Stuart Leavenworth: In China, Trump provokes wariness and fascination

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, right, talks with U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew in Beijing on Monday. Chinese citizens and leaders alike are watching Donald Trump closely.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, right, talks with U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew in Beijing on Monday. Chinese citizens and leaders alike are watching Donald Trump closely. Pool photo via Associated Press

China is buzzing about Donald Trump, but not for the reasons you might think.

On social media, Chinese netizens don’t seem to care that Trump has vowed to bring China to its knees, end unfair trade practices and confront Beijing in the South China Sea. Instead, people are more curious about how a TV entertainer could suddenly dominate a U.S. presidential election.

“This guy’s hair is so strange,” wrote one commenter on Chinese social media. “I thought it was photoshopped at first.”

Like many Americans, many in China were slow to take Trump’s candidacy seriously. They are catching up now. As of last week, online discussions in China about the presidential election had garnered more than 42 million views. Most of the banter was about Trump’s string of victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

China’s Internet is highly censored, so many netizens know little about Trump’s policies, to the extent that he has spelled them out. Most are familiar with him either because they stayed at a Trump hotel while abroad, or watched broadcasts of “The Apprentice.”

China’s business and Communist Party leaders seem to be watching Trump closely. On Monday, the chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, James M. Zimmerman, told me he regularly fields questions from his Chinese counterparts about the possibility of Trump becoming president.

“We are following with interest the U.S. presidential election,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters last week.

Hua was given a chance to rebut some of Trump’s allegations that China manipulates its currency and uses unfair trade practices. She punted. Chinese officials are apparently bright enough to know that responding to Trump will only stir up a tweet storm, elevating his stature.

On the campaign trail, Trump has sought to demonize China as a robber of jobs and intellectual property. He’s called for a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods. He’s also boasted he’d pressure China into taking out North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. “I would get China to make that guy disappear, in one form or another, very quickly,” he said.

China is not known for showing restraint toward hostile foreign forces. Yet so far, its state media have largely taken a pass on Trump. Global Times, an arm of the People’s Daily, recently highlighted some Trump comments on Chinese social media. This included the words of one netizen who said, “Trump is truly an inspiration for me. His business sense and confidence always keep me in awe.”

Why are China’s propaganda wizards holding their fire on Trump? One possibility is that they see him – and the raucous 2016 election – as a useful tool.

More than anything, leaders of China’s one-party government want citizens to view democracy as a recipe for chaos. This year’s primaries have given them ammunition.

There’s also the possibility that China’s leaders secretly want Trump to win, as opposed to his likely Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Whereas Clinton has harshly criticized Beijing’s human rights record, Trump has largely ignored it. He seems comfortable with would-be dictators, given his attempts to suck up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. In an interview with Playboy in 1990, Trump spoke almost admiringly about China’s violent crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters a year earlier.

So, as the Republican Party prepares to nominate an authoritarian sympathizer, China’s leaders stay silent. Possibly it is change they can believe in.

Stuart Leavenworth, a Fresno native and former editorial page editor of The Sacramento Bee, spent the last two years as McClatchy’s bureau chief in China. He is currently on leave, based in Beijing. He can be contacted at sleavenworth@mcclatchydc.com.