For Americans living in China, distance from the 2016 election is a sobering relief. At home Trump and Clinton are omnipresent, impossible to block out. But here, the country’s apolitical culture provides a buffer of sanity. Whereas US voting booths abound with anxiety and doom, an absentee ballot is cast away from the madness.
The US electorate has propelled Donald Trump from an unhinged reality star to presidential front-runner. Like all American exports, Trumpafilia has a small but dedicated following in China, and most of its noise making is done on social media. But the extent of the pro-Trump voices on the mainland is particularly surprising.
In an editorial from business magazine China Gold (中国金网) entitled, 'Why Some Chinese Prefer Trump,' Donald Trump was described as a fan favorite of Chinese in their 20s and 30s for being a fairly open business mogul and reality TV personality (though admittedly with zero experience in governing).
China’s Trumpafiles don’t reference his campaign promises as much as his role in The Apprentice, which many fell in love with back in 2005, when the first season was made available on streaming sites with Chinese subtitles. A decade ago, Chinese universities adopted his show as a tool for both English and business learning, and countless Chinese born in the 80's and 90s have practiced the “you're fired" routine in front of the mirror, failing to connect the haughty persona with the abusive nature of Trump’s current campaign.
For more than 10 years, Trump’s 'get rich quick' books have been translated into Chinese and a handful of influential titles still fill bookshelves across the country.
Unlike Trump’s global fan base, however, his political message is anything but inclusive. Trump built his campaign with a cultish mantra of racism and xenophobia that has given voice to the repulsive American underbelly. Hatemongering has snowballed him all the way to the primaries, and much of Trump’s toxic rhetoric paints a bull’s-eye on China.
He has repeatedly accused China of job theft – a layered hypocrisy given the fact that Trump himself coattails the Chinese economy, yielding profit with his own investments in Chinese steel textiles, as detailed in a Newsweek report. Yet the Chinese in his corner seem to have few qualms with Trump’s China-bashing and racism, admiring instead his crassness and unpredictability.
One highly influential blog gaining nearly one million likes on WeChat championed his offbeat patriotism by compiling segments of Trump’s past speeches that speak to the embarrassing failures of past US presidential administrations and comparative victories of China.
Titled ‘Trump's presidential campaign speech yesterday is worth the attention of every Chinese,’ the piece begins with the statement: “I want the Obama administration to be remembered as an idiotic failure…” and then goes on to paraphrase Trump’s speeches that praised China’s accomplishments with the same vigor: “Look at the last twenty years… [China has] excelled as new WTO member and dominated the markets of tech and agriculture...”
In an eerie Trump-like tone, the article ends with the sentence: “Why shouldn’t we be patriotic?” as if to say, make "China great again!" It was reposted more than 100 thousand times on WeChat.
Young Trump enthusiasts showed their support in Tianhe District, Guangzhou on October 23 (photo by Matthew Bossons).
Since Trump’s boastfully rapacious comments about groping women made headlines a month before the election, NBC has tried to distance itself from its former cash cow; but Trump’s Chinese followers remain loyal – reaffirming his ‘strongman’ image, which has been cited as one of the attributes his fans in China rally behind.
Yet Trump’s support is not merely restricted to anonymous bloggers – Chinese students and academics overseas have also pledged support.
Shen Xincheng – a PHD candidate at the Georgia Institute of Technology – recently argued Trump is “the most human of all GOP candidates” in a Chinese language paper.
And with young and wealthy Chinese making up a majority of America’s foreign student population, US campuses are a great place to find pro-Trump voices among China’s splash cash youth. When interviewed in a recent broadcast by Charming China, students not only lent support to Trump, but also fully saluted his chauvinism and bigotry.
"I don't think a woman can be president," said a USC student when asked who he will vote for this election in a video by Charming China.
One rationalization of the typical Chinese Trump supporter is an understanding of ‘tuhao’ culture: a pro-business, ‘new money’ crowd that shrugs off China bashing as harmless noise. Xinhua News pointed out early in the primaries that for many, Trump's likeability is linked to his inherited wealth.
In China, the so-called fu’erdai (富二代, or second generation elite) are relatively well-regarded. Inversely, wealthy Americans seeking public office masquerade as blue collar for public support, evidenced by the way Hillary Clinton downplays her own fortune with anecdotes about her father's small silk screen business.
The combination of Trump’s amusing persona, get rich books, eccentric nationalism and profuse wealth may explain his surprisingly large Chinese support base, but his overall appeal primarily stems from the former – his TV stint. On the mainland, The Apprentice keenly taps into China’s cutthroat corporate culture; where draconian bosses are ritually admired.
Wilson Han, a producer at GRT Guangdong Radio and Television, has been working in TV since the late 1990s and has proposed buying the rights to the hit reality TV series The Apprentice and adapting it for a Chinese audience.
“It will be very successful in China. There is already a copy of this show in England and Singapore. It’s time for The Apprentice in China.”
Han studies media trends on the mainland and claims the anti-Chinese rhetoric would have no effect on the show’s appeal in China. Presently Trump’s campaign controversy has had little to no effect on the UK adaptation of The Apprentice, or Singapore’s Apprentice Asia.
One major difference between Trump supporters in the US and China is that Americans separate his campaign persona from the reality TV show. For Chinese, however, they are one in the same. Perhaps that is the essence of how American democracy is perceived worldwide: it’s just entertainment.
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