What the Chinese State Thinks About President Trump

Following the results of a long and controversial U.S. election campaign that was watched closely by Beijing, Reuters’ Paul Carsten and Sue-Lin Wong report that China’s Foreign Ministry quickly said “it will work with the new U.S. president to ensure the steady and sound development of bilateral ties.”  At The New York Times, Keith Bradsher reports that President Xi Jinping echoed that sentiment, offering his newly-elected counterpart Trump congratulations while ignoring his China-related trade policy pledges:

The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, sent a conciliatory message of congratulations to Mr. Trump that made no mention of Mr. Trump’s promises to confront Beijing on trade and currency issues. “Developing long-term healthy and stable Sino- is in the fundamental interests of the peoples of both countries and is also the shared hope of the international community,” Mr. Xi said.

But a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Lu Kang, offered a cautious rebuttal of Mr. Trump’s views on trade between China and the United States, arguing that trade had “benefited the people on both sides, including the American people, and has increased employment, rather than the opposite.”

Some economic advisers to the Chinese government were skeptical that Mr. Trump would follow through with drastic action that could prompt a trade war. After all, they said, American presidential candidates have been promising to get tough on Chinese trade policies for more than two decades and have invariably backed off after taking office.

“Nobody takes the electioneering that seriously,” said Andrew Sheng, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission who advises the Chinese government on financial policy. “People accept that the American consumers benefit so much from trade that it won’t change that much.” […] [Source]

State-run tabloid Global Times’ early reporting also highlighted cautious optimism in the official reaction, citing advisors who see the potential geopolitical gains Beijing stands to gain from Trump’s unpredictability as outweighing his stated goals of reneging on existing trade deals:

Trump pays much less attention to the Asia Pacific than Obama and , and therefore China will face less strategic pressure from the US, Jin [Canrong, associate dean of the School of International Studies at the Renmin University of China] said.

[…] Under a Trump administration, the US will be caught up in endless quarrels with its neighbors over immigration issues, and with trading partners for the protectionism advocated by Trump during his campaign, said Jin.

Trump had also slammed China many times during the campaign, calling for a 45 percent tax on Chinese products. But Jin believes that most of these comments are election rhetoric and have no feasibility at all. [Source]

The implications for China of a Trump presidency are hard to assess, due in large part to the vagueness and inconsistency of his policy statements during the campaign. Reuters described Trump’s prospective foreign policy as “largely uncharted territory”. According to Max Fisher at The New York Times, policy experts have consistently found themselves “unable to stitch Mr. Trump’s rambling speeches and scant white papers into a coherent worldview.” Nevertheless, South China Morning Post’s Viola Zhou compiled an overview of his stated positions regarding China, covering trade, the South China Sea, North Korea, cybersecurity, climate change, and human rights. At The Washington Post, George Washington University’s Elizabeth Saunders cited Thomas Wright’s identification of three core themes: “opposition to America’s alliance relationships; opposition to free trade; and support for authoritarianism, particularly in Russia.”

’s Asia editor James Palmer argued that although Trump’s election presents Beijing with four major victories—in terms of geopolitics, “the contest between authoritarianism and ,” human rights, and media credibility—these may be undermined by the instability and uncertainty that will accompany them:

[… T]here’s one major worry that may mute the celebrations in Zhongnanhai. Although China regularly trashes the US, the country’s growth has been dependent, ironically enough, on a strong, stable and prosperous United States willing to trade with the world. Globalization, as Chinese authors have repeatedly argued in the last few months, is vital for a country that needs the markets of others to keep pushing its population into the middle class and achieve the dream of being a “moderately prosperous” country by 2020.

If Trump actually follows through on his protectionist plans, and his decisions have the same effect on the United States as they have on his many failed businesses, China’s own economy, already quivering, will start to shake. Beijing’s ambitious plans to develop other global trade networks through the “One Road, One Belt” scheme may be able to compensate for that — or may prove just as unstable in a rudderless world. China and the United States have often been compared to the two wings of the global economy; if one goes, they spiral down together. [Source]

Similarly, Yale Law School’s Graham Webster, editor of the U.S.-China Week newsletter, tweeted:

Fudan University’s Shen Dingli told The New York Times that “if he indeed withdraws the troops from Japan, the Japanese may develop their own nuclear weapons. South Korea may also go nuclear if Trump cancels the missile deployment and leaves the country alone facing the North’s threats. How is that good for China?

And on Monday, Foreign Policy’s Isaac Stone Fish wrote:

One might think that China would […] welcome a Trump presidency. Yet conversations over the past six months with roughly half-a-dozen mid-ranking and high-ranking Chinese officials, as well as with sources afforded insight into the thinking of top Chinese policymakers, show that many in the Chinese political class grudgingly support Clinton — precisely because they believe a Trump presidency would be a disaster for the United States. Although on their face, many of Trump’s economic, political, and military policies would be far more beneficial to China than Clinton’s, the Chinese elite seem to prefer Trump’s opponent because they feel she would be better for the United States, its place in the world, and thus global stability, which remains of great importance to Beijing.

“While China’s elites scrupulously avoid taking public positions on internal affairs of other countries — especially U.S. politics — their incessant concern for stability, international as well as domestic, moves many to believe that Clinton, not Trump, would be better for China,” said a source familiar with Chinese leaders’ thinking, who asked to speak anonymously. And a source close to China’s leaders, who also asked to speak anonymously, said that although Beijing reaps huge public relations gains from Trump’s meteoric rise and what it says about the state of American democracy, “the perfect outcome is for [Trump] to lose narrowly.” [Source]

Given Trump’s own lack of foreign policy experience, the influence of his staff is likely to prove particularly important. The Economist suggested that Trump’s administration may be ill-equipped to face the challenges ahead, however:

America’s priorities ought now to be to reassure Asian friends of America’s continued commitment; to engage China on global issues, such as climate change, as well as bilateral ones; to stitch together groupings of like-minded countries that can push back against Chinese assertiveness; and to be ready to apply greater pressure on China—by punishing Chinese firms and banks doing business with North Korea—if China does not do more by itself to rein in its delinquent client state, which is developing long-range nuclear missiles faster than outside experts feared. Hillary Clinton understood these challenges. Expecting victory, she was readying a competent team of Asia specialists.

Mr Trump, by contrast, gives no sign of understanding what is at stake. It is not clear who will agree to serve as his specialists—nearly the entire Republican cohort of Asia hands has disowned him. […] [Source]

Elizabeth Saunders similarly commented that “the combination of an inexperienced president empowering a team of inexperienced advisers is not encouraging.” Prominent among Trump’s economic team is Peter Navarro, director of “Death By China,” a 2012 documentary described by The New York Times as “inflammatory,” “cheesy,” and “unabashedly one-sided.” According to The Economist, Navarro’s views on China as a currency manipulating trade cheat are “well outside the mainstream but […] may well carry considerable weight in the administration-in-waiting.” Navarro co-authored a Foreign Policy article on Trump’s Reaganesque “peace through strength vision” for Asia-Pacific diplomacy earlier this week.

As Daniel Twining of the German Marshall Fund of the United States wrote at Nikkei Asian Review, Trump may be somewhat balanced by the influence of Republican legislators. “With the re-election of key senators such as John McCain, Rob Portman and Marco Rubio,” Twining suggested, “Congress will continue to be led by Republican internationalists who will not wish to cede American leadership, upend U.S. alliance commitments or throw up protectionist barriers to trade.”

At Bloomberg, Tyler Cowen wrote that although he expected U.S. trade relations to “worsen significantly,” Trump’s actions against China will likely be limited, at least at first:

I think Trump will bring more suits against China through the World Trade Organization. That will worsen relations in the Pacific without bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. But as long as Trump can claim he has done something on the China and trade front, I don’t think he will start off by going further than that.

[…] Overall, my biggest worry is that a Trump administration will herald a new age of geopolitical instability in the Pacific, in the Baltics, and perhaps in other parts of the world. That would hurt the global economic order and turn the U.S. inward, damaging global liberty to the detriment of the American republic. [Source]

The Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Browne wrote:

Beijing may believe that Mr. Trump is bluffing when he threatens sweeping tariffs on Chinese imports; the official media have portrayed him as more of a clown than a menace.

But it had better brace for the consequences of a populist revolt that swept him to victory, fueled by anger at the perception among working-class whites that China has stolen American jobs. Mr. Trump’s ascendancy to the White House delivers the sharpest blow yet to the forces of globalization that propelled China’s rise. The world’s most consequential bilateral relationship now faces an extended period of uncertainty and tension.

[…] Expect China to watch Mr. Trump very carefully before reaching any conclusions about his intentions.

[…] In office, Mr. Trump will discover an enduring reality, as his predecessors did: No global problem can be solved without China’s help, and America can only prosper if China does. A trade war would produce only losers. [Source]

Meanwhile, Chinese state media opportunistically capitalized on Trump’s win as proof of U.S.-style democracy’s inferiority relative to Chinese authoritarianism. From NBCNews and the AP:

China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency said the campaign has highlighted that, in its words, “the majority of Americans are rebelling against the U.S.’s political class and financial elites.”

The official Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily said in a commentary that the presidential election reveals an “ill democracy.”

On Tuesday, the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV ran man-on-the-street interviews with unidentified American voters in which they expressed disgust with the system and dissatisfaction with both candidates.

But U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus assured “the world’s most important relationship” between Beijing and Washington will remain stable regardless of the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. [Source]

State media had made the case about the relative superiority of China’s political system during Trump’s campaign, finding resonance with some netizens. At What’s On Weibo, a survey by Diandian Guo and Manya Koetse noted that “U.S. Elections” (#美国大选#) became the top trending topic on Weibo on Wednesday:

Many netizens understand Trump’s triumph, saying they support him: “This shows that the [rural] country overlays the cities, they’ve finally won national victory the revolutionary way,” one happy netizen responds. “I speak for the entire Weibo population,” one netizen writes: “and I would like to express sincere congratulations, and would like to welcome you to Chinese social media.”

For a majority of Weibo users, the election outcome is a source of banter. Some commenters said: “Congratulations! It’s a boy!” Another netizen said: “Hi, I am Hillary, and now that I’ve lost I have no money to go home. Could someone wire me 2000 dollars?”

“The American people would probably want to [trade in Trump], but we’d refuse,” one netizen responds. Another person commented: “If Trump would stay in the zoo, I’d be willing to!”

The humorous social media reactions in China about the Trump triumph are similar to those after Brexit, when netizens also used humour and entertainment to discuss the situation. We can expect more Trump memes and jokes to come up on Chinese social media in the coming few weeks. [Source]

While central and local censorship authorities forbade online streaming of election-night coverage, around 100 Chinese observers were invited to watch the vote tallies in person at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Many present were cheering Mr. Trump on even while acknowledging attendant risks. Many others reported high favorability of the candidate among their friends, as The Wall Street Journal’s Te-Ping Chen reports:

As he stood and watched the results roll in on a large overhead screen, Tian Junwu, a professor at the Beihang University School of Foreign Languages, said he was rooting for Mr. Trump’s victory.

“I’m a man. I don’t like a woman to be too strong,” said Mr. Tian. “She is too overbearing, like my wife. I think Trump is funny.”

[…] Zhong Shaoliang, the Beijing representative of the industry group World Steel Association, said that the candidates seemed similar to him, but that he preferred Mr. Trump because he seemed more authentic. “He’s more American that way,” he said.

Still, he said that if he was American himself, he would see some perhaps worrying aspects at the prospect of a Trump win. “Hillary would be better for overall harmony. Trump will likely continue to further divide America up.”

As Florida was called for Mr. Trump, a pair of second-year college students studying English at the Beijing Language and Culture University said they were pleased. [Source]

Samuel Wade and Josh Rudolph contributed to this post.