25 February 2020
If the notorious Donald Trump (right) is elected US president, China under Xi Jinping will probably claim that US-style democracy is a failure. Photo: Reuters
If the notorious Donald Trump (right) is elected US president, China under Xi Jinping will probably claim that US-style democracy is a failure. Photo: Reuters

How China Sees Trump, and what is missed

Shocking. Meteoric. Inexplicable.

It’s tough to explain how Donald Trump has muscled his way into American politics, but those are a few words tossed around by observers when they are forced to describe the situation.

Once considered a joke, he is now a serious contender to become the Republican presidential nominee. Even if he doesn’t end up in the White House, his popularity says volumes about the state of American politics, and sends a fireball of a warning shot across the world.

How do Hong Kong, China, and the Chinese Communist Party view Trump’s rise?

Moneyed folk in Hong Kong know of his phoniness, mainly because of something that happened in the early 1990s. Trump bungled a real estate deal in New York City, one that would have truly established him as a titan of America, and he needed cash fast.

He came to Hong Kong looking for investors, and met them for a game of golf. They wanted to play for US$1 million a hole.

Trump knew he was out of his league and declined, though he did manage to leave with US$82 million … in exchange for a US$300 million mortgage.

When Trump’s investors from Hong Kong cashed out more than a decade later, US$1.8 billion in profits awaited them. Thin-skinned as ever, Trump sued them.

Trump says he knows China well. On his campaign trail, he has repeatedly attacked China.

“The greatest abuse of the country that I think I’ve ever seen financially—China,” he said last week. “What they’ve done to us is the greatest single theft in the history of the world. They’ve taken our jobs, they’ve taken our money, they’ve taken everything.”

And yet he is perfectly happy to pocket Chinese money when it is to his benefit.

Bloomberg has reported that one of Trump’s developments in New Jersey was financed by Chinese investors—he wanted their cash, they wanted green cards. That means Trump profited from the “abuses” he claims Americans suffered because of China.

Besides, the image of a successful businessperson that the man projects is false. If Trump had put all the assets he inherited from his father into a mutual fund that tracks the S&P 500, his personal wealth would be more than double of what he claims to have now.

It takes incredible mismanagement to burn money like that. It takes an indomitable ego to spin a massive loss as anything but sheer ineptitude.

Watching his performance in the Republican debates, the Chinese public take easy potshots at his hair, his orange tint, his mannerisms.

He has been compared to the nutty Chen Guangbiao, who tried to buy The New York Times and may have pioneered the sale of canned fresh air in China.

Chinese state media—rather, let’s call it Party media—isn’t nearly as light-hearted. A series of op-eds have derided the man. The Global Times may be staffed with shills, but it is still a state media organ, and certainly reflects Party thinking.

So it is not with a lack of gravity when one of their writers says, “If you plan to visit New York sometime this year, take my advice: try to stay away from Fifth Avenue because Donald Trump may be lurking there with a gun.”

Looking across the Pacific, it’s clear that Trump’s doings are informing the CCP of the downsides of a democracy. There is little doubt that President Xi and his advisors feel at least a little bit of vindication.

There are many factors that contribute to Trump’s rise, but ultimately he is able to hog the spotlight because the freedoms of America allow him.

Trump’s current state of being is another thing that nudges the CCP into thinking that the arguments for political reform in China have been shattered.

Why allow more than one party to be in power, when the rules in place can rapidly decay until the political machine degenerates into a circus?

Why let the people have a say in choosing a leader, when a reality television star with a thuggish persona actually stands a chance of becoming a national leader?

Of course, that’s the wrong line of thinking and a superficial rendering of the truth.

Votes are more often emotional expression rather than a display of rational choice. Campaigns often run on buzzwords and catch phrases, with actual policy only peppered in.

What’s missing in this discourse about democracy is that the masses do not only have the right to choose a leader, they may also express who they don’t want as a leader.

Painting democracy as a system inferior to mono-party authoritarianism not only misses the point of why the collective voice matters, but also runs the risk of alienating a discontent population.

The CCP may put on a show in Beijing, trotting out delegates for their National People’s Congress, but as reports of the event are nothing more than regurgitated press releases, with no substantial information exchange, the political process in China remains opaque, or even unapproachable.

And that has far more profound implications that a man like Trump wooing the American public for votes.

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EJ Insight contributor