Zhao Lingmin on the roots of Chinese elite support for Trump

A definitive overview of this question is over at Ma Tianjie’s Chublic Opinion, but one of the sources in that piece I thought was worth digging into a bit more. It’s a column by Zhao Lingmin, originally published on the FT Chinese site back in October, that focuses on what the enthusiasm for Trump says about Chinese society. My translation follows:

Compared to his American supporters, Trump’s Chinese supporters have two notable differences. One, they have “true love” for Trump. Even though some Americans do not like Trump personally, or even despise him, they have still decided to vote for Trump because of their anger at the status quo. Trump’s supporters in China are not deciding who to vote for, and there are no real interests at stake; many of them simply like Trump himself. Second, it is widely recognized that some of Trump’s supporters in the US are not of high social status and belong to the lower middle class, so Hillary Clinton could say that half of them are “deplorables,” or “people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down.”

But among Trump supporters in China, there are some successful people and members of the elite: they are well-educated, rational, with high social status. On this point, you only have to look at WeChat or Zhihu; in those places public criticism of Trump’s remarks is rare, and there are a lot of people who excuse them or give them a positive spin.

Why is the Chinese elite not like the American elite in opposing Trump? There are different national conditions, there are differences of opinion, but in my opinion the most important difference between the two countries’ elites is the different environments they have grown up in. This has led some Chinese elites to endorse Trump’s views on political correctness, terrorism, Islam, and other issues.

Trump has been most criticized for his undisguised degradation and humiliation of immigrants, Muslims, and women, which for many American elites, whose awareness of equal rights comes from their baptism in the civil rights movement, is completely unacceptable. The recent revelation of the recording in which Trump insults women touched the bottom line of American society, and made some of the rest of the elite draw the line. By contrast, some of China’s elite, having risen up in an atmosphere of social Darwinism, do not find Trump’s statements so offensive as to cause anger and condemnation—although they do not quite endorse them either.

The past 30 years of China’s economic growth and social development began after a period of chaos [i.e., the Cultural Revolution], and there was no Enlightenment-like intellectual movement. Government officials, in order to mobilize reform, exaggerated the evils of the old benefit system as “everyone eating from one big pot,” which, with the assistance of some scholars, led to an almost complete social consensus that a market economy means completely free competition. With no restraint from ethics or rules, the “law of the jungle” that the weak are prey to the strong became nearly universal in society. Amid all the worship of the strong and disdain for the weak, an atmosphere of care and equal treatment of disadvantaged groups has not formed. Therefore “political correctness,” which is for the protection of vulnerable groups, basically does not exist in Chinese society, and the language of discrimination, objectification of women, and mockery of disabled people is everywhere.

This way of thinking is further reinforced among some Chinese elites: they succeed because they are better able to adapt to and dominate this kind of environment. In this process, they are hurt by others, they hurt others, and gradually they develop a heart of stone and a feeling of superiority—that their success is due to their own efforts and natural abilities, and the losers in competition must be those who don’t work hard because they are lazy or have some other problems. Therefore, they believe in free competition and personal striving even more than ordinary people, and also feel more strongly that poor people deserve their low position, are more wary of the abuse of welfare by lazy people, and are more supportive of Trump’s attacks on political correctness.

Many Chinese elites feel that the Democratic Party and the left represented by Hillary Clinton has turned a blind eye to the many problems of the black community, such as single mothers and the high crime rate, and put the blame on society rather than black people’s own issues. In order to protect the rights of transgender people, they have gone so far as to ignore public safety and allow them to freely choose whether to use male or female toilers. In the face of this obsession with political correctness, Trump has the courage to face reality and is willing to risk offending people in order to tell the truth—this is honest and admirable.

As for Trump’s insulting remarks about women, the Chinese elite also thinks that this is not such a big deal. You could say that many male members of the Chinese elite are the biggest beneficiaries of the current imbalance between men and women in China. The deformed marriage market has made them insufferably arrogant, and in terms of objectifying and demeaning women they are much worse than ordinary people. In the case of a male journalist who raped a female intern, most of the male colleagues supported him, and maintained that the woman was taking revenge on him for refusing her. In the case of a male professor who was suspended for molesting female students, many colleagues and students argued that the punishment was excessive, and some even doubted the female students’ mental state. In fact, a not inconsiderable number of men do not think there was anything fundamentally wrong with the actions of the journalist and the professor. People who have grown up in this kind of social atmosphere naturally cannot understand why Trump has been universally condemned for some dirty talk.

In addition, the vigilance against Islamic extremism displayed in Trump’s speeches is quite similar to the worldview of many of China’s elite. Since 9/11, “Islamophobia” has become a worldwide phenomenon, and China is no exception. Chinese Islamophobia has domestic causes, but it also cannot be separated from the impact of international events, particularly the refugee crisis and frequent terrorist attacks in Europe over the last couple of years. This has made many people shake their head at the European left, and think that Muslims are just using their high birth rate to occupy Europe and destroy the foundations of European civilization. European intellectuals and elites are so burdened by multicultural policies and political correctness that they cannot reject any plea from the refugees, do not dare to point out any of the issues with refugees, and even downplay crimes committed by refugees. Such naivety and wishful thinking in the end is nothing but nourishing a snake in one’s own bosom. Because of these views, Trump’s talk about banning Muslims and attacking terrorists is more welcomed by Chinese people than Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric about inclusiveness and cooperation.

Looking at the personal style of the two candidates, American elites do not like the fact that Trump’s speech is often illogical, vulgar and extreme. But in China’s imperfect market system, many elites come from rough backgrounds. Furthermore, decades of revolutionary ideology have made the whole society valorize coarseness, slovenliness, and lack of hygiene. This makes many people see Trump’s vulgarity and inconsistency as amusing, straightforward and honest. Hillary Clinton’s image as an orthodox politician, by contrast, leaves many people cold.


  1. Another bit: My father assured me that The Art of the Deal was a bestseller when it was translated into Chinese. Perhaps Chinese of that generation know him mostly as the author of that successful book, and that initial favorable impression helped paper over more recent stuff.


    1. I think the author is trying too hard. At least in terms of talking about his support with the elites.

      Trump basically insulted his way to the White House. If you spend fine minutes reading the press or social media, you think that his Presidency will be the end of the Republic. He is “exhibit A” of the dangers of democracy.

      This erodes any moral authority the United States has in lecturing other countries about becoming democratic.


      1. It erodes that moral authority, unless of course the press is wrong about his presidency being undemocratic. But then, when ave they ever been wrong about Trump before?

  2. Wonder what makes the author say Chinese make fun of disabled people or trod on the weak. In a socialist system it is not the responsibility of the individual to care for the weak, so yes, there is no moral obligation for charity, but on the other hand I see lots of programs for inclusiveness in government – great example was the 2008 Paralympics, which was by far the best until this day, in terms of accessability for athletes as well as media coverage and full stadiums. I may not know the elite in terms of “tuhao” new-rich business people, but I know a lot of highly educated Chinese both in foreign companies and in the CPC. They strike me as extremely civilized and are highly critical of the buffoon-like behavior of many Americans in China. They find it funny that an exemplary buffoon like Trump could even become leader of that country, but they surely would be ashamed if someone like that would make it higher up within Chinese hierarchy. I wouldn’t call this love, exactly, more something like Schadenfreude, as well as Realpolitik, knowing that Trump will create less wars in the Middle East than Clinton, thus giving opportunity to China for economic development in the “far West”.


  3. Personally, I think the FT article isn’t very good at all and misses key points. The heavy focus on the Social Darwinism after the end of Maoism is, in my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes anyone who writes about China can make, but it is also a mistake that everyone makes. This is simply because Social Darwinism *has always been a fact of life in China way before Mao, the Communists, and free market reforms came into existence*. European visitors to China at the end of the Qing and the beginning of the Republic were constantly shocked by the callousness of the Chinese to other’s suffering. When a toddler hit by a car is ignored by passerbys, is it any different from when Lu Xun lambasted the Chinese for not caring when their fellow citizens were executed by the Japanese? Or for the matter, we knew Jesuits in the Ming dynasty recorded how dead bodies had to be fished out of canals every morning. The fact of the matter is for most history China was always one step away from a Malthusian crisis, and ordinary people’s lives were always precarious at best. A good emperor might lower the taxes for the peasants, but what can low taxes possibly do for you when there’s drought and your crops don’t grow?

    This leads to my second point, that at the end of the day, *Chinese people are very conservative*. Chinese racialism and Islamaphobia have much easier explanations, since ranking civilizations by barbarism *has always been central to China*. Chinese culture as a whole was always non-inclusive to a certain extent, and inclusion of other culture is only done so if it aids governance or is seen to have certain merits. From this view, Chinese dislike of other cultures, especially one that is causing domestic problems, is very unsurprising. Racialism and Islamaphobia is merely the 21st century method for ranking barbarism.

    Finally, Chinese people have an inherent dislike of liberalism due to their inherent conservatism. This conservatism is reinforced by the Social Darwinism I mentioned above. When everyone is in a precarious position, it is really hard to take liberalism seriously. Lee Kuan Yew is the stereotypical traditional Chinese patriarch that managed to survive into the 21st century. And he is constantly talking about how conservatism matters and his inherent dislike for US liberalism. But he also conceded that younger Singaporeans will probably not stay conservative because they don’t know what suffering is like. We can see that when everything is going well for a nation, there is always a turn towards liberalism. The Song dynasty was probably the most liberal empire on the planet during its time. The richest Chinese cities all lean toward liberalism while the poorer ones lean toward conservatism. Whether improving living standards will wholesale turn Chinese people into US liberals will remain to be seen but my prediction is that the anti-liberal backlash will be very intense if it happens in China.

    Overall, I don’t think the FT article was very good at all. The author regurgitates the same tropes of how destruction of culture during the Cultural Revolution and Social Darwinism after market reforms caused a complete lack of morality within the Chinese people. This misses many many factors but so many writers have used this trope that this has now become truism despite it being not very true.


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