Fri, Jan 13, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Trump seen through Chinese eyes

By Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom

When Donald Trump won the US presidential election in November last year, he had a lot of Chinese fans. However, Trump’s popularity has since plummeted, owing to his statements — often via Twitter — on contentious issues, such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. This is not the first time China’s view of a US leader has deteriorated rapidly.

The abrupt change in Chinese sentiment toward Trump is reminiscent of what happened to former US president Woodrow Wilson after his re-election a century ago. At the time, many Chinese intellectuals, including the young Mao Zedong (毛澤東), admired Wilson, a political scientist and former president of Princeton University. Then, in 1919, Wilson backed the Treaty of Versailles, which transferred control of former German territories in Shandong Province to Japan, rather than return them to China. Wilson quickly lost his luster in China.

The shift is similar — but the reasons are very different. A century ago, China was driven to support Wilson and then to loathe him by its own weakness. Today, it is China’s strength that is guiding its view of the US president.

In 1916, the year Wilson was elected to his second term, China was in terrible shape. While the Republic of China established in 1912 was ostensibly a single entity, it was actually highly fragmented. Military strongmen controlled different regions, while foreign powers, through bribes and bullying, seized large swaths of China’s territory. For Chinese intellectuals, Wilson offered a bookish contrast to thuggish warlords.

However, Wilson’s appeal in China went beyond image. In 1918, Wilson’s popularity soared — and not just in China — following an address to US Congress calling for national “self-determination.” Overlooking Wilson’s support of Jim Crow in the US and the invasion of Haiti on his watch, intellectuals in imperialism-ravaged countries from Egypt to Korea took his declaration to heart, and began to view him as a savior and champion of the oppressed.

Chinese patriots, in particular, hoped that, under Wilson’s leadership, the US might deepen its involvement in Asia in ways that would help protect China from the predations of Imperial Japan. For them, Wilson’s support of the Treaty of Versailles constituted a profound betrayal.

The China of this year was unimaginably different from the China of 1916. It has leap-frogged even advanced countries in the global economic hierarchy. It is unified under a strong and focused leadership and it is very big, including nearly all the territories that were part of the Qing Empire at its peak.

A rare exception is Taiwan, but the “one China” diplomatic fiction sustains the fantasy that someday, somehow, the democratic island and authoritarian mainland will be reintegrated.

In short, China no longer needs US protection. Instead, it wants a US president who is occupied largely with domestic issues and is not much concerned with constraining China’s rise, as US President Barack Obama was. That way, China could get to work reshuffling power relationships in Asia for its own benefit, without having to worry about US interference.

Before the election, Trump was already known to level wild accusations at China, typically related to economic issues such as trade. However, his apparent lack of interest in foreign policy was very appealing for Chinese leaders. He seemed far more likely than his opponent, former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, to leave China alone. His suggestion that he would be less committed than his predecessors to supporting traditional US allies in Asia, such as South Korea and Japan, was music to Chinese nationalists’ ears, much as his questioning of US commitments to NATO was music to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s.

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