Tea Leaf Nation
Why Chinese Netizens Cheer Trump
To online 'Trump Guards,' the U.S. race pits a corrupt official against a plain-spoken outsider.
BEIJING — The U.S. Presidential election on Nov. 8 will be more closely observed in China than any in history. That’s because Chinese people have more personal experience with U.S. life than ever before, from an enormous increase in Chinese visitors stateside — from 400,000 in 2007 to over 2.5 million in 2015, to the rapidly growing ranks of Chinese students at U.S. colleges and universities, a number now exceeding 300,000. It’s not surprising that the election has generated substantial traffic on China’s web forums and social apps; political corners of popular forums like Baidu Tieba and Zhihu have been consumed with tracking the electoral process. What might surprise is that most of this chatter is pro-Trump.
Within China, it’s fair to say the two U.S. candidates are not being judged on who is best positioned to run the American government safely and responsibly. Instead, their images in the Chinese popular eye have collided with two tropes central to Chinese politics: the corrupt official (Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton) versus the people’s champion (Republican nominee Donald Trump). If China was a state voting in the U.S. election, it would be red. For all his angry rhetoric toward China, Trump has successfully persuaded its people that Clinton resembles the archetypal villain in Chinese politics: the corrupt politician, a big business crony who has abused political station to amass wealth and power.
To many in China, there is nothing worse than an official on the take. Truth aside, Trump’s insistence that Clinton is a criminal strikes a particularly sensitive nerve in China. Li Bing, a Beijing cab driver, said, “If Hillary were in China, she would be locked up next to our biggest tigers,” Communist Party-speak for holders of high office. According to 2015 data from the non-profit Pew Research Center, Chinese see corruption as a more potent problem than air pollution, food safety, or the growing wealth gap. China’s deep-seeded disdain for corrupt officials comes from experience; as China opened its economy in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, it saw enormous economic growth and opportunity, but also became a breeding ground for massive graft. As recently as 2009, luxury market experts estimated that gifts to government officials made up 50 percent of all of luxury sales in China. President Xi Jinping has waged an aggressive anti-corruption campaign, but that’s also meant that bad actors, often guilty of embezzling six, seven, and even eight-figure sums, tend to dominate Chinese headlines.
Western media is another favorite bugbear in China. Trump’s accusations of a “rigged,” biased U.S. press blend seamlessly with Chinese concepts of the same. For one, both Trump supporters and many Chinese hate CNN; in 2008, anti-cnn.com, a now-defunct website committed to rectifying the perceived inaccuracies and biases of mainstream Western press, emerged to condemn the West’s portrayal of unrest in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. As Chinese students, tourists, and businesspeople increasingly venture overseas, and web users at home become increasingly connected and savvy with the English language, indignation toward foreign perception of China has grown. One widely shared article on microblogging platform Weibo complains that “Western media is really not as fair and objective as it seems.” The author, an exchange student, writes that “the common people of the West — especially if their worldly experience is narrow — are easily misled.” State media frequently decries Western mainstream media bias. When Trump accused the two moderators of ganging up on him in the second debate, the sentiment among U.S. Trump supporters that it was “three on one” echoed around Chinese online forums.
Chinese also sense that Trump’s U.S. supporters are drawn from the ranks of common folk — in Chinese, “old hundred names.” The trope evokes pastoral images of hard work, honesty, and plain spokenness. Even as China becomes richer and more urban, the archetype resonates; it’s key to the Party’s own image as a citizen-oriented government sprung from farmer rebels, and educated Chinese feel a sense of connection to less educated citizens that’s missing in the United States. Many of China’s grandparents today were brought up during the Cultural Revolution, a chaotic period from 1966 to 1976 which saw schools closed as educated elites were sent to the countryside for hard labor. Yet their children are far more educated; the ranks of annual college graduates has exploded since the turn of the century. As one popular comment on question-and-answer site Zhihu opined, Trump garners more support on Chinese forums than on American forums because “China’s educated class is much different from America’s. China’s generations born in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s are often the first generations of their families in college. The educated class in Chinese society keeps a definitive link with the uneducated class. Their parents are part of it.” They see the U.S. “elites,” as Clinton supporters are often called on Chinese forums, as out of touch with common Americans.
The tenacity with which China’s pro-Trump contingency online goes after what they call the “White Left” has earned them the name chuan weibin, or “Trump Guards.” The term is a play on Mao’s Red Guards, young Cultural Revolution-era zealots known for their fanaticism and groupthink mentality as well as willingness to attack those who stray from their espoused ideology. The Trump Guard comments come in waves, often overwhelming oppositional voices with their vitriol.
Then there is Trump’s sordid sexual history, and the leak in early October of a tape that caught him making hot-mike comments in 2005 about committing sexual assault. This, too, has failed to faze Chinese supporters. Mistresses and extramarital affairs are seen as an inevitable adjunct to official station, evinced by the rash of Party officials who caught for corruption through leaked images and videos of them in flagrante delicto. Few are more infamous than Lei Zhengfu, a mid-level Party official in the central megacity of Chongqing, nicknamed “12 Second Brother” for a lackluster performance in bed that ended up on the web in November 2012. But that scandal was a set-up — a businessman’s racket to blackmail government officials to get loans and favorable government contracts. Chinese audiences thus consider leaked audio and video of political opponents to be part of the brutal backroom power games that characterize their country’s politics. What happened to Trump happens to many officials in China, and it rings hollow to many.
Even Trump’s self-portrayal as an anti-establishment figure has drawn favorable comparisons among Chinese netizens. Many Americans criticize Trump’s platform as internally inconsistent, but on Zhihu, Trump has garnered comparisons to reformist leader Deng Xiaoping for his willingness to abandon political ideology. Deng is credited with the line, “I don’t care if the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice,” which allowed China to cast aside its Communist stricture to do business with the West and open its doors to huge quantities of foreign direct investment, which have helped transform the country. “When Trump says ‘America First,’ what does he mean?” asked one Zhihu user in a popular post. “He’s saying, ‘I don’t care what you Europeans, Middle Easterners, and East Asians are doing; my own country’s business comes first.”
America’s democracy has often served as a high-water mark in China as a political system. For some it is a curiosity; for others, especially in the older generation, it remains an ideal. Partly because of Chinese state media’s constant use of the United States as a benchmark for Chinese progress, most Chinese see the U.S. democratic system as the definitive “other” to their Communist state, a political foil by which they can measure their development, quality of life, and wealth. Yet Trump is saying that what Chinese people hate most about their country is also a persistent problem in the United States, its would-be standard bearer. According to one mainland PhD student, who wished to remain anonymous while discussing politics, “Watching Trump and listening to him makes a lot of us feel like America has problems, too. And we know what our problems are,” while the Americans “are just getting theirs out on the surface now.” For many in China, Trump has placed their country and the United States on roughly equal footing. “It sounds like everything we hate about China,” one political science student declared, also anonymously. “America shouldn’t be like this.”