Donald Trump’s voice has been a familiar sound for some Chinese students for a while. At one university in Shanghai, students learning English used to spend part of their classes watching videotapes deemed “authentic American English” and good examples of American culture — among them Friends, American Beauty, and Trump’s reality show, The Apprentice.
Trump has been known in China for years now as the embodiment of the American dream — a self-made businessman, owner of landmark buildings in Manhattan, and a star of reality TV. And that’s all he was until mid-December, when he decided to run for president.
At first Trump’s presidential campaign was seen in China like many people in the U.S. viewed it, as an entertaining reality show sequel. He was mocked, given the nickname “Chuang Po,” or “Breaking Bed,” because that’s what his surname sounds like in Mandarin. Meanwhile, from the second his campaign was announced Trump started talking about China — a lot, putting the country at the center of his narrative about U.S. decline, mentioning China even more than Mexico in speeches and interviews and shouting repeatedly about how the country was making a fool of the United States. Despite this, the exposure, the controversies, and the “attacks” resulted in an unexpected outcome: A vocal Trump fan base in China started to emerge, taking the internet by storm and projecting their own visions of China's future onto the possible leader of the free world.
A user on Weibo — China's massive social network — founded the “Trump Fan Club” to post news and videos about him, and quickly reached over 9,000 followers. Other Weibo groups followed, including “Trump In The White House” and “God Emperor Trump.” On Zhihu, a popular Q&A website similar to Quora, users have posted more than 500 questions about him. Some ask what people think about Trump’s anti-China speeches and what the rise of Trump means for American democracy, and other questions show that some people are following every twist and turn of the campaign. Trump is by far the most discussed candidate on Zhihu — there are just 180 questions under Hillary Clinton’s category, 30 under Bernie Sanders’, and zero under John Kasich, who dropped out earlier this month. One article, headlined “Trump The Great Man From Heaven,” has gone viral.
Just like in the U.S., Trump’s supporters are incredibly loud about their backing of the presumptive Republican nominee, to the point that others can be turned off. “I ran into a bunch of Trump fans on Zhihu recently,” wrote one user on the Q&A site. “Shouldn’t these ‘punks’ be patriotic? How can they endure all the anti-China statements Trump has made?” More than 200 people attempted to answer, arguing that Trump’s presidency would benefit China, and that Clinton, whom they called the “Old Witch,” would probably be tougher. Trump’s supporters fought back, especially against being called “punks” or “angry youth.”
While in the U.S. nearly half of people with a high school diploma or less in states where exit polling exists plant their flag firmly in Trump’s camp, almost all the Chinese Trump supporters BuzzFeed News spoke to were well educated, holding at least a bachelor’s degree. Some fans on Zhihu even said they hold Ph.D.s.
In a bid to understand the deeper reasons why Trump has so many supporters in China, BuzzFeed News found three Chinese Trump supporters and one passionate observer of the election who were willing to share their personal stories. Their opinions might not be necessarily representative of the Chinese Trump supporter spectrum, but sample the kinds of people who are likely to support him. They believe that Trump can make not only America, but also the world, great again.
Laoshang’s American Election Talk is a Chinese-language podcast popular among those who follow the U.S. election. According to its host and producer, a man who goes by the name Laoshang and recently graduated from business school in Michigan, as recently as January, Trump fans didn’t tune into the show and “we just made a lot of jokes about him.” But gradually, “some started to have their own points, arguing that Trump represents the voice of the people.” Recently, he said he noticed that just like with Trump trolls in the U.S., “if one says bad things about Trump, they will be very intense and fight back.”
Where does this passion come from? For Chichuen Yeung, 27, an IT specialist living in Beijing who loves Trump enough that he held banners for the businessman atop the Great Wall of China in March, the answer lies in the drama of the 2016 election. “Chinese people look at this as outsiders, and since this is like an entertainment event, we just naturally support the main protagonist,” he said, adding that “Chinese culture tends to embrace conservative and charismatic leaders.” He then took his reasoning deeper: By supporting Trump, people feel “a form of release,” Yeung said, and see hope that “competitive election might appear in [China’s] Congress.”
Laoshang had a similar thought: “When it comes to the U.S., everybody can talk, everybody can criticize no matter who is the president.” The American election serves as a bit of escapism for Chinese citizens who don’t enjoy the same level of political freedom, he said.
An internet user who goes by “Flying Big Bird” and only agreed to give his last name, Wang, said he believed that Trump would keep the world from entering “a lazy people’s society” that is currently helping everyone except the middle class. “Even in China, one can apply for subsistence allowance if they don’t work, although in East Asian culture, those who don’t work but seek help from the government will be looked down upon. In Europe, many people keep conceiving babies for more baby bonus,” he told BuzzFeed News through voicechat on QQ, a Chinese social networking app. Wang said he gave up his belief in Communism back in school, which could partly explain his support for the businessman's ruthless tactics.
Kathy Li, a 24-year-old who works in futures in the southeast city of Shenzen, said she thought a president Trump would be good for China because he would enact an isolationist foreign policy that would help the country. She has no patience for Hillary Clinton: “Hillary has dealt with China for a long time,” Li said. “The official media criticized her a lot when she was Secretary of State. But Chinese people do not have a bad impression of Donald Trump.”
Another thing that binds Trump’s fans is…xenophobia.
Wang, for example, had an idea about how to build Trump’s proposed wall on the U.S.–Mexico border — pay for it with Chinese propaganda and advertising. The wall, he said, should have LED screens playing advertisements 24/7: Communist Party propaganda on the U.S. side, and infertility ads on the Mexican side. “As long as they are allowed, I can even help if they contact me,” Wang said.
And then there’s the anti-Muslim sentiment. Li, who said her grandmother and aunt gave up Islam, said the following: “When I saw the picture of the little refugee [Aylan Kurdi], I thought to myself, Europe was going to be screwed,” said Li, whose grandmother and aunt are former Muslims. “They didn’t think of the consequences [of allowing in refugees], whether they can afford it.”
“Of course, I'm not European, it’s not my business, I’m just worried that Muslim culture will take over the mainstream world,” Li said.
Li said she grew up in an army family and has been interested in politics since she was little. In middle school, she’d already started to rely on tools to “climb over the wall” for information and websites blocked by the Chinese government and studied international relations for fun in college. Li has even considering coming to the U.S. for graduate school. “In my case, I’m against terrorism, just like many. I think without [Trump], the fate [of the U.S.] is over,“ Li said.
Like most Trump supporters around the globe, Yeung, Wang, and Li say they are fed up with the demon of “political correctness.” “I want to hear what he’s saying; at least he’s the one who dares to speak up. The general environment is just too politically correct and the majority is silenced,” said Wang. “He’s not afraid of offending people and losing supporters, and that’s really great,” said Yeung. And Li thinks those who question why Trump isn’t building a wall on the Canadian borders are very typical “PC”-types.
Wang also feels a strong sense of urgency for Trump to be elected “sooner than later,” arguing that the rise of the right-wing is unstoppable. “If Hillary wins this election, by next term, a more radical [Republican] candidate will show up, and nobody will vote for the Democratic Party.”
“Of course,” Wang said, “he lowers the level of debate in this campaign period.” And for all the things his supporters love about him, still, “he has many problems. This person is definitely problematic. But if I was American, I would still vote for him.”