While Donald Trump does certainly have his share of ardent domestic support and opposition, how does his rhetoric and image translate overseas? In particular, how do Chinese netizens and news sources feel about Donald Trump, his policies, and by extension, his family members that are now part of the administration? Both the United States and China have enormous global influence, and future collaboration and alliances between the two nation will depend on how Trump himself treats China, as well as public and state opinions. China only has one ally on paper, North Korea (DPRK), and future international relations are in a precarious position under the current administration.

Actually getting Trump’s rhetoric to translate into other languages represents a problem in and of itself—his confusing speech style relies on innuendo and often ungrammatical sentence structures to appeal to and persuade mass audiences. His speech is similar to that of past demagogues, and his credibility comes not from facts, but from an “honest”- sounding speech style, which he does by reading and subtly addressing the emotions of his audience. When taken out of an American context (such as the infamous “locker room talk” speech), these speeches can get lost in translation, particularly for non-Western audiences. Even native English speakers have trouble comprehending his rhetoric. This gap in understanding is good for Trump, because it allows his supporters to fill in the blanks with whatever they want (and thus “understand” him) while Trump can be intentionally vague and avoid repercussions. Many translators are faced with the dilemma of either changing the content and making Trump’s speeches “sound smarter”, or they risk their translations being viewed as lower-quality if they mimic his speech style in their respective languages. When these vague comments from Trump get translated into Chinese, they are usually more on the literal side of the translation in order to keep their disjointed feel. This can be quite difficult, especially in the case of Trump’s vulgar comments. How his rhetoric is translated can affect local perceptions of Trump—if his comments are mistranslated, it will cause a gap in understanding that could potentially be disastrous.

Throughout his campaign process, Trump was known for mentioning China numerous times—and not always in a positive light, which did not go unnoticed by the Chinese public. A popular opinion with many Chinese netizens regarding these comments is that Trump and his administration just do not understand China. In addition to his anti-China comments, his speeches were also called “abusively racist and extremist” by the Global Times, and he was referred to as “big-mouthed, anti-traditional, abusively forthright[…] a perfect populist “. Prior to the election, he was referred to as a “joke” in an article by Beijing Review. The Chinese site “Today’s Topics” was also discussing the possibility of a Trump presidency, with very mixed opinions. He was deemed “controversial”, and referred to by the nickname “big mouth” throughout the article. The article discusses everything from his insensitive and offensive jabs at pretty much every marginalized group to his many mentions of China. At the end they conducted a poll to see whether or not Chinese netizens thought Trump would become president, and the results were incredibly divided:

Chinese site Today’s Topics poll conducted in 2016, prior to the 2016 election. Image source: 今日话题

Domestic and international citizens alike watched the election unfold to the current outcome. Some Chinese officials were reportedly supporting Trump because he appears to be “less interventionist and less imperialistic than the previous administration“. Others were happy because Trump signified some of the many flaws of American democracy, and his desire for isolationism would take the U.S. out of affairs in Asia. Time described the election as follows: “what better advertisement for the stable, technocratic authoritarianism of the Chinese Communist Party than an America so divided that half the electorate failed to recognize how disenfranchised the rest of the nation felt?“. However, this does not mean that all Chinese citizens were overjoyed with the election results. On the day that Trump was inaugurated, the Weibo account “This is America” (@这里是美国) reposted the viral video below from the news site Global Times of Chinese children discussing their views on Trump and his policies

Some children remembered him for his facial expressions, while others discussed his daughter Ivanka. Many of them disagreed with his proposed policies, such as the wall on the border of the United States and Mexico. One of the children notes that the construction of the wall itself isn’t feasible and that it represents a “crude way [to solve] a problem”. Online responses ranged from approval to dissent, expressing that these children represent a hopeful view of the future while others disagreed with the children’s attitudes.

Since the election and inauguration, Trump has received mixed reviews in the Chinese media. The Chinese-language Financial Times recent Weibo post about Trump’s tweets about China, one of the most popular comments is a critique of him, translating to “The world is not America, and America also doesn’t get the final say [in matters of international affiars]“. A recent video of Trump saying he doesn’t want “poor people to control the economy” in response to a question about the richness of his cabinet is currently gaining some press attention. Some Chinese commenters on Weibo cannot believe he would even say this out loud, while others are in agreement with the statement, but not necessarily the delivery. One person even said that “poor thinking will only make the country more and more poor”, while another advocated a proletariat revolution. On the whole, however, most of the comments on the variety of news and media sites discussing this agree with Trump’s harsh rhetoric. Sina Finance recently published an article critiquing Trump’s position on having a rich cabinet, citing recent psychological research from UC Berkeley claiming that rich people are more likely to lie and deceive others and are more narcissistic, while poorer people are more shortsighted. Whether the research itself is credible or just an overgeneralization, the opinions voiced in the piece showcase some disagreement with Trump’s position on the matter.

The question-and-answer website Quora, which gets around 100 million visitors every month, posed the question: “Do educated mainland Chinese like Donald Trump?“. The most popular answer, with 3.1K views, claims that on the whole, they do for some of the following reasons:

“[Educated mainland Chinese people are] more understanding to populist movements and more sensitive to the class-divide narrative, therefore it is easier for them to resonate with Trump’s stance on the American working class. When the US Quora users are enraged with Trump’s anti-progressive claims and behaviors (on immigration policies and on respecting women), Zhihu[the Chinese equivalent of Quora] users see through this and focused on Trump’s boldness in pointing out the root problems in economy.”

As Foreign Policy notes, to many Chinese people, Clinton represented a corrupt politician (an “archetypal villain” in Chinese politics) while Trump represented the “people’s champion”. The way his supporters were described invoked images of Chinese archetypal working class (“hard work, honesty, and plain spokenness”), making him more sympathetic to large swathes of the population.

Ivanka Trump and her family. Image Source: US Weekly

Most media energy is focused on Trump, but other members of his family share the infamous limelight as well. While his wife Melania has not received a lot of press attention one way or the other, the general reaction to Trump’s daughter Ivanka has been largely favorable. She acts as her father’s assistant and is beginning to have a bigger role in international relations. Her material wealth, success, and status are very appealing to young Chinese adults, especially mothers. She is known on Weibo as a ‘goddess’, and viral photos and videos of her circulate on miaopai (similar to YouTube). She is viewed as intelligent and devoted to her family. There are some critics, however, who don’t think that she is a good role model to others—but the fact that her daughter Arabella, who was taught by her nanny to speak Chinese endears her more to the public. Xinhua news agency even referred to Ivanka as ‘elegant’, showing a favorable preference from this state-run news site. Her favor with the Chinese public as well as her husband’s dealings with China are likely going to help smooth relations between the two nations in the future, and potentially ease the tensions currently brewing over issues such as North Korea’s nuclear development and the South China Sea disputes.

Chinese views on Trump, his policies, and his family can hardly be defined as clearly for or against the current president and his establishment. Many responses are mixed, mirroring various American reactions to Trump. Most other English-based news sites, however, paint Chinese people as largely supportive of Trump and his policies, and ignore the nuance of dissent that rears its head in both Chinese social media and news sites.

In the past Chinese officials have  publicly voiced their displeasure with Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate accord (particularly due to Trump’s claims of climate change being a Chinese hoax), there is still some polite effort in Chinese news to keep the overall public opinion of Trump positive. This past week at the first U.S.-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue in Washington, both nations are moving forward with plans to fully denuclearize North Korea and increase military exchanges. Some speculate that some of Trump’s tweets prior to this meeting served as a way to guilt-trip and further pressure China to act. In a statement from Xinhua news, the meeting was described as “constructive and fruitful”, and there are high hopes for Trump and Xi’s meeting in July.


(FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: South China Morning Post)

By GRETCHEN TRUPP JUNE. 27, 2017

Gretchen Trupp is a Summer 2017 intern at The Carter Center China Program.