Donald Trump‘s election victory was met in China with a mixture of triumphalism and concern about the consequences. Trump’s win is seen as both, a victory for democracy and a symbol for the demise of the US.
The Chinese government’s reaction to Trump’s stunning win was as predictable as it was restrained. President Xi Jinping congratulated Trump and told him that he looked forward to working with him. A commentary in the official Xinhua news agency called Trump’s victory a "quiet revolt of ordinary Americans“ against the Washington elites. But there was no triumphant finger pointing or open criticism.
In stark contrast, China’s market-oriented media were abuzz. On Sina Weibo the hashtag #uselections received 1.2bn clicks when the results started coming in. There was excitement, even cheer, and a lot of Schadenfreude.
Many commentators considered it a sign of systemic weakness that an outsider with no political experience could win the race for the White House. "The demise of democracy,“ read a headline on the nationalist website guancha.cn On another site, ifeng.com, more than 80 per cent of respondents to an online poll called the election result "a symbol for the decline of the US.“
But there was also a sense of loss, even if expressed mockingly. He had hoped that the concept of liberal democracy would die a little more slowly, Fan Yongpeng of Fudan University commented on guancha.cn website. "The USSR is dead, the EU is going to fall apart next year, now the demise of the US. That leaves only China.“ It was getting a bit lonely, he went on, who shall China compete against now?
Other Chinese intellectuals said Trump’s win had undermined their belief in American democracy. A lecturer at the Central Party School wrote that he felt he could no longer present the US as an alternative model to China’s one-party state.
But maybe all that talk about the loss of role models and the decline of the US is premature. Maybe it’s the other way round and China is the country that should take note. At least some social media comments on the US seem to allude to circumstances closer to home. "Trump’s win is a victory for democracy,“ read a commentary on zhihu.com. Others put it more bluntly: 人民; the people, have shattered the elites‘ monopoly on power and the "brainwashing by mainstream media.“ Unflattering comparisons between CNN in the US and CCTV in China left neither country looking good.
Looming economic conflicts
Finally, the implications for China and Sino-US relations play a prominent role in both, social media and state-controlled media. Trumps promise of "America First“, of focusing more on economic interests and less on geopolitics attracted much comment. 环球时报, The Global Times, warned of "sharpened conflicts of interests“ between China and the US. The paper said, geopolitical rivalry could turn into economic conflict. This view was echoed by online commentators. Whereas tensions in the South China Sea might decrease under a future President Trump, they said, China is set to lose out if he follows through on his protectionist economic agenda. Negotiations on a bilateral investment treaty could come to nothing. China’s own economy could suffer if Trump, as he said on the campaign trail, imposes stiff tariffs on some Chinese imports.
So despite all the Schadenfreude in China’s media about Trump entering the White House, there’s a sharp awareness that a weak US is not in China’s best interest. And that China’s own prosperity also depends on prosperous and stable countries in other parts of the world.