Tea Leaf Nation
Western Liberalism Is Dying in China
Why educated Chinese are embracing Donald Trump's winner-take-all worldview.
BEIJING — “Trump wins!” Nov. 9 at 1 o’clock p.m., Beijing time, hours before mainstream U.S. media could confidently call the 2016 Presidential election for Donald Trump, eager Chinese spectators declared him victorious using a photoshopped image of CNN host Wolf Blitzer. The picture may be fake, but the sentiment was all too real: insuppressible excitement for a Trump upset, or, more accurately, for the defeat of Hillary Clinton.
By now, many who watch China have come to the realization that Trump has a “base” in a country one Pacific Ocean away from where ballots were actually cast. Articles have been written about the phenomenon, often with a mixture of amusement and alarm. Understanding Trump’s appeal in China will have limited bearing on how the President-elect conducts his business, but will shed light on the cultural and political propensities of a vocal segment of Chinese society today. The Trump fanfare in China embodies an interesting contradiction: outward-looking, intellectually curious Chinese individuals embracing an American strongman who has built his political brand on xenophobia and ignorance.
Why would well-educated, internet-savvy Chinese, whom economists consider one of the biggest beneficiaries of the past quarter century of globalization, identify with the vengeful, explosive hero of those who have been left behind by that same historical process?
The Chinese internet has taken a particular interest in Trump’s unexpected ascension as soon as it became clear that he would be the Republican nominee. At that time, popular Chinese posts about Trump depict him as a symptom of the ailments of U.S. society. He was seen as the manifestation of people’s hidden frustration with political correctness, of the cleavage between intellectual elites and those struggling with their livelihoods, and of “our mediocre and shallow time where entertainment trumps everything.” While there was a you-reap-what-you-sow sentiment in such articles, they also betrayed no doubt that Trump is an ignorant, inexperienced and intolerant hot-head clearly unfit for the top job.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly when a much more favorable view about Trump started to bloom in Chinese cyberspace. Through the lens most commonly used online, he is viewed as a truth-talker, a pragmatist, a fixer, and most importantly, a strong counter-voice against what is believed decadent Western liberal values.
Before we can properly explore Chinese support for Trump, it is important to separate it from Chinese-American rooting for the Republican candidate, which has been based on more substantive issues for people who actually live in the United States. A considerable amount of what’s written on Chinese-language sites about the election is actually by Chinese Americans, especially first-generation Chinese immigrants. Their opposition to Clinton, and Democrats in general, often centers on issues such as affirmative action, which they see hurting hard-working Chinese-American kids. (This topic deserves a separate treatment, and gets a good one here.)
There are, of course, substantive reasons for a mainland Chinese to prefer a Trump presidency. A typical response can be found in comments made by military observers and geopolitical types on the Chinese internet, who see a United States under Trump’s leadership set to make strategic contractions overseas given his openly isolationist positions and focus on domestic economic issues. “The United States will almost certainly move away from its strategy of pivoting to Asia. It will give up on the South China Sea, or even its influence in Taiwan,” reads one popular Weibo essay. Trump is a pragmatic businessman, the thinking goes, and confronting China in the South China Sea is a business with a low cost-benefit ratio. This is probably wishful thinking bordering on fantasy, given Trump’s multiple policy backtracks days after his election. But it does account for why some in China are gleeful about a Trump win.
On the substantive side, there are also veteran Chinese political and economic commentators who express doubts about the potential benefits of the “Trump doctrine,” albeit in a way much more muted than geopolitical optimists. They argue that China, as one of the largest beneficiaries of globalization, will suffer if the United States sways momentously back towards protectionism.
But as we shall see, self-interest seems not to be the primary component of the Chinese affection for Trump. Their fondness of this man is as much value-based as those U.S. voters believed to have voted “against their own interests.” After the election, Routangseng, one of the consistently pro-Trump figure on Chinese Twitter-like platform Weibo, wrote about Trump as “the true heir of Edmund Burke and John Locke,” relentlessly defending the last bastion of freedom. The comparison is absurd, if not outright hilarious. But the rest of his argument — that high-tax welfare states are fostering a sense of entitlement and are nothing more than “open robbery” — sounds all too familiar to ears weathered by U.S. political rhetoric. And he is not alone in his hostility toward what he labels the evil social programs of “white liberals” (白左). In fact, “white liberals” has become a keyword that surfaces in much of the Chinese online discussion about the election.
The unveiled, intense disdain for U.S. (and European) liberals demonstrated by a substantial segment of Chinese social media is key to understanding Trump’s popularity here, and something that ties the “intellectual” side of Trump’s Chinese support with his apparent lack of any intellectual appeal.
On zhihu.com, the Chinese equivalent of question-and-answer site Quora, where enthusiasm about Trump is particularly strong, several top posts under the “Donald J. Trump” tag center around the theme of liberal hypocrisy and weakness. For a site that pride itself with informed discussions and a respect for expertise, the overall hostility towards Western liberal ideas deserves a moment of reflection. One of the posts that garnered more than 18,000 likes is a broad stroke thesis about the decline of Western civilization under the pressure of Muslim immigration. “There are towns in Britain that are completely under the control of Muslim extremists, who are openly using white girls as sex slaves under the eyes of gutless British policemen,” the post proclaims. “Trump was right when he said there were no-go zones for French policemen in their own country. Western countries are in such a degree of self-deception that politicians like Obama and Merkel can be praised for their appeasement with Islamists while political correctness deters people from talking about the existential threat to Western civilization.”
It is one thing to be critical of the liberal ideas of multiculturalism and freedom of religion; it is quite another when a Chinese person shows that level of concern for the demise of the West. Granted, ethnic strife is on the rise between Han Chinese and their Muslim compatriots. This could be part of the reason why some are anxious about a perceived Muslim advancement in other parts of the world. Another factor that might have played into this is the admire/despise complex that many in China harbor about the West. Deep down they still see the West as something to aspire to, and they feel frustrated when “weak” liberal leaders squander their full hand of good cards. “Angry about them not putting up a fight,” as one Chinese saying goes.
What’s more likely to have happened, though, is that somehow right-wing materials from the English-speaking world find their way into China through the internet. After all, who is more troubled by the fall of (white) Western civilization than the U.S. and European alt-right? This has happened before when, during last year’s European refugee crisis, a viral post on a Chinese website about how Japan “wisely” excludes Muslims from its society turned out to be translated from an openly anti-Muslim Zionist. In this year’s election cycle, conservative websites such as RedState have been used by Chinese media as authoritative sources of news. All kinds of conspiracy theories about Clinton, from pedophile allegations to murder charges, spread wildly on people’s (mobile app) WeChat feeds, reinforcing the image of her as a conniving, evil politician who embodies the hypocrisy of liberal politics.
In a way, the Chinese internet is just an extension of what’s gone on in the United States this election season. The spectacular failure of mainstream U.S. media to sway public opinion and to foresee a Trump win is a sign of social media’s unprecedented efficacy in channeling information and aligning electorates, bypassing established gatekeeping and blindsiding political operations playing by rules from a past era. The new landscape enables players such as Wikileaks to reach millions of voters unfiltered, and makes spinning through “surrogates” less effective. Chinese netizens have long harbored a suspicion about the “Western media,” seen as biased against China. The disorderly situation in the United States provides an even larger incentive to look beyond what the New York Times or Washington Post is saying. On Zhihu, users pile on Clinton advisor John Podesta’s leaked emails and develop their own theory of top Democratic officials involving in unspeakably diabolical child abuse. Their ability to consume such materials “uncensored” by mainstream Western media leads some Chinese netizens to consider themselves more informed about the candidates than the Americans.
When those smart Chinese internet users climb over the imagined informational barriers erected by Western media, they are thrilled to find a Trump that speaks to their beliefs. A great many commentators point to the so-called pragmatism in Trump as what resonates with Chinese watchers. Some of them even half-jokingly compare him to Deng Xiaoping, the great Communist leader who opened China to the outside world after Mao’s death. Deng famously declared that “a cat is a good cat if it catches rats, no matter whether its black or white.” The metaphor was advanced to settle heated ideological debates that threatened to thwart his efforts to liberalize the market. To many Chinese, “political correctness” is equivalent to socialist dogmas that should be swept aside when addressing the West’s “real” problems. If illegal immigrants or refugees cause social upheavals, say it. That’s the logic for those who believe that Germany’s welcome of refugees, or the U.S. embrace of immigrants, are due to political constraints that prevent them from doing otherwise, much as China’s own communist dogma prohibited the embrace of private enterprises 40 years ago. Seen from the historical experience of modern China, breaking the shackles created by naive, holier-than-thou liberals is an act of dogma-shattering pragmatism.
One Zhihu user offers a more personal explanation why many Chinese seem able to relate to the kind of anxiety that Trump claims to represent. The Chinese white-collar class, as the author puts it, is not very far removed from their working-class roots. “Most Chinese born after the 1980s are from a working-class background, who can still sympathize with the uneducated ignorance demonstrated by the less refined and appreciate its political power when mobilized. It is what their parents, uncles and primary school classmates look like.” Their modest roots make them less repelled by Trump than their “elitist” liberal counterparts in the US. Of course, the stereotype of liberal elites in a Chinese mind, invariably based on some version of an east coast intellectual or a Silicon Valley executive, is more imagination than reality, willfully ignoring the millions of Americans who vote Democrat and who are no less modest in their background than the author’s “Chinese parents”.
There is, nevertheless, a much blunter assessment of why well-educated Chinese love Trump. Zhao Lingmin, a columnist for the Chinese website of the Financial Times, also links it to their upbringing. However, in contrast to the rosy idea that their generational experience with hardship makes it easier for them to relate to their poorer countrymen, Zhao believes that 30 years of unbridled economic growth “without much moral or legal constraints” has enshrined social Darwinism as the guiding doctrine for much of Chinese society. The widespread worship of winners and contempt of losers prevent society from developing any “political correctness” that shields disadvantaged communities such as women and the disabled from abuses by those with wealth and power. “Over time, those who master the rules of this winner-takes-all environment have developed a hardened heart and a high self-regard.” They are convinced that those left behind must have something deplorable and are alarmed by any welfare program aiming to lift them up. Trump’s message is a loud confirmation of this value system.
Disgusted by what he has witnessed in Chinese debates about the election, “Pretending to live in New York,” a personality on Weibo well known for his efforts to introduce progressive message abroad into Chinese cyberspace, brands Chinese Trump supporters as “spiritual rednecks,” ethnic Chinese who might identify with a Texan bigot. They look down upon other people of color, but insist, ironically, that whites should not discriminate against Chinese, a political correctness they’d rather preserve.
Trump’s archetypal Chinese supporter likely sits somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum marked by the views above. He is probably not the “son of a working man” whose innate compassion connects him with the suffering of his poor compatriots. He is also not entirely the cold-blooded, prototype social Darwinist who cares only about self-achievement at the expense of others. After the election, a widely read Weibo post summarizes what Trump’s win has “taught China,” and has generated tens of thousands of shares:
1. We should retain our college entrance exam system, which ensures a pathway for poor kids to move up the social ladder. The U.S. election shows how a lack of upward mobility tears apart society;
2. China should protect its manufacturing sector and prevent it from being outsourced. The United States’ deindustrialization only benefits capitalists, not workers;
3. China should forcefully resist immigrants and reject political correctness. Illegal immigrants usually compete with lower working class people for jobs, not professional middle class. When the daily safety of working class residents is threatened, they should be able to protect themselves without fear of being politically incorrect.
4. China should be adamantly against excessive care for the LGBT community. Their values and choices should be tolerated, not advocated, especially not at the expense of suppressed mainstream values.
Who would have imagined that a U.S. election could inspire China to come up with what seems like its own conservative manifesto, a strange combination of care for social equality and dismiss of cultural inclusiveness. Through the dizzying image of a triumphant Trump, Chinese society is discovering its own distorted, funhouse reflection.
This article originally appeared on the blog Chublicopinion.com. It is republished here with minor edits and permission from the author.
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images