Donald Trump and China: A complex relationship

By Vincent Ni
BBC News

Related Topics
image copyrightAP
image captionTrump's strongman image has won him some fans in China

When Chairman Mao met US Republican president Richard Nixon in 1972, he expressed his fondness for right-wing politicians.

"I like rightists," Mao told Nixon. "I am comparatively happy when these people on the right come into power."

Four decades after that historic meeting, China is watching the rise of another "rightist" in the US in Donald Trump, who expresses his love for China while also blaming it for much of America's economic woes.

Premier Li Keqiang has said the US election "has been lively and has caught the eye", but many in China see it as more than that.

They see the flamboyant New York billionaire as an inspiration rather than an antagonist.

We talk about free trade. It's not tree free trade, it's stupid trade. China dumps everything that they have over here...."

- Trump on China trade

Even before Mr Trump declared his intention to run for the presidency, the name Trump was well known in China.

In Henan province, there is a property management consulting firm called Trump Consulting. It has no connection with Mr Trump, but says on its website it is inspired by his property empire.

There is also a company in southern China, Shenzhen Trump Industries, that produces smart toilet seats and bathroom fixtures for high-end hotels, and Trump Electronics, a company based in eastern Anhui Province, has been making air purifiers since 1996, according to People's Daily.

Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump has more than 14,000 fans on microblogging site Sina Weibo. There is also a Trump Weibo fan page that is dedicated to "everything Trump".

image copyrightWeibo / Ivanka Trump
image captionMr Trump's daughter Ivanka still commands a sizeable following on Weibo, even though she has not posted for nearly a year

'Worries the whole world'

There is no reliable opinion poll on how Mr Trump's comments are received in China, but state media are watching him with a degree of schadenfreude.

A recent Xinhua report said his rise showed "the limitations of the 'democracy' that Americans have long boasted about".

After he won a huge margin in Super Tuesday primaries, state-owned newspaper Global Times ran an English-language piece saying it was "solid proof that US voters are tired of Washington politics".

"It is probably on this point that Chinese public finds Trump somewhat more agreeable," wrote Ai Jun.

But he added that "in the normal run of events, Chinese people should reject an arrogant, hawkish candidate like him out of hand".

Last week, the newspaper went further, issuing a stern warning that "the rise of a racist in the US political arena worries the whole world".

"The US had better watch itself for not being a source of destructive forces against world peace, rather than pointing fingers at other countries for their so-called nationalism and tyranny."

They tell me, 'You can't really build a wall, can you?' And I say, 'China, thirteen thousand miles, the Great China Wall, the Wall of China, right? "

Trump on China's Wall

'Not a bad president'

But many on the Chinese internet think that perhaps the media isn't treating Mr Trump fairly.

"He tore down the hypocritical masks of many Americans," says Weibo user ClairvoyanceCard. "Every sentence he said is true, but they are not all pleasant to hear."

His down-to-earth attitude when he meets voters certainly appeals to many in a country where politicians are remote and rarely mingle with citizens at rallies.

Shanghai-based corporate lawyer Wei Li, who spent 10 years living in the US, tells the BBC that Mr Trump "is really speaking for heartland Americans, and he is a rare politician who speaks in plain English".

Mr Li says American election politics is "like a theatre" and rational politics will ultimately triumph over rhetoric.

"Trump's pragmatism, his access to information, his smartness as well as good counsel may translate into good decisions, should he win," he says.

Sijia Liu, a veteran radio host and commentator who has millions of daily listeners in Beijing, agrees.

"Perhaps Trump will be the president who makes politics understandable to ordinary people," Ms Liu says. "In America, even though you are the president, you cannot behave recklessly."

"So I wouldn't worry that Trump might become a bad president."

image copyrightAFP/Getty Images
image captionSome Chinese are impressed by Mr Trump's attitude when he meets voters at rallies, which are rare events in China

A recent widely circulated article on Chinese messaging network WeChat also provides some insights into the Trump phenomenon.

In it, author Wan Weigang claimed he read Mr Trump's book - Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again - and concluded that, among all Republican candidates, his political ideas were actually "the mildest".

In other words, Mr Wan thinks Mr Trump is not as hawkish as he appears to be.

"Before Obama became president, he wrote a book called The Audacity of Hope, and he used 'change' in his first term and 'hope' in the second to galvanise Americans," he continues.

"But what kind of change and hope that Obama has brought to Americans? Where is his audacity now? Americans have already been bored of such politicians."

I would get China to make [Kim Jong Un] disappear in one form or another very quickly."

Trump on North Korea

'He is a strongman'

Even among the Chinese diaspora, who might have been put off by Mr Trump's views on race and immigration, there is some admiration.

"Many people are having a hard time understanding why Trump is so popular, or have the misconception that people who support him are poorly educated, white and angry males," says Wendy Wang.

Ms Wang moved to the US from China at the age of 25 and became a naturalised American citizen three years ago. She holds a PhD degree and is a professor at a private California university.

image copyrightWendy Wang
image captionMs Wang says she plans to vote for Mr Trump

Ms Wang tells the BBC she will "definitely" vote for Donald Trump as she sees him as "the medicine America needs".

I asked what exactly it is about Mr Trump that appeals to her. Her answer: "He's smart, honest, outspoken, and he is also a strongman."

She adds: "He is the kid who yells that the emperor has no clothes."