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.

A Singaporean perspective on American and Chinese nationalism

I enjoyed this talk from long-time Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan for its relatively objective view of the peculiarities of both the US and China, and how it roots the difficulties the two countries have in their respective sense of identity. I’ve pulled out some of the key passages below:

The essential source of American and Chinese nationalism is a sense of exceptionalism; the US and China both consider themselves exceptional countries. But the conclusions they draw are different.

America is an inclusive culture that wants everyone to become like it and believes that the world would be a better place if this were so. … China’s rise has been psychologically unsettling to many in the West because in China, capitalism flourishes without democracy. This is regarded as unnatural and illegitimate because it punctures the western myth of the universality of its political values and of the inevitability of the development of political forms similar to its own. Unlike the former Soviet Union, China cannot be dismissed as an economic failure and thus challenges in a very fundamental way the western sense of self which assumes its political and moral superiority as a key element. …

I think the US knows that preservation of CCP rule is the most vital of Chinese core interests and is reluctant to endorse this explicitly. The US deals with the CCP pragmatically; it has no choice. But to invest CCP rule with legitimacy requires a redefinition of American values, including a de facto abandonment of the idea of universality that is apparently too painful to bear. …

China has an exclusive culture that rejects the notion that anyone could become like China as impossibly pretentious. To China, the best others can do is humbly acknowledge China’s superiority and the sooner we do so the better for everyone.

This is a very ancient and deeply ingrained feature of China’s approach to international relations. Throughout its history, China took great pains to preserve the forms of its centrality, at least in its own mind, even when the facts were otherwise. It never lost its sense of superiority even when powerless before the West and Japan. Now that China has re-emerged as a major power, this sense of superiority has become the underlying cause of the difficulties in China’s relations with many countries. The attitude that China is entitled to have its superiority acknowledged and that failure to do so can only be due to recalcitrance or ill-intention, is why I think China will always suffer a deficit in ‘soft power’ and evoke resentment. …

One of the basic functions of diplomacy is to see the world through your competitors’ eyes in order to understand the frame of reference he is operating within, and thereafter one of the basic purposes of statecraft to use what means are available and appropriate to manoeuvre him into your preferred frame of reference or if this is not possible, to operate within the same frame in order to achieve your purposes. A stable modus vivendi can only be reached if all parties are operating within the same frame of reference. Are the US and China operating within the same frame of reference? I think they do substantially but not entirely and therefrom arises the complexity and risks of the relationship. Can they be brought within a common framework? That is not yet clear. …

If a new modus vivendi requires the US to acknowledge that different political systems can have their own legitimacy, it requires China to resist the temptations of triumphalist nationalism.

There’s a lot more, but I had to condense more than usual to keep this post from getting too long; a transcript and video of the full talk is at the link.


Along with many other things, ‘Spotlight’ is about the joy of figuring stuff out

I know I’m late to the party on this one, but hey, I live in China. I finally watched Spotlight this weekend, mere hours before it won Best Picture, and boy howdy is it fantastic. All the things the reviews say are true: An unbelievable cast, full of stars but without showboating. A hugely emotional and compelling subject. A timeless portrayal of how a society tries, laboriously, to correct itself.

But what really grabbed me about the film was that so much of it is about research, about finding things out. Usually research in films is reduced to eureka moments or the mysterious workings of ineffable genius. In Spotlight, we see exactly how the reporters figured it out, step by step. There is brilliant, gripping drama in the reporters getting access to the right public records, and in learning where to find and how to use a crucial data source (an early use of data journalism in fact plays a big role in the story). It is visually low key–no confrontations, chases, explosions. But few movies have so successfully dramatized this process–at the end, you share the reporters’ satisfaction in having uncovered the pattern.

This aspect of the film seems to have also resonated with a lot of journalists. Here’s Ty Burr of the Globe:

Actually, one of the reasons that “Spotlight” is so deeply, absurdly satisfying to this newspaper writer — and to most of those I’ve spoken with, at the Globe and elsewhere — is that Tom McCarthy’s movie doesn’t turn its journalists into heroes. It just lets them do their jobs, as tedious and critical as those are, with a realism that grips an audience almost in spite of itself. …

If you like your true-crime dramas torqued up to high RPMs, you’re in for a letdown. Most of the movie is people talking, in chairs, in meetings, on the phone. The film’s action alternates between combing through dusty files and harrowing interviews with abuse victims who’ve given up on being heard.

Sacha Pfeiffer, one of the reporters portrayed in the film, recounts in a piece for Variety how skeptical she was about the project, and how completely she was won over:

I was highly wary. Never mind that the grim topic would likely have little appeal to mainstream audiences. Never mind that our jobs are hardly cinematic — we make phone calls, review documents, collect data — and were unlikely to be compelling on screen. …

In spring 2015, they showed us the final product. Once we absorbed the shock of how uncannily the actors had captured our speech and mannerisms, we were struck by what a remarkably authentic portrayal of our jobs was depicted on screen. The movie captures — somehow cinematically — the often tedious, painstaking work that reporting entails, while conveying the critical importance of investigative reporting.

There’s lots of reasons to watch and enjoy Spotlight, but it should be a particular pleasure for anyone who has ever done a research project.