There was an element of schadenfreude – the pleasure derived from another’s misfortune. Then, there’s the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But other Chinese people just
seemed to like what they were seeing on Super Tuesday.
Donald Trump’s latest victories in the race for the Republican nomination unleashed a wave of surprisingly positive comments across Chinese social media this week, from admiration of his credentials as a “strongman,” to hopes he will lift the world economy “out of its quagmire,” and assertions that he really isn’t “crazy and stupid”.
Last week, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said her country was watching the US presidential race with “bemused interest” and there was a strong current of opinion on social media delighting in America’s seemingly chaotic political system.
“It’s great fun watching the dogfight in the United States,” one user wrote. “This is their democracy.”
Other Netizens enjoyed what they saw as their great superpower rival pressing the self-destruct button. “Trump is very cute with a big mouth,” one user wrote. “I hope he reigns the United States and makes it as messed up as the Middle East.”
Another said he hoped with his “whole heart” that Trump wins the presidential election: “That way I can watch the comedy that is the United States for several years.”
But as the nationalist Global Times tabloid noted in an op-ed on Thursday, the leading GOP candidate “has surprisingly earned himself a few fans in China.”
As the paper noted, it’s surprising because Trump has not always had good things to say about China.
Although he says he “loves China,” and “people from China love me,” he also accuses it of stealing American jobs and promises to immediately declare it a currency manipulator. He rails against its Great Wall of Protectionism and pledges to stand firm against its “cheating” and “financial blackmail.”
“Many of his ideas are far from heartwarming,” columnist Ai Yun wrote in the Global Times piece. “In the normal run of events, China should reject an arrogant, hawkish candidate like him out of hand.”
But Trump has one thing in common with Chinese people, the columnist suggested: “His winning streak is solid proof that US voters are tired of Washington politics.”
“The Chinese people also have had enough of US politicians’ deeds betraying their words when it comes to issues concerning the Sino-US relationship,” the paper wrote.
In an article posted in the Party-controlled website, The Paper (in Chinese), and widely circulated online, Shen Xincheng, a doctoral candidate at Georgia Institute of Technology, urged Chinese people not to rush to judgement, even if the Republican Party and observers alike see him as “crazy and stupid.”
“To the public, he is the most human among the GOP candidates,” Shen wrote. “What he says is truth, as even GOP voters know very well themselves.”
Trump has another attraction to the nationalists who often dominate the debate on Chinese social media: He isn’t Hillary Clinton.
He would be a better president than her “no matter what,” one user commented.
Clinton might be more familiar to Chinese people, but that doesn’t mean she has made a good impression, the Global Times explained.
“She seems to be less welcomed, given her tough attitude toward Beijing, incessant accusations about China’s human rights record, and her push for the US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific strategy as Secretary of State,” it wrote, citing one Netizen as saying: “For a woman to be elected, she has to prove to be more than a mere form. Clinton will act tougher for sure.”
Trump sometimes seems fixated on China. But, as my colleague Emily Rauhala pointed out in a blog post last August, he is often using it as a foil to reflect on the relative decline and weakness of the United States. If China can build a Great Wall, he observed this week, without tractors or cranes, then he can certainly build one along the Mexican frontier.
Some Chinese Netizens expressed support for Hillary Clinton, while others damned the whole process: “No matter who wins the presidency, they won’t treat China as a friend but as an enemy and rival,” one wrote. “Many people had expectations of Obama, then what happened?”
The Republican Party’s attitude towards climate change does ring some alarm bells in official circles in China, especially because cooperation on reducing global emissions has emerged as an important, positive element in the two countries’ relationship.
On Wednesday, Todd Stern, US special envoy for climate change, told reporters in Beijing that some Chinese officials had expressed “concerns” that the United States, after the presidential election, might not stick to commitments made by President Obama at last year’s Paris global climate change agreement – although Stern said he would be “highly surprised” if that happened.
Netizens, though, largely ignored that question.
Of course, Chinese social media is a poor reflection of public opinion. Liberal voices are silenced and quashed by the censors, while nationalists run riot, while others are paid to spread opinions that followed the Communist Party line.
Perhaps the approving comments directed at Trump merely reflect the notion that a strongman, and a businessman, in the White House might not be such bad news for one-Party authoritarian regime that commands tremendous economic power.
“Relations between any countries, to Trump, are like business,” Georgia Tech doctoral candidate Shen wrote. “Compared with making allies, Trump seems to care more about how much money the US makes from the trade.”