Can Trump improve US-China ties?

In an astonishing fashion, and going against everything political scientists have long thought about U.S. politics, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is shooting to the top of the field of candidates. Moreover, Trump is quietly gaining unexpected support in a far-away country: China. Increasingly, Chinese netizens follow Trump’s primary and caucus wins, which have been coming one after the other. Surprisingly, many of these netizens approve of Trump. This might sound odd to many Americans because Trump is against foreigners–certainly, illegal immigrants.
A closer look at Chinese online public opinion shows that there are three reasons why many Chinese–not all Chinese–actually like Trump. Whether or not these sentiments will change is a different story. These opinions at least show Chinese people’s major priorities when it comes to U.S.-China relations.
To start with, many Chinese netizens like Trump because he is rich and successful. Although not without controversy, Trump has been a successful businessman for many decades and Chinese people, like U.S. voters apparently, like success. Many think that a good businessman like Trump might be able to improve the U.S. economy, thus benefiting China’s economy too. At a personal level, Trump seems be to strong and brave
and such qualities are what most Chinese people want to see in a leader as well.
Many Chinese netizens like Trump’s anti-establishment image, even though it might not be true. This affinity might reflect many Chinese people’s deep level desire for change in their own country, particularly in an era of huge economic and social inequalities. Somewhat ironically, despite all the differences, China and the United States are very much alike when it comes to economic inequality. Since many Chinese netizens belong to the middle and lower classes, it is not surprising that they harbor some resentment toward the establishment in China.
Third and most importantly, many Chinese netizens believe, perhaps wrongly, that a Trump presidency would benefit U.S.-China relations. When compared to Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Trump sounds much more sympathetic towards China. Of course, Trump has already said many bad things about China. He has suggested that China stealing away American jobs and so on. But Trump does not seem to care too much about human rights and democracy, which are near Hillary Clinton’s heart. When women’s activists were arrested in China last year, for example, Clinton publicly called on the Chinese government to release them. Trump meanwhile is happy to befriend Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Clinton has a strong position on democracy and human rights and so, for many Chinese netizens, a President Trump, if elected, would be soft on China’s human rights issues, which is just fine for U.S.-China relations.
Strategically speaking, many Chinese netizens also like Trump’s idea of withdrawing the United States from its alliances with Japan and South Korea. This might not happen, but Trump has mentioned many times before that Tokyo and Seoul should spend more to take care of their own security. Given Trump’s inward-looking mentality about foreign policy, some netizens also believe that a potential grand bargain could be made between China and the United States, perhaps with regard to Taiwan or North Korea. A good businessman like Trump, they believe, will not resist a good offer from China. After all, Trump, unlike many other politicians, is
not ideology-driven when it comes to
China. Overall, it seems that Trump
would prefer retrenchment for the United States, which would be good for U.S.-China relations.
Of course, it is still too early to predict a Trump presidency. Clinton will likely beat Trump in the general election. Keep in mind that random international and domestic events could have a big impact on the U.S. election, meaning that Trump presidency isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility. Chinese netizens would certainly welcome President Trump.

Dingding Chen copy

Dingding Chen is an assistant professor of Government and Public Administration at the University of Macau,
Non-Resident Fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) Berlin, Germany

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