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Donald Trump inauguration

Why China’s ‘Trump fever’ has cooled so quickly

Audrey Jiajia Li says the incoming US president’s comments on ‘one China’ and Taiwan touched a raw nerve and have left even diehard fans wondering whether seasoned diplomat Hillary Clinton would have been the more rational choice

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 January, 2017, 2:18pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 January, 2017, 1:46am

The US presidential election attracted unprecedented attention in China, with both the government and the public favouring Donald Trump to a great extent. To the West, this popularity seemed intriguing, especially since Trump blamed China for many of America’s problems. But the Chinese government’s preference for the unconventional Republican was a no-brainer, as he appeared to share many of the values they hold dear.

As a pragmatic businessman, Trump appeared to care little about traditional American “clichés” such as democracy and human rights. In fact, his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin might have revealed his inclination towards authoritarianism. Hillary Clinton, in contrast, with her tough line on human rights issues and her role in President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” policy – ostensibly to contain China – was seen as more hostile.

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But what was puzzling to the rest of the world was that a great number of ordinary Chinese, who had never participated in an election, were also crazy about the US real estate tycoon. On Chinese social media platforms, the majority of the posts were pro-Trump. But the pro-democracy camp in China remained divided. Most of those leaning towards Western liberal ideology were turned off by Trump’s disrespect of women and minorities, his insulting rhetoric and divisive campaign tactics. Others, who identify more with the conservatives, liked him as a straightforward strongman who would end “excessive political correctness” and be open to confronting dictators.

The pro-government camp, however, almost unanimously supported Trump; they would love to see the US abandon the idealistic side of its foreign policy, which could help justify their own ideology.

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But, these two groups of Trump supporters do have a few things in common. First, they share a disdain for political correctness. This attitude is a direct result of China’s modern history. In the Mao Zedong (毛澤東) era, intellectuals went through a series of political crackdowns and civility fell victim to the need for survival. Then, post-Mao reforms ushered in decades of social and economic competition, which saw many lose faith in idealism and embrace “the law of the jungle”.

Money and power are now the essence of the “Chinese dream”. The attitude is that the poor are lazy and their dire conditions are not the concern of society.

As for sexism, a lot of Chinese Trump supporters don’t regard it as a big deal, mainly due to the male chauvinism rooted in Chinese culture. The Trump campaign’s racial overtones did not shock here either. Racial insensitivity is still common in China, and netizens often refer to colour in their comments on the current US president and first lady. Derogatory words for racial and ethnic groups seen on social media are rarely censored, and Trump’s rise emboldened some to openly vent their bias against Muslims. And the role of fake news is also not to be underestimated. Fake news and conspiracy theories sell very well in China, and those about Clinton were no exception.

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However, this “Trump fever” quickly cooled when he broke with almost four decades of diplomatic practice to accept a congratulatory phone call from the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. He also said the US was not necessarily bound by the “one-China” policy and he could use the topic as a leverage to negotiate deals on other issues.

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China’s brazen seizure of a US underwater drone in international waters and Trump’s Twitter messages added fuel to the fire. The foreign affairs ministry and once Trump-friendly state-run Global Times both fought back. On social media, some supporters went silent, while others came to realise that Clinton may have been tough but was at least a rational diplomat who would respect existing international protocols.

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Sovereignty over Taiwan and Hong Kong has always been a key bottom line for the Chinese authorities and people alike. Entertainers from either place accused of sympathising with the independence movement have been banned on the mainland. It is obvious Trump, too, touched a raw nerve with many.

It seems like a satire: a stubborn nationalist who quickly dampened nationalists’ enthusiasm for him by hurting their nationalist feelings.

Audrey Jiajia Li is a filmmaker and columnist in Guangzhou, China