In january of last year, around the time of the presidential inauguration, as jitters about the relationship between Donald Trump and China mounted, I regularly joined the mob of reporters at the Chinese foreign ministry’s daily briefings in Beijing. There, the assembled members of the media would press officials on Trump’s latest anti-China comment or Twitter blast—on tariffs, trade wars, North Korea, or China’s “theft” of American jobs. Reporters expected righteous denunciations of the kind China routinely unleashes against South Korea, the Philippines, and other countries perceived as even notionally affronting Chinese interests. But they never came. Day after day, the spokespeople stubbornly, and then impatiently, accentuated a positive view of the prospects for U.S.–Chinese ties under Trump.
Likewise in the state media. While American pundits warned that conflict between the world’s top two economies would lead to meltdown, or speculated about China’s putatively enraged reaction to Trump’s phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, Beijing’s state-sanctioned media outlets retained a strangely forbearing, at times vaguely optimistic, tone about the relationship.
From the very beginning, the Communist Party seems to have understood that Trump’s threats were, for the most part, merely for show. By refusing to be rattled, China has enjoyed a series of rhetorical and strategic triumphs that have enhanced its global image and increased its international influence. China also appears to have assessed that Trump, the self-proclaimed master deal maker, would rather have a bad deal than no deal at all, and could be persuaded to compromise on almost anything in order to declare a “win.”
Take the $250 billion in deals announced during Trump’s visit to China in November. Many of the agreements were nonbinding memorandums of understanding, and some had already been negotiated. And while they made a nice headline, they did nothing to address the fundamental problems that U.S. companies face in China: requirements to share technological trade secrets with Chinese partners in exchange for access to Chinese markets; restrictions on entering huge swathes of the economy; industrial policies that explicitly aim to oust foreign firms in fields ranging from information technology to electric vehicles.
Yet China won warm praise from Trump, who professed his “very deep respect” for the country and the “noble traditions of its people.” During an unprecedented “state visit–plus,” as China’s foreign ministry put it, which included a 21-gun salute, a military parade, and a dinner in the Forbidden City, Trump stunned observers by saying he no longer faulted China for its trade policies.
“I don’t blame China,” he said during a joint appearance with President Xi Jinping, adding that he gives the country “great credit” for taking advantage of the U.S. on trade.
Such remarks support the view of Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University. Trump, he told me, is “an especially easy president for China to handle.”
“We are lucky,” he added.
On the diplomatic front, China’s tactic of acting as a foil to Trump has already paid off handsomely. From Europe to Africa to Latin America, China is enjoying more prestige and respect than it has in years. While Barack Obama vexed Beijing with his idealism, “pivot to Asia,” and China-excluding Trans-Pacific Partnership—a massive trade pact that would have fused the major economies of Asia with the United States—Trump has emphatically reversed course, tearing up the TPP and driving allies to consider China-backed plans instead.
Trump’s posture stands in marked contrast to China’s plans for engagement of various kinds with countries throughout Asia. The centerpiece of China’s efforts is the Belt and Road Initiative (also known as the New Silk Road), an ambitious strategy to fund infrastructure projects across Eurasia that would increase foreign trade with China’s inland provinces and bolster its geopolitical clout. Often likened to the Marshall Plan, the Belt and Road Initiative brought 29 heads of state to Beijing for a summit last May, where Xi declared it “the project of the century.” Among the attendees was a delegation sent by Trump, a gesture seen as offering a tacit endorsement of Xi’s vision.
Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement further burnished China’s new image as the responsible global power. Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that Germany could no longer rely on its long-standing ally, and when China reiterated its pledge to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, she said, “China has become a more important and strategic partner.” (It’s worth noting that China’s promised carbon-emission target under the Paris Agreement won’t kick in until 2030, and that Beijing has a long history of finding ways to circumvent international promises.)
With Trump in the White House, Xu Guoqi, a professor at the University of Hong Kong, told me, the Chinese are enjoying a “golden field for their propaganda.” At the same time, Trump’s election, and the wave of political disorder it has unleashed within and beyond the United States, has provided ample fodder for China to attack democracy and extol the one-party state. “American power is based on two legs, the hard power and soft power,” Xu explained. “In terms of soft power, Trump really undermined it substantially.” Trump’s election gave the People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, the occasion to run a series of commentaries arguing that the “crisis in capitalist societies” was “proof of the truth of Marxism and the superiority of the socialist system.”
Such messages continued to gain force during Trump’s first year in office, boosting not only Beijing’s standing internationally, but the Communist Party’s claim to legitimacy among the Chinese population. Xu describes Trump’s presidency as “a gift for the current regime in China. Because of Trump, Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream”—the resurgence of China’s dominance in world affairs—“could be achievable now.”
ut just as trump is different things to different Americans—a conservative, a populist, a strongman, a clown—so, too, is he different things to different Chinese. Notably, even as Beijing delights in outwitting Trump on the global stage, many Chinese look upon the American president with sincere admiration. In recent months, I’ve heard from Chinese Trump fans of diverse backgrounds: a journalist, a rural neo-Maoist, an accomplished academic, a highly paid programmer. One pajama-clad pensioner accosted me on the street to inform me that every night he saluted a portrait of Trump he had on his wall, along with images of Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Einstein.
Zhihu users vigorously debate questions that would fit in well on any right-wing platform in the U.S. One page viewed 3.2 million times asks: “Why do many Chinese look down on Western baizuo who consider themselves well-educated?” (The slur literally means “white left,” but is likened to “libtard” on Zhihu.) Forums feature pictures of Pepe the Frog, a symbol of the alt-right, and of a “Liberal Jack-Ass” captioned “Everything I don’t like, must be banned. Everything I do like is a human right and must be paid for by others.”
Contempt for America’s current brand of political correctness is a recurring fixation, as are illegal immigration, Islamist terrorism, affirmative action, transgender activism, and Hillary Clinton. One Zhihu user I spoke with said he supported Trump not because he particularly liked him, but because the style of today’s Democratic Party “reminds us a lot of the Cultural Revolution.”
Many Westerners living in China are surprised to learn that while public discourse is heavily policed, with taboo views on democracy or Mao Zedong harshly punished, Chinese people can be startlingly frank in private conversation, voicing opinions that many Americans would be afraid to express to one another for fear of giving offense. People remark casually and candidly on everything from a person’s weight gain or disability to the supposed collective merits or deficiencies of certain ethnic groups.
Trump’s nationalist rhetoric and “strongman style” resonate in China’s political culture, Yan noted. The country’s founding emperor, Qin Shi Huang, is revered for uniting the nation, despite his infamy for burning books and burying scholars alive. Mao, who styled himself as a new emperor, squashed dissent and spurred traumatic and violent campaigns against intellectuals, teachers, and writers, but was idolized by many Chinese and remains, in some quarters, a legend. Xi Jinping has, despite his stolid exterior, proved to be China’s most hard-line leader in decades, and his campaigns to curb foreign influence and vault Chinese companies to dominance in the industries of the future have contributed to his popular appeal.
This helps explain why a portion of pro-Trump sentiment in China comes from a surprising point on the political spectrum: the nationalist extreme left, an odd ally for the capitalist billionaire. Trump’s populist rhetoric and imprecations of the global elite have crossover appeal for Mao nostalgists such as Zhang Hongliang, a firebrand writer known as the “Red Tank Driver.” As he wrote on his Weibo social-media account, “In the history of mankind, only two people have proposed that the masses must overthrow the social establishment, one is Mao Zedong, the other is Trump.”
And so while the outward differences between Trump and Xi are stark, there may be a reason the two leaders professed to feel personal warmth at their meeting last spring at Mar-a-Lago, in Florida, and again at their summit in Beijing, where Trump boasted of their chemistry. Both are revanchist leaders, denouncing the supposedly venal elite from which they sprang, and claiming to stand between their country and certain disaster.
“Trump’s Republican Party,” Shen told me, “ought to change its name to the Communists.”
This is where these two very different images of Trump—as someone the Chinese feel they can manipulate and as someone who genuinely appeals to them—converge. Whether eliciting respect or scorn, Trump makes a certain intuitive sense in China. In fact, he might make more sense to the Chinese than he does to much of Washington: His unabashed nationalism; rough-hewn arriviste manners; and unapologetic mingling of family, business, and politics make him akin to some newly minted provincial tycoon. In this respect he is less shocking or threatening than commonplace: He’s simply what Chinese call a tuhao, another bumptious billionaire.
Indeed, Trump’s ferocious loyalty to his clan contributes to his appeal, as it resonates with traditional Chinese values of good leadership, Yan Gu, the University of Washington researcher, told me: “It is a Confucian belief that a great person must ‘improve himself, order his home, govern the country, and bring peace.’ A happy, united family is an indicator of a talented politician.” Online, she noted, Chinese have praised Trump for raising successful sons and daughters, while Hillary Clinton is mocked for her husband’s affair.
Trump’s obsession with “winning” also comports with the winner-take-all attitude of the elite in today’s China, which is less communist than ruthlessly Darwinian. Many successful Chinese believe that “their own success is the result of their own efforts and natural abilities, and those who fail in competition did so because of laziness or other defects,” a commentator named Zhao Lingmin wrote just before the 2016 U.S. presidential election in the Chinese edition of the Financial Times. Winners may be cruel, opportunistic, or corrupt, but they are winners, and therefore they deserve respect. Even Trump’s initial inheritance from his father doesn’t detract from his success, in this view. Rather, it demonstrates his stewardship of the family name and his skill in transforming it into a global brand. As Swallow X. Yan, a politically active entrepreneur who has advised Chinese financiers on Trump, told me, “Chinese people admire success. They look down on losers. If you choose the wrong guy, that is stupid. You are losing face.”
Instead, Trump is transactional. Hoping for cooperation on North Korea, he gave Beijing a better deal on trade. When Beijing didn’t seem to be cooperating enough, he agreed to sell arms to Taiwan. This brand of pragmatic diplomacy, in which relationships hinge on calibrated, concrete bargains that can be altered as conditions change, mirrors Beijing’s way of operating. Although such a contingent approach to relationships entails risks—bilateral cooperation could always collapse as soon as one side feels cheated—it’s a game that China is comfortable playing. With Hillary Clinton, who was, rightly or wrongly, believed to be fundamentally inhospitable to Beijing, things could have been very different. “If Hillary was president of the United States, I can guarantee relations with China would be much worse,” said Xu, the University of Hong Kong professor.
In other words, the “America first” president is in some respects not only amenable to the People’s Republic of China; one could go so far as to argue that he is the first American president with (to borrow a favorite Chinese Communist Party phrase) “Chinese characteristics.” Whether they consider him a global blunderer or a strong leader, a businessman or a family man, Chinese look at Donald Trump and see someone they recognize—and believe they can do business with.