Chinese people are more confident in Donald Trump’s morals and governing skills than their Asian peers, but experts say this is because the country’s public servants have set the bar so low.
The Republican candidate has a relatively positive image in China compared with elsewhere in Asia, a poll commissioned by the South China Morning Post shows.
Only 17 per cent of Chinese believed Trump was “morally unfit” to be president – compared with at least half of participants in Japan, South Korea and Indonesia – while just 21 per cent said he was “arrogant”.
And the 1,500 Chinese surveyed were also more likely to view him as “diplomatic” (21 per cent), “well prepared to be president” (16 per cent) and “a natural leader” (15 per cent). In comparison, just 6 per cent of Singaporeans and 5 per cent of Japanese and South Koreans said Trump was “diplomatic”.
Clinton was the preferred candidate for 61 per cent of Chinese – compared with the regional average of 76 per cent.
The more positive feedback for Trump – which comes despite the candidate’s repeated targeting of China in his speeches – resulted partly from China’s obsession with business success and partly from the poor conduct of its officials, next to whom Trump looked relatively innocuous, media observers said.
“Chinese people have extremely low expectations in terms of the moral conduct of public servants,” said Qiao Mu, a media expert at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
Qiao said some Chinese might have become fond of Trump’s “diplomatic” way of talking because they were used to official speeches full of bureaucratic language.
For them, Trump’s bluntness was a sign of sincerity.
Although Zhou Shengkai, a web designer in Qingdao ( 青島 ), called Trump a “madman”, he said the Republican candidate was far better than Chinese officials.
“Bureaucrats here always use a kind of fake, empty talk,” the 23-year-old said. “Compared with them, Trump is at least being himself.”
While few Chinese saw Trump as honest – 12 per cent – this was still the highest percentage among the six countries surveyed.
And for many, this failing appeared to have been trumped by his image as a strong businessman, which helped him to win hearts in a country that has seen a surge in entrepreneurs over the past three decades.
Zhan Jiang, a media professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said Trump’s emphasis on the role of corporations in developing a nation resonated with China’s business elites.
Since Beijing began supporting private firms about 30 years ago, China’s business class, traditionally perceived as inferior to intellectuals and public servants, have gradually moved to the top of the social ladder – to the point where, some claim, the society has become obsessed with entrepreneurs.
Books on the real estate mogul’s business success were introduced to the country before most people had heard Trump’s name.
A 2008 publication, Trump Strategy: Advice for Property Investors,and a 2007 one, Trump’s Successful Entrepreneurship, along with dozens of others, have proved popular.
China’s relatively newfound respect for powerful businessmen may explain why Trump’s lewd remarks had failed to dent his image, Zhan said.
“China is still a male-dominated society, where people accept that the rich are surrounded with girls,” he said.
Hong Kong-based engineer Zuo, who declined to give his full name, said Trump’s derogatory comments about women and talk about groping were “not fatal mistakes”.
The 28-year-old Guangdong native said he admired the business acumen Trump had demonstrated in running his companies.
“Businesspeople are supposed to be driven by profits,” he said. “And it’s normal for them to say extreme things sometimes.”
But some observers cautioned that Trump might not be so popular with Chinese if they knew him better.
Qiao said most Chinese did not get a full picture of the US election because the state-controlled media kept coverage of democratic elections to a minimum.
On social media, discussions had focused more on gossip than the candidates’ policies, he added.
“Most Chinese do not understand what the candidates are supporting,” Qiao said. “For many, Trump is an internet darling who often makes a fun topic.”