, Trump is regarded as a brave person who “faces the real crisis of the United States.”
All in all, Trump’s popularity among Chinese Internet users is more than just a curiosity. It might open another window for those Americans who are still confused as to why Trump won to understand why their own compatriots voted for him.
Yan Gu is a Ph.D. candidate at Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. Her research interests lie in authoritarian politics, political communication, and automatic text analysis, with a focus in China. She was a journalist and commentator at state-owned media in China, as well as a news editor of Tencent, a leading Chinese Internet company.