Donald Trump’s rants against China have not hurt his popularity in Chinese social media debates. China’s netizens view the Republican presidential candidate as a pragmatic businessman who could fix relations between the world’s two biggest economic powers. And many would certainly prefer him to Hillary Clinton. 

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Donald Trump does not come across as someone who would seek good relations with China as president of the United States. At a campaign rally on 1 May the presumptive Republican presidential candidate used blunt language when he accused China of engaging in unfair trading practices vis-à-vis the US. “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country”, he told a crowd in Fort Wayne, a working-class city in the state of Indiana. “It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world.” 

China’s official news media’s reactions to the “Trump phenomenon” (特朗普现象) have echoed global expressions of disbelief and outrage in the face of Trump’s aggressive statements on foreign policy and other issues. Editors of China’s party and state run media also use Trump to highlight the weaknesses of the American electoral system. The Xinhua news agency analysed Trump’s success in the Republican primaries as a sign of American society’s weariness with the battles between its two political parties. The populist Global Times stated a “loss of orientation” of America’s democratic system. 

Chinese netizens would vote for Trump 

But Trump’s image in China is much better than these official views let on. As a look into the debates in China’s social media seems to reveal: if Chinese netizens could vote in the US presidential elections, many would vote for Donald Trump. The eccentric candidate enjoys avid support in Chinese online chat rooms – and his admirers don’t seem to be deterred by his anti-Chinese rhetoric.

In a poll on the online portal Guancha (观察者), the overwhelming majority of participants expressed “delight” (喜悦) at Trump’s speech on foreign policy in late April. Chinese Trump supporters have set up accounts on the Twitter-like platform Sina Weibo, some of which have reached thousands of followers. The owner of the best-known account, “Trump’s Fanclub” (川普粉丝团), who claims to be registered in the US, does not only post statements in support of Trump but also criticizes the US media for allegedly slandering the presidential candidate. 

There are several factors that contribute to the Chinese Trump infatuation. 

First, Trump is admired as a man who built a successful business empire, and many Chinese seem more inclined to trust an entrepreneur than a professional politician. On the online portal Zhihu (知乎) which claims to have 17 million registered users, netizens argued that Trump’s career in business contributes to his “pragmatic way of thinking” and his “negotiating skills”. They trust that a businessman would focus on the economy and cast ideology aside. They also believe that he would be best positioned to bring the relations between the world’s two biggest economic powers back on track. 

Not only do these fans not mind Trump’s attacks on China on the campaign trail. Many even express sympathy for his criticism of China’s trade surplus with the US, of its currency interventions or of a lack of protection of workers’ rights and the environment. 

American and Chinese patriots think alike

Regardless of whether or not they agree with Trump on the issue, the fact that he seems to stand up for its own country resonated with his Chinese fans. His boisterous nationalism is the second reason for his popular appeal in China. Zhihu users compared Trump’s promise to “make America great again” to the concept of the “China Dream”, which their president Xi Jinping has coined to describe China’s rise as a global power. 

But Trump has a third important selling point in China: he is not Hillary Clinton. The leading Democratic candidate has major image problems in China. During this year’s campaign, she criticised China for human rights violations and cyber attacks as well as for its military expansion in the South China Sea. Chinese netizens worry that she would promote the export of American ideology and enforce American hegemony in the rest of the world if she were elected president. They are highly critical of the “pivot to Asia”, which Clinton declared as Secretary of State, since they view the reorientation of US foreign policy towards its allies in Asia-Pacific as a threat to China’s goals in the region. 

For all these reasons, China’s netizens seem to prefer the ideologically flexible businessman Trump to the principled politician Clinton in the White House – no matter how much he ends of bashing China on his way there.