Ask the Chinese: Trump’s a straight shooter, a successful businessman – and a symptom of American decline

Beijing-based caricature artist Zheng Shenghui shows off his wares.
(Matt DeButts / For The Times)

For years, Zheng Shenghui sold grinning caricatures of President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping from his small booth in Beijing’s Happy Valley Amusement Park. These days, his drawings aren’t so cheerful. After Obama left office in January, an angry, grimacing President Trump replaced him.

“I drew a frown because he’s upset,” said Zheng, 35. “Trump wants it be the 1970s again, when America was No. 1. But things change. He needs to understand the world keeps turning.”

Trump spent two nights in Beijing this week on the third leg of a five-country Asia tour before departing for Vietnam on Friday. Chinese state media called it a “state visit-plus,” underscoring the lavishness of his welcome. He met with Xi, received a military honor, toured the Forbidden City and enjoyed an opulent state dinner.


For his part, Trump, who during his campaign vilified China as an “economic enemy,” was a relatively polite guest. “Who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens?” he told a crowd of Chinese and American business executives, as Xi looked on. He called his relationship with Xi “a great one.”

But there have been many reasons for ordinary Chinese to look beyond the frowning caricatures of the American president.

Many in the country’s elite see Trump’s “America First” isolationism as an opportunity for China to rise on the global stage.

And for ordinary Chinese, too, Trump can be an appealing figure. While opinions are dizzyingly diverse — in a country of 1.4 billion people, it is difficult to generalize — Trump seems to elicit a surprising level of goodwill when his name comes up.

In a country that venerates business acumen, many admire his financial success. Still others take their cues from Chinese internet forums, where Trump is praised for his honesty. To them, “America First” is just a frank, honest assessment of the U.S. presidency’s age-old priorities.

“People always preferred Trump over Hillary Clinton,” says Manya Koetse, editor-in-chief of What’s-on-Weibo, a website reporting social trends in China, though she notes neither was perceived as an ideal candidate. “They thought Hillary was hypocritical. They like the businessman in Trump and his pragmatic side.”

Unlike other U.S. presidents, Trump isn’t prone to lecturing China on human rights. When Liu Xiaobo, China’s imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner, died in July, the White House released a statement saying Trump was “deeply saddened” to hear of Liu’s death, but it held back from direct condemnation.

Trump, with his background in real estate, his successful reality TV show, and his how-to business books, also fulfills many Chinese stereotypes of a powerful leader. Chinese politicians often project an air of no-nonsense governance, prioritizing economic growth over humanitarian concerns. Xi has made the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” a key goal of his leadership.

Trump fits well into that mold.

“About 15 years ago, I purchased ‘The Apprentice’ box set,” said Li Guang, 35, a former software engineer, referring to Trump’s former TV show. “What stuck with me was the line, ‘You’re fired.’ It was the spitting image of the overbearing CEO-type. Now at 70 years plus, he hasn’t lost a step. I admire the strong leadership.

“Trump is completely different from slippery career politicians,” he added. “He tells it straight, just like me.”

Li, like many Chinese, especially those who talk about politics on the internet, admire Trump’s professed disregard for political correctness. Internet users have even spawned a new term, baizuo, or “white left,” to criticize Western-style progressives. While the definition varies, it often refers to Western-educated people who adopt feel-good positions to satisfy a feeling of moral superiority. It is a damning term, implying that someone has been brainwashed by politicians. Many internet users apply it to describe Western elites. They support Trump for what they see as standing up to them.

“Free trade, immigration, refugees, these are things that baizuo support,” said Luo Xing, 23, a recent college graduate in Beijing. After reading social media posts that praised Trump for his positions on these issues, Luo decided she liked Trump. But after studying abroad in England, she changed her mind.

“He’s anti-feminist, anti-globalization. He discriminates against minority groups,” Luo said. Then she laughed. “Now I dislike him for some of the same reasons baizuo don’t like him.”

Trump also finds common ground with many here in his support for restricting immigration from Muslim countries. Islamophobia is rising in China, fueled by news of terrorist attacks and unrest among China’s predominantly Muslim Uighur minority. In recent months, the country has been racked by controversies surrounding the designation of a halal-only food delivery truck, as well as a video of a girl reciting the Koran in school.

“Many people online applauded Brexit, applauded the rise of the right in Europe,” said Koetse, referring to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. “You have strong anti-Islamic sentiment. Anyone who goes against the left and political correctness is applauded on Chinese social media.”

Trump has also drawn his share of critics. As in the U.S., he is a frequent target of ridicule. One Chinese transliteration of his name, chuanpu, is the same as the Chinese word for Sichuanese Mandarin, a famously colorful dialect of Chinese.

“Many think he’s some sort of joke,” said Koetse.

It’s not hard to find young people who disapprove of Trump.

“He’s an opportunist,” said Gigi Zheng, 20, a university student in Beijing who compared him to former President Reagan, noting that Reagan used the phrase “Make American great again” long before Trump popularized it.

“He copied Reagan’s slogan to cater to the white working class whose interests had been overlooked before. But what did they gain from his policies?” Gigi said.

“He doesn’t care about people,” said Lu Dandan, a 27-year-old in Beijing. “I used to think America was a forgiving place. Now I’m not so sure.”

Criticism of Trump may be offset by the widespread popularity of his daughter Ivanka. Many Chinese admire her beauty, business success and apparent affinity for China. While President Trump did not send a personal message to the Chinese community for Chinese New Year, breaking with tradition, Ivanka celebrated the holiday at the Chinese Embassy in Washington. Her daughter Arabella, who is studying Chinese, sang a song in Mandarin.

Chinese audiences may also be insulated from Trump’s most controversial behavior. The 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape that became public during last year’s campaign, for example — in which Trump boasted about predatory sexual assault — was not widely covered in Chinese media. In January, Chinese government censorship guidelines, leaked online, instructed Chinese media outlets to handle Trump carefully. “Unauthorized criticism of Trump’s words or actions is not allowed.”

Still, videos filter through.

After Trump’s visit to Japan on Monday, a video circulated on Chinese social media of a joint press conference between Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Trump noted that Japan’s economy was smaller than that of the U.S., then said, “We’re going to try and keep it that way.”

Chinese internet users reacted with disbelief, and even a hint of admiration for his directness. Hen chuanpu, said one. “That’s so Trump.”

DeButts is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Jonathan Kaiman and Gaochao Zhang in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.