Tea Leaf Nation
With Chinese State Media Quiet, Social Web Alive with Trump Victory Talk
Some greeted the news with a shrug; others lamented Americans “shivering in the corners.”
On Nov. 8, following an protracted campaign rife with personal attacks, Donald J. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton to become President-elect of the United States. Despite its potential momentous impact on relations between Washington and Beijing, the election’s unexpected outcome generated little heat in Chinese state-controlled media. The paper and digital editions of Nov. 9’s People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s chief mouthpiece, featured little more than an above-the-fold squib about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s giving Trump a congratulatory phone call. (The main article: another phone call, this one between Xi and two astronauts docked aboard a space laboratory.) Viewers of Xinwen Lianbo, China’s flagship state-run news broadcast, noted Trump’s victory was not reported until 27 minutes into the program, and then mostly to describe the campaign as a mess.
Chinese social media has thus far seemed more engaged. Articles about the election are easy to find on massive chat app WeChat, and chatter about the election and Trump’s victory are the top-trending hashtags on Weibo. Given the paucity of concrete proposals during his campaign, it’s still unclear how Trump will manage the U.S.-China relationship, and China’s people appear to be hashing out in real-time exactly what a Trump victory will mean for them.
It’s no secret that Chinese cyberspace never particularly liked Hillary Clinton — she was known to be hard on Chinese human rights violations and a tough negotiator as Secretary of State — and snark abounded. In one popular Weibo post, a user impersonating Clinton satirically asked for donations for airplane fare home: “I badly need you to send $2,900 to my account. Eight years later, when I become President, I’ll give you 20 times your money back and issue you a green card.” Another joked, “Now I don’t know what they are going to do for Season five of ‘House of Cards,’” a U.S. show popular in China that depicts skullduggery at the heights of Washington politics.
Even one prominent military commenter found levity in the electoral upset. In a widely shared comment, Zhang Zhaozhong, a PLA-affiliated theorist and ranking naval admiral, wrote, “The democrats have been in power for eight years, it’s time to have a little fun with the Republicans; the military industrial [complex], oil, and finance has enjoyed a hold on elite officials for too long; the whole Cold War-era mindset of using power politics to resist China and Russia is already out of date; it’s time to swap out someone new for a try.” The uncertainty associated with a Trump presidency did not seem to bother Zhang. “There’s no method to how Trump plays his cards; it’s extremely unpredictable, but I can tell everyone; if he’s in power for eight years, he’ll be the first to preside over the slide of the American economy from number 1 to number 2. Yes, he can!”
Others approached the news more soberly. One comment lamented Americans “shivering in the corners” after learning of the result. A popular Weibo post by China Central Television commenter He Fan opined that “the greatest danger Trump’s election poses is not domestic, but outside the United States.” The essay describes Trump as “raving” on matters of state and “totally inexperienced.” Such a neophyte would normally rely on advice from elite advisors, He Fan argues, but such a move “would not fit Trump’s personality.” The uncertainty that creates will “induce doubt and panic” and lead to a power vacuum that will “inadvertently change the geopolitical landscape.”
The article ends with advice to readers to “greatly adjust” their expectations moving forward; to lower their expectations for investment growth, the success of international business deals, and the value placed on international diplomacy. “If you’re a young person, cast off the naive illusion that society will get better and better,” He wrote. “The world is getting worse.”
China’s government and its people may have differing views on the impact of a Trump presidency, but both can surely agree that the web is more influential than every. One popular Weibo post penned by a university student suggested that Trump thank the Internet before any of his supporters. Given the fact that neither supporters of Clinton or Trump resemble the coalitions behind past GOP or Democratic candidates, the student wrote, the 2016 Presidential election was“a victory for the Internet” more than a win for one party. Trump’s using a dedicated Facebook page to stream his rallies rapidly elevated him to the status of a “Big V,” Chinese slang for powerful online opinion leaders. And it was chatter on the web — and not the Clinton endorsements of the vast majority of U.S. newspapers and magazines — that best presaged the final outcome. In the age of the Internet, “even America’s top secrets are no longer secrets.” The internet is a force that “can destroy anything; and create everything.”
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