Professors and commentators have expended time and column inches analysing the ideal outcome for Beijing. For China’s netizens, entertainment alone is reason enough to engage.
Zhou Enlai’s infamous quip on the outcome of the French revolution – that it was still too early to tell – could apply for followers of the US election in more ways than one. The quote was taken as proof that the Chinese possess an almost unique ability to see the bigger picture, and the US election has proved no different. Talking points in the West – racism, pandemic control and presidential behaviour – have been all but moot in China’s discussion of the two candidates. China’s intelligentsia has nevertheless been characteristically vocal in trying to make sense of what the election means for China, for America and for the world at large, whilst passive viewers have been simply enjoying the theatrics.
As an article on Chinese “New Left” blog Utopia pointed out, there have been few politicians of the stature of Trump that have been quite as entertaining (谁在拆懂王的台?). The entertainment factor however belies that fact that whilst China’s online onlookers (known as “melon-eaters”, after the street snack consumed by local busybodies) revel in the drama of their erstwhile rival, the world at large, as always, takes US affairs seriously.
Unlike the bipolar US electorate, Chinese intellectuals stand in one of three corners: those who support Biden, those who earnestly support Trump (yes, really) and those who support Trump only cynically.
The first category is the simplest to grasp. Many of the Chinese middle class, particularly those who may have studied abroad or work with international NGO’s, identify with Biden in the same way as any socially conscious liberal in the US. The Chinese characteristic of this contingent is notable only in their enduring support for the Chinese Communist Party, hopeful that a Biden presidency might merely help to advance comparatively niche social issues in China such as the recognition of LGBT rights or individual privacy.
Whilst there are few (if any) that believe Trump’s threats pose a real problem for China, there are some who still maintain that an incoming Biden administration presents an opportunity for cooperation. This is not solely the preserve of the business community (that by and large seems sceptical of an end to market turbulence in any case), but by some who view America’s international disengagement as a blow to efforts to tackle climate change, terrorism and, yes, global pandemics (nanfengchuang, July 6th).
Trump’s anti-China tirades (his virus claims specifically were felt to be directed at the Chinese people in general) have lost him much of the goodwill that he initially enjoyed in office. Regarded at the start of his term as a pragmatic if eccentric businessman, Trump seemed the embodiment of a dream that many Chinese, rising quickly through the social classes and buoyed by sustained GDP growth, could identify with. Particularly irksome of late however has been secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s sustained attacks against the very character of the Chinese government, attacks of astounding hypocrisy in the eyes of many on the mainland.
Economic analysts however make clear that any great reset under Biden seems improbable (Caixin, Oct 30th). Biden’s possible pick for secretary of state, Senator Chris Cooms, has shown his share of China hawkishness and Biden himself played a role in Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” strategy. This multilateral policy, viewed in Beijing as an attempt to build a regional alliance to constrain China, was scrapped by Trump, but has the potential for resuscitation in a Democratic White House.
In fact, it is Trump’s aversion (or inability) to building multinational alliances that has won him the support of another prominent group of Chinese observers. The most vocal – and probably most widely supported – viewpoint is that Trump’s spell as president, despite the trade war, criticisms and repeated arms sales to Taipei, has been a gift to China. Espoused by the “New Left Faction” of professors and intellectuals, America’s apparent decline under Trump is held to have opened a window of opportunity that benefits Beijing, noted in a roundabout way in the recent 14th five-year plan.
These strategic opportunities are twofold: a lack of organised, international opposition to China’s development and less competition over China’s key interests. Trump’s attempts to suppress China’s technological development have the potential to merely increase its autarky. His attempts to bully NATO allies have divided former China-sceptics. His exposure of American hypocrisy (“Russia? We’ve got killers too – what, you think we’re so innocent?”) has immunised a generation of young Chinese to the allure of American moralism. If America comes first, in what sense are human rights universal? Thus, Trump maintains sardonic support as America’s “accelerator-in-chief”, hastening the inevitable rise of China and the deterioration of the USA (Utopia, Nov 2nd).
By saving the global economy, and thus the USA, with vast economic stimulus in 2009, China’s leaders are accused of having missed an important opportunity to “cut to the bone to remove the poison”. It makes clear that that the opportunity for international restructure provided by the pandemic should not be missed this time around. In particular, notable economist Cui Zhiyuan admits his respect for the likes of Steve Bannon for at least taking China seriously, before optimistically adding that insular populism in the West opens the way for China to step in as a provider of global public goods and advance its Belt and Road Initiative.
Bannon’s admirers are not confined to those who appreciate his “accelerant” effect on China’s rise, however. An undue amount of attention has been paid to the fragment of China’s elite that supports Trump for Trump – in all his Neoliberal, China-chastening glory. The most prominent of these, not least thanks to his self-created mythos is property tycoon-turned media mogul and sometime Bannon accomplice, Guo Wengui. An apparent Tiananmen Square veteran who later found himself amongst China’s rich and powerful thanks to his connections, Guo has built a formidable following on the basis of spurious claims levelled at senior CCP officials. For him, his takedowns of Wang Qishan and Hunter Biden alike are straight from the same playbook, and serve the same purpose – the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party.
The reckless vengeance of the formerly high-and-mighty extends to well-represented members of China’s intelligentsia. Given an exceptional hearing in the West, many have been surprised to find that China’s liberals – for many of the same reasons as Guo – wholeheartedly support Donald J. Trump. Western observers have found themselves puzzled that many veterans of Tiananmen Square and opponents of the CCP would find an unlikely political home in the current US administration. They need not be. As pointed out by Wang Xiuying (London Review of Books, Oct 22nd) many of those who found themselves on the wrong side of the student demonstrations tend to see the West through rose-tinted glasses, particularly if they also felt aggrieved by the Cultural Revolution. The result is a contingent that see all in the West as superior – and if it opposes the Communist Party, so much the better.
Examples include professors Sun Liping and Wang Jianxun, who believe that where weak liberals have failed, Trump poses an existential threat to the Chinese party-state. His denunciation of “left-wing totalitarianism” at home has only served to endear him further. Moreover, there is much sympathy within China for his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim stances. Coupled with an ingrained view of the West as a moral beacon (Yao Lin, Journal of Contemporary China; 2020) foreign observers have been surprised by the apparent level of support for Trump amongst the literati.
The focus of Western observers on China’s liberals – a negligible fraction of the wider population – has further obscured the truth of the matter. In expressing surprise that supposedly long-oppressed champions of liberty would misplace their moral compass when crossing the Pacific, many seem ignorant of patterns across the post-socialist world. Today, illiberal regimes across the entire Eastern Bloc are governed by yesterday’s fighters for freedom and democracy. Anne Applebaum’s recent Twilight of Democracy (2020) illustrates the point of how Poland’s former liberals have become today’s authoritarian right. In many former Soviet states and satellites (the Georgian election last weekend is a fine example), elections are contested exclusively by oligarchs whose formerly liberal tendencies and democratic agitations extend only insofar as they advance a neoliberal economic agenda. This may be unproblematic for outright Hayekians like Sun Liping, but one suspects that even beyond the party leadership, the Chinese population at large remains profoundly scarred by the shock doctrine imposed across Eastern Europe.
In truth, despite all the column inches dedicated to either candidate’s impact on China, most acknowledge that little is likely to change. For China’s online “melon-eaters”, this isn’t what’s important. Buoyed by domestic successes in the struggle against coronavirus and subsequent economic improvement, the realisation of the “Chinese Dream” – or the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation” – seems a more imminently achievable goal now than ever before. Watching armed protesters attempt to alternately halt or hasten ballot counting may provide good entertainment for the chigua qunzhong but very few could possibly argue that it might result in a yearning for an American style of governance. Judging from the memes circulating on Weibo, most appear keen that the US at least continues its charade, an increasingly plentiful source of schadenfreude.