Unpacking China’s Curious ‘Ivanka Fever’
The President's powerful daughter evokes deeply-held tropes in Chinese society.
At a time of strained and erratic relations between the United States and China, Ivanka Trump, the U.S. President’s daughter and, more recently, a member of his administration, has emerged as an unlikely but singularly potent emissary, not to just to China’s leaders but to many of its citizens. After a clip of her daughter Arabella singing “Happy New Year” in Mandarin went viral in February, Ivanka brought her children to serenade Xi Jinping during his early April visit to her father Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.
But Ivanka Trump’s appeal goes beyond contrived moments of familial diplomacy. “Even Chinese commentators who are utterly skeptical of the President have pointed to Ivanka as the most respectable of an otherwise dubious cohort,” Jiayang Fan writes in The New Yorker. And some Chinese netizens nevertheless (contradictorily) accept Ivanka as both a self-made woman and an heir to a powerful dynasty. Why is this? And what does it mean for U.S.-China relations during the Trump administration? —The ChinaFile Editors
Iwanka re (“Ivanka fever”) — the fawning admiration in which Ivanka Trump is held among some sectors of Chinese society — matters only to the extent that it is a symptom of the convergence of the kleptocratic, nepotistic trends in Chinese elite circles with the same tendencies in elite circles in the United States. No longer can there be any pretense to a purported distance between “their” so-called crony capitalism and “our” so-called cleaner version: this distinction was always a misnomer, but the kleptocracy that is embedded in American politics could somehow be concealed better from view. No longer. Ivanka merely personifies the “reveal” in a very public way.
There has been a cultural strain in China — as in the United States — to both resent and respect those who rise to the top by dint not of hard work but of family background. The fierce political struggles in China’s recent modern history over the role played by family background and social class are indicative not merely of Maoist excess but of genuine concern and ultimately ambivalence over how birth predestines social success. The dirty secret of American politics and society is that very similar struggles have been engaged over the course of U.S. history, albeit, until recently, in a very different idiom and under very different guises. Those idioms and guises have now more and more become one.
That a very white, very blond, very patriarchally-inclined woman — who challenges nothing about an extant unjust system of social reproduction that has given her and her family circle every advantage in the world — should become an icon in China (or in the U.S.) is neither surprising nor even shocking. Unfortunately. In my opinion, it heralds nothing substantive about the U.S.-China relationship in our current moment. It is another piece of fluff that seems to forestall for just another few beats asking and attempting to answer real questions in U.S.-China relations, which are real questions in global life and death more generally. These could include the role of bombing and threats of war in maintaining ostensible U.S. military supremacy in the world; the possibilities of financial and/or economic meltdowns due to deregulated and unregulated capital investments, flows, balance of payments, etcetera; the ever-expanding tendency of China’s and America’s separate and combined global systems of hegemony to direct the concentration of wealth and resources upwards; and perhaps most importantly and alarmingly, the problem of environmental degradation, climate change, and the increasing displacement of those problems onto the global South and/or into urban ghettos and borderland zones of sacrifice (a concept I borrow from my friend Robert Stolz), whose consequent despair and restiveness will require the ever-increasing use of the forces of the national security state. These are among some of the real questions. They demand real discussion and real answers.
Despite his bristly verbal stance on China, Donald Trump and his family have evoked an odd sort of empathy within many Chinese social groups. His gradual restructuring of the administration into a family business has raised criticism in the United States, but many cadres in China are all too familiar with the nuance of this way of wielding power. The seeming discord between Melania Trump and the president during the inauguration ceremony gained spiritual support from many Chinese housewife netizens who are overshadowed and neglected by their husbands. Ivanka Trump, the engine of positive energy in the family, not only is worshiped by Chinese white-collar women who aspire to be beautifully independent and successful, but also is viewed as a role model for China’s famed “bling dynasty” and fu’erdai, the children of the wealthy elite.
However, the limelight shed onto and the Chinese media gossip surrounding the Trump family seems disproportionate to the coverage of the multifaceted conflicts between China and the United States. Granddaughter Arabella’s song echoes in many Chinese households, but still not much is known about the serious talk between Trump and Xi. This phenomenon may be understood on two levels. First, it shows China’s attempt to divert domestic public attention from impending tough encounters in the bilateral relationship and maintaining calm in its backyard before embarking on the long march of conflict resolution abroad. On a deeper level, just like before a kung-fu fight, two adversaries have to baoquan, folding their fists together in front of a bow to show each other their respect and acknowledgment. Trump’s administration has made a friendly gesture, and China has responded warmly.
The growing empathy towards the Trumps in China is a manifestation of the desire for grounds for mutual understanding and commonality between the two countries. The road ahead for U.S.-China relations is certainly full of difficulties, but up to now both governments have decided to start on a gentle note. Whatever they are doing, the Trump team seems to be quite adroit at the Chinese way of fighting. It brings to mind Trump’s proud pronouncement of his many years’ experience doing business in China as his advantage during his presidential campaign.
Performing poppets are a feature of Chinese public relations, propaganda, and diplomacy. As a child, a friend of mine was regularly summoned to Beijing Airport from primary school to stand on the tarmac alongside hundreds of other photogenic little patriots to wave bouquets of fake flowers at visiting foreign dignitaries. Kindergarten children, trained with martial precision, regularly cute-bomb visitors to China with well-choreographed song and dance performances.
As Laura Pozzi observes in Chinese Children Rise Up!, during the May Fourth Movement a century ago, Chinese intellectuals influenced by Darwinian thought idealized children as symbols of the nation’s hoped-for progress. In films and television shows produced by the People’s Republic, portrayals of the prepubescent, guided by a sentimental understanding of childhood innocence, tend toward the cloying, precious, and self-consciously adorable. The saccharine fare of so much mass cultural product aimed at children in China (and, indeed, the general public) attests to abiding faith in the notion of children as “Blossoms of the Motherland.”
Arabella Kushner is the foreign avatar of official China’s fantasies of childhood. The paradigmatic yang wawa (foreign doll), pretty and expensively dressed, she also exudes an air of listless boredom that lends her an appealing air of guilelessness. As she ploddingly chants Tang poetry and warbles the kind of ditties favored by Party leaders, the Chinese masses take it as a personal compliment: even the granddaughter of the least cultured and most China-hostile American president in memory can see that the future is Chinese.
Ivanka Trump was born to brand. Her Instagram posts of Arabella’s Chinese performances, including for Xi Dada and Peng Mama at Mar-a-Lago (a kind of for-profit American Beidahe), present China with a vision of the next stage in human evolution: the Western child practically born with an understanding of the superiority of Chinese civilization, an all-singing, all-dancing future Friend of China and deep-pocketed customer/investor to boot. The oohs and ahhs for Arabella help to drown out the ews and eeks aimed at her grandfather. With the help of Arabella, Ivanka has succeeded, once again, in gilding the turd that is the Trump presidency.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Rebecca E. Karl teaches History at New York University. She is the author of Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History (Duke 2010) and Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Duke 2002). She recently co-edited (with Lydia Liu and Dorothy Ko) The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory (Columbia 2013) and has a forthcoming translation (with Xueping Zhong) of Cai Xiang's 革命/叙事, Revolution and its Narratives: Chinese Socialist Literary and Cultural Imaginaries (1949-1966) (Duke 2016).
Born in Hohhot as a Mongolian minority in China, Yishu Mao was brought up in Shenzhen, where China’s economic reforms first launched. After witnessing the contrasts and changes within China, Mao decided to study in the U.S. and received a B.A. in Literature from Bard College. She interned at PEN America Center and ChinaFile in 2016. She is now completing a M.A. in Global Studies at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin in Germany, where she focuses on the role of China in the progress and consequences of globalization in the 21st century.