China | China sees opportunity in Trump's inward-looking worldview

China sees opportunity in Trump’s inward-looking worldview

Carly O'Connell November 23, 2016 9:25 AM (UTC+8)
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Upon Trump’s election, many Chinese viewed his win as a good thing. His focus on domestic affairs over international ones would give China a chance to rise, and his relative inexperience and business savvy may mean that his policies on issues like the South China Sea could be easy to influence and up for negotiation.

Trump enjoyed major popularity in China over Clinton during the campaign process. Users of China’s major social media site, Weibo (think China’s version of Twitter), often associated Hilary with words like “rich,” “old,” “fake,” and “robotic.” Her “hawkish” foreign policy and history of standing up to Beijing were well established, whereas Trump was viewed as an unknown.

Yet the Chinese favorable view of Trump does not mean they thought he would make a good president. Many seemed to support him purely for his entertainment value and the chaos he would bring to American society. With America in turmoil and no moral high ground from which to denounce China’s human rights issues, China would be free to expand its influence and become a world power.

Nevertheless, there are concerns that Trump’s protectionist trade policy will hurt China’s growth and that US withdrawal from Asian allies under Trump may mean that countries like Japan and South Korea would seek new means of protection, acquiring nuclear capabilities if necessary.

As for Hong Kong, some netizens drew parallels between Trump’s election, Brexit, and a recent Hong Kong scandal in which two Hong Kong lawmakers were disqualified from their newly won positions on the High Court for changing the words of their oath and displaying a “Hong Kong is not China” banner. For Hong Kong and China, the reputation of democracy in general is at stake. To some, this election proves the merit of democracy in that a political unknown can win over a political elite. To others, it shows the failure of democracy: that anybody can reach high office, whether they are qualified or not.

With regard to Taiwan, two of Trump’s advisers, Reince Priebus and Peter Navarro have been known to have a good relationship with the island, and thus Taiwan is optimistic about a Trump presidency.

These were the conclusions drawn at a think tank lecture hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center on Monday, November 21st, 2016. The lecture was entitled “The 2016 Presidential Election: Responses from Beijing, Hong Kong, and Taipei.” Journalists representing the media of mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan discussed their impressions of the election process and results here in the US as well as of the reactions from their colleagues and countrymen back home.

The featured speakers were Chiachieh “Jane” Tang, US Bureau Chief of Sina News, and Zhaoyin Feng, US Correspondent of Hong Kong-based Initium Media. They were joined in discussion by Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States and moderated by Sandy Pho, Senior Associate of the Kissinger Institute.

Zhaoyin Feng kicked off the discussion by presenting her perspective on both Hong Kong and mainland China reactions. She began with the light-hearted coverage of the campaigns on Chinese media sites: popular memes of Trump and Clinton singing karaoke during the debate and online games where you can add hair to a bald Trump with every click until you reach a full toupee. Most of their audience followed the pre-election antics of the candidates like a reality TV show. Just like in America, fake news and conspiracy theories circulated on social media, especially within WeChat groups.

Jane Tang then took over with a description of her experience at the Javits Center with Hillary Clinton supporters on election night. Predicting a Clinton win, Tang’s organization had sent her to Hillary’s hometown to interview childhood neighbors and friends and get to know the “real” Hillary. Chinese media was as blindsided by Trump’s victory as America’s was, and Tang described the scramble of reporters to rewrite their articles at the eleventh hour.

Robert Daly, who conducted a lecture tour in China about the US election in the months leading up to it, stepped up to offer his view. Daly opined that while the Chinese media had a very sophisticated understanding of the election, they tended to analyze it only in terms of what it means for China, not what it means for the US (understandably, of course). There is a notion that what happens in the US is not their business unless it influences their own lives. Daly pointed out that domestic policy affects foreign policy, and thus one cannot truly understand what a Trump presidency means for the world if they don’t know what it means for America.

In conclusion, much like President Obama, all three panelists counseled a “wait and see” approach to Trump’s presidency, hesitant to give any definitive predictions. Only time will tell how US-China relations will evolve over the next four years.

Carly O'Connell
Carly O'Connell is a young professional in the D.C. metro area who has dedicated over half her life to studying Chinese language and culture. During college, she participated in an intensive language immersion program for a semester in Beijing and upon graduation she spent a year teaching English in Changzhou, China. She's visited over 15 different Chinese cities.
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