“To change a president is common, but to change an era is very rare.” So wrote Li Ziyang 李子暘, a 43-year old self-described Chinese nationalist and “self-media” opinion influencer, at 6:24pm on November 9, 2016, Beijing time, when Donald Trump’s electoral victory was secure but America was just waking up to discover it. Li was posting on China’s Twitter-like social media platform Sina Weibo, and as a Chinese supporter of Trump, he was delighted.
“I like Trump because he’s a businessman, not a revolutionary,” Li told me after the election. We were in Starbucks, and the Chinese patriot was wearing an Oakland Athletics baseball cap, slurping an Americano. There were three key areas where he was in agreement with Trump’s policy, he said. One: Like Trump, Li is anti-immigration, in a Chinese context as much as an American one. Two: He hates social welfare policies, especially for ethnic minorities (“only Trump openly says that’s not all right”). And three: He enjoys giving the liberal Western mainstream a hard time, taking relish in the drumming that Trump doles out to what he, too, calls jia xinwen, “fake news” — a term that for Li includes any criticism of China from the West, alongside breaking Trump scandals.
At one point, he added matter-of-factly in his gunfire stutter that he also admired Trump “because of [his] racial prejudice.”
“Isn’t prejudice a negative word?” I offered.
“Yes,” he said, “but you still have to be prejudiced,” rattling off why he didn’t like black people — the sort of casual racism that is unfortunately common in China. He has just as strong opinions about Muslims, whom he considers potential terrorists inside China’s borders, especially in Xinjiang. (Imagine my surprise to discover that he is huizu himself, a Chinese Muslim minority ethnicity.) Above all he dislikes Hillary Clinton, viewing her as a corrupt career politician to Trump’s breath of fresh air. “America needs a change right now,” he said.
If Li Ziyang invites comparison to Trump’s home base, he is not the only one in China. The rise of Chinese Trump supporters has been well noted, and — like their U.S. equivalents — they are very vocal online. There are 75,000 followers for Trump topics on Zhihu, the Chinese Quora, and the majority of the comments are positive. Li estimates that 60 percent of Chinese netizens on Weibo cheer for Trump. Many of these Trump supporters identify, as Li does, with the Chinese left. The political spectrum is reversed in China: the left is conservative, backing the centralist economic and political power of the state, while the right is for liberal and market reforms. Yet it is in the American alt-right that the Chinese left found its true comrade.
At first, the 2016 U.S. election was regarded in the same light as previous iterations: a distant distraction, not on the radar for most of China, and swiftly pushed aside after the shock result. Over the six-month period after the election, out of 711 articles in the U.S. and Canada section of the state newspaper China Daily, only 11 mentioned Trump. On social media, Trump was still largely a joke, enjoyed for an entertainment value made all the sweeter by schadenfreude as America fractured. But for a hardcore group of “Chinese lefties” — many of them attracted to nationalism and a strongman theory of government — the pro-Trump movement in the U.S. has become a torchbearer for their own beliefs about how governments and societies should be run.
A critical element of this unlikely alliance is shared disdain of political correctness and liberalism in the age of inclusiveness and gender pronouns. In China, the phrase “white left” (白左) is a popular derogratory term for what the Brietbart brigade calls “libtards” — who are as derided on the Chinese nationalist net as they are in American right-wing circles. Parents of Chinese students in the U.S. have voiced support for Trump due to his critical views on affirmative action, which affects their children’s chances of getting into good colleges. And just as Trump supporters in America flirt with the line of white supremacism (and occasionally cross it), in China this has found its analog in Han supremacism and military jingoism, coinciding with Xi Jinping’s program of national rejuvenation to Make China Great Again.
Parallels to support of China’s own historical strongmen are uncomfortable. The most active supporters online have been nicknamed “Trump Guards” (川卫兵 chuān wèibīng), a pun on the “Red Guards” of the Cultural Revolution. One such group made a video adaptation of an old Communist song about Mao Zedong, “The East Is Red,” updating the lyrics to praise Trump as “America’s great savior.” Yet of those I talked to among Beijing’s Trump Guard, politics weren’t a big factor: most were attracted simply to his image as a successful businessman and TV alpha male, in a culture that prizes ostentatious wealth and machismo. Others saw Trump as a people’s champion against the corruption of the political class — a vice they are well used to in China – without appreciating Trump’s own status among the much-reviled 富二代 (fù èr dài), the “rich second generation.” Some just appreciated his broadsides at the American media, and Washington in general.
Ma Tianjie 马天杰, who writes a blog on Chinese public opinion, told me that “the appeal of Trump is not based on self-interest or the interest of China, but on personal values,” including a rejection of liberalism and the worship of personal enrichment. The rise of self-media in China is a further factor, with pro-Trump voices amplified (but not fact-checked) online, where extreme views bring high view counts, and Trump is only a lightly censored topic compared to more pressing sensitivities inside China. Li Ziyang has a humble 11,000 followers on Weibo, but some of his peers on the Chinese “alt-left” have followings in the millions — just like the alt-right in America, which breeds online by pushing the same clickbait identity politics.
To start at least, collateral benefits for China’s national self-interest were a clear — sometimes directly acknowledged — advantage of the Trump administration for his Chinese acolytes. Hillary Clinton was widely seen as hawkish, tough on China, while Trump’s America-first platform gives China a free run. Under Trump, the U.S. is retreating from its post-WWII role as an international arbiter of the Western liberal world order, just as China steps up to the plate with its own global agenda. An internet poll in February 2017 found that 45 percent of netizens supported Trump “from China’s perspective,” but only 19 percent supported him “from your own perspective.” And anything that undermines America’s status and respect in the world is good for China, its biggest rival.
What is perhaps most surprising is how these sentiments have held despite Trump’s (albeit fickle) provocations of Beijing. Since inauguration day, Trump has: taken a phone call from Taiwan’s president; accused China’s government of currency devaluation; goaded them over their military build-up in the South China Sea; and engaged China in what is now a full-on trade war. Li Ziyang wasn’t concerned, posting on Weibo that America’s punitive tariffs “isn’t a big deal.” He told me Trump would come to see the sense of doing business with China. “Trump’s a businessman,” he repeated. “He might not understand other things, but he understands what is in his interest.”
Other netizens have revised their views of Trump in light of his increasingly hostile attitude toward China. “This is only Trump’s first bite,” posted one netizen, Wang Jiangyu, in the wake of Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods. “With ever more provocations like this to come, how will those inside China who cheer Trump’s victory console themselves?” Most seem to find a way, in the same way that Trump’s base in America writes off scandal after scandal. According to Ma Tianjie, the blogger on Chinese public opinion, “it depends on what Trump does and says. If he touches on some of the more sensitive issues in Chinese psychology, including hurting the face or insulting the character of the Chinese people in general, that could trigger a different response.”
The predominant attitude to international politics in China is solipsistic. If foreign policy directly affects or insults China, fervent passions can be aroused; if it is complex or incidental, most people just don’t care. The majority of my Chinese friends have the same opinion of Trump as most of my Anglophone friends: that he’s a buffoon. Yet the tens of thousands of netizens who support him and the alt-right agenda do so with a passion that outmatches the apathy of those who disagree. And for now, the authorities who censor Chinese state media appear keen not to stir up anti-Trump emotion, even in the face of his provocations; recent censorship instructions tell media “don’t attack Trump’s vulgarity; don’t make this a war of insults.” Their tactic is to flatter and out-wait him.
The most important opinion within China is the one we can never know fully — that of the nation’s leaders. Xi Jinping is not going to start posting late-night rants on Weibo anytime soon, though fuming state-media editorials are a decent bellwether, such as when China Daily warned that if Trump continues to bait China on trade, “Beijing will have no choice but to take off the gloves.” Trump’s administration still provides “unpresidented” opportunities for China’s ambition, but the honeymoon is ending. Sino-U.S. relations are increasingly strained, and the government controls formidable propaganda machinery that can be used to influence public opinion. If they wanted to turn on the spigot of anti-American nationalism, Trump’s base in China could yet turn on him.