Trump and China
8 Jul 2016|

Image courtesy of of Flickr user Gage Skidmore

The first question Chinese officials ask Americans when they come to Beijing these days has little to do with economic policy, or the South China Sea, or the particulars of global instability. They focus on Donald Trump, their queries filled with a mixture of astonishment and trepidation.

‘What about Donald Trump?’ Liu He, the chief economic adviser to Xi Jinping, asked the entourage of Secretary of State, John Kerry, during their June meetings for the Security and Economic Dialogue, the prime venue for US–China policy making.

‘Who are his advisers and what are his policies?’ a senior Communist Party official asked Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at CSIS, when she visited in early July.

In those encounters, there’ve been no flippant comments by the Chinese favoring Trump. Second thoughts are in abundance. If any Chinese policy-makers favoured Trump in the early going, there’s buyer’s remorse now.

For a whileas Trump ascended during the Republican primary season and decimated a big field of competitorshe was viewed as not so bad, not so scary, and almost certainly preferable to Hillary Clinton.

There was admiration for his come-from-behind winning streak. He would modify his policies in office, he would have sensible advisers, he wouldn’t dare start an all-out trade war, the Chinese said. And his bravado in insisting that during his presidency the United States would withdraw its troops from Japan and South Korea had great appeal to Chinese army officers. They chose to overlook the second part of Trump’s plan—that Japan and South Korea would be allowed to develop their own nuclear arsenals.

And there was an allure to Trump because he was a businessman. China could always do a business deal, according to this thinking. But most of all, Trump seemed an interesting prospect based on the fact he wasn’t Hillary Clinton. In fact, he was the anti-Hillary.

Clinton has a special place in the pantheon of Chinese antipathies. She earned China’s displeasure when she came to Beijing as First Lady in 1995 for a UN women’s conference and declared that women’s rights were human rights. Early on, as Secretary of State, she publicly called on China to stop its bullying tactics in the South China Sea. Much to Beijing’s annoyance, she ordered a Chinese human rights activist, Chen Guangcheng, to be given shelter in the US embassy in 2012, and then personally negotiated his departure for the United States. She promoted the pivot to Asia, seen in China as a pure containment strategy.

‘Some people in China favor Trump over Hillary not because they like him, but because they dislike her—she is regarded as ideologically biased against China and strategically hostile towards China,’ said Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at the Institute for International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

‘Trump appears to be more focused on economic issues with China, which of course will cause troubles too. But economic friction is more manageable than political and strategic differences.’

But as Trump has been unmasked in the American press, the portrayals of his fraudulent business deals have made for second thoughts. His efforts to be more anti-China than Clinton are nerve-making for Chinese officials.

He calls China’s unbalanced trade with the United States ‘the greatest theft in the history of the world,’ vowing to slap 45% tariffs on Chinese imports. Right there, Trump is challenging the pro-trade American economic orthodoxy that the Chinese count on.

Clinton has veered off the free trade path too, turning her back on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the key economic component to the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia that she helped engineer.

But with the slowdown in the Chinese economyand fears of global instability in the wake of the upheavals in EuropeClinton, an experienced policymaker, is looking a surer bet to senior Chinese leaders.

Some Chinese may well have been put off by recent revelations about Trump suing his Hong Kong partners for US$1 billion in a major New York City real estate deal in the 1990s. (He lost in the courts).

Trump—who dislikes traveling abroad—visited Hong Kong to do the deal, but plainly didn’t enjoy the place, his investors said later. (He had difficulty with chopsticks and was put off by the food). It’s not clear whether he’s ever visited mainland China.

Senior Chinese officials are obsessed by the US, the rival nation they hope to overtake. They read, they study, they talk and they visit America to find out as much as they can. Some Chinese policy makers, like Yang Jiechi, the state councilor, have special friends in high places. In Mr Yang’s case, he’s on good terms with the Bush family.

Donald Trump is unsettling because he didn’t figure in Beijing’s calculations. They have no idea who his advisers are, Glaser said. The Chinese are accustomed to dealing with the establishment in Washington, but there’s no-one they can call to get a reading on Trump. When asked about his inner circle, Glaser said she replied that few in Washington knew his advisers either. In fact, she told them, he seems to have hardly any foreign policy or economic counsellors.

The growing unease about Mr Trump among Chinese officials doesn’t mean that he’s lost his luster among the Chinese public.

His anti-Muslim tirades, his celebrity status—Chinese like brands, and he’s a brand par excellence—earn high approval ratings on China’s Internet. A Trump Fan Club and Great Man Donald Trump group have attracted plenty of followers.

In an online poll by Global Times, a tabloi-style state owned newspaper, 54% of respondents say they supported a Trump presidency, far more than the roughly 40% of Americans who did towards the end of the primary season.

If Trump prevails over Clinton, there will surely be buyer’s remorse among the Chinese public, too.