Donald Trump's popularity in China has plummeted after statements on contentious issues. The abrupt change in the way the US projects its power may now involve "throwing a few elbows" by both leaders, says Jeffrey Wasserstom

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom*

When Donald Trump won the United States’ presidential election in November, he had a lot of Chinese fans. But Trump’s popularity has since plummeted, owing to his statements – often via Twitter – on contentious issues, such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. This isn’t the first time China’s view of a US leader has deteriorated rapidly.

The abrupt change in Chinese sentiment toward Trump is reminiscent of what happened to US President Woodrow Wilson after his reelection a century ago. At the time, many Chinese intellectuals, including the young Mao Zedong, admired Wilson, a political scientist and former president of Princeton University. Then, in 1919, Wilson backed the Treaty of Versailles, which transferred control of former German territories in Shandong Province to Japan, rather than return them to China. Wilson quickly lost his luster in China.

The shift was similar – but the reasons are very different. A century ago, China was driven to support Wilson, and then to loathe him, by its own weakness. Today, it is China’s strength that is guiding its view of the US president.

In 1916, the year Wilson was elected to his second term, China was in terrible shape. While the republic established in 1912 was ostensibly a single entity, it was actually highly fragmented. Military strongmen controlled different regions, while foreign powers, through bribes and bullying, seized large swaths of China’s territory. For Chinese intellectuals, Wilson offered a bookish contrast to thuggish warlords.

But Wilson’s appeal in China went beyond image. In 1918, Wilson’s popularity soared – and not just in China – following an address to Congress calling for national “self-determination.” Overlooking Wilson’s support of Jim Crow in the US and the invasion of Haiti on his watch, intellectuals in imperialism-ravaged countries from Egypt to Korea took his declaration to heart, and began to view him as a savior and champion of the oppressed.

Chinese patriots, in particular, hoped that, under Wilson’s leadership, the US might deepen its involvement in Asia in ways that would help protect China from the predations of Imperial Japan. For them, Wilson’s support of the Treaty of Versailles constituted a profound betrayal.

The China of 2016 is unimaginably different from the China of 1916. It has leap-frogged even advanced countries in the global economic hierarchy. It is unified under a strong and focused leadership. And it is very big, including nearly all the territories that were part of the Qing Empire at its peak. A rare exception is Taiwan, but the “one China” diplomatic fiction sustains the fantasy that someday, somehow, the democratic island and authoritarian mainland will be reintegrated.

In short, China no longer needs US protection. Instead, it wants a US president who is occupied largely with domestic issues, and is not much concerned with constraining China’s rise, as Barack Obama was. That way, China could get to work reshuffling power relationships in Asia for its own benefit, without having to worry about American interference.

Before the election, Trump was already known to level wild accusations at China, typically related to economic issues like trade. But his apparent lack of interest in foreign policy was very appealing for Chinese leaders. He seemed far more likely than his opponent, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to leave China alone. His suggestion that he would be less committed than his predecessors to supporting traditional US allies in Asia, like South Korea and Japan, was music to Chinese nationalists’ ears, much as his questioning of American commitments to NATO was music to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s.

Like Wilson, Trump also gained some fans simply by virtue of a personality that is atypical for a politician. Of course, Trump is no bookworm. But many people liked that he seemed to say (or tweet) whatever he felt, offering “straight talk” that contrasted sharply with the approach of more polished politicians, including President Xi Jinping, who watches his every word.

A similar desire for “authenticity” has fueled – albeit in a very different way – the popularity of another US official, Gary Locke, who became the US ambassador to China in 2011. Photographs of Locke carrying his own daypack and buying coffee at Starbucks – humble acts that high-ranking Chinese officials would have underlings do – spurred a flurry of online posts celebrating him as a virtuous public servant. How different America must be, his fans claimed, from China, where corrupt officials and their pampered offspring indulge in luxurious lifestyles reminiscent of the imperial families of dynastic times.

It is hard to imagine that particular US-China contrast carrying weight now, as photos of Trump’s garish Manhattan penthouse and opulent Mar-a-Lago parties continue to emerge. And while Trump’s communication style remains striking, particularly in comparison to Xi’s, it becomes far less appealing when one is the target of his blunt comments on touchy topics. Just as a weak China was not able to count on Wilson’s protection, a strong China will not be able to count on Trump to get out of its way – at least not without throwing a few elbows.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, Professor of History at UC Irvine, is the editor of The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China and the author of Eight Juxtapositions: China Through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo.  Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016, published here with permission.

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One positive aspect of Trumps outspokenness may be to highlight to the world the plight of the enslaved 26 million of China's proxy, North Korea.
This country suffers a humanitarian crisis continually, while we anguish over China's reception of valid criticism.

Well the US certainly isn't the "land of the free"! I take you haven't see this documentary yet have you MortgageBelt?

13th Film trailer:

Sure, the USA has some social justice issues. However, you are comparing a speck with a log.
If we lived in China we would not be permitted to have this online conversation freely.
If we lived in North .korea we would be focussing all our efforts to find some food to get our family through the day.
NZers and USA citizens still live in a free society.
Try reading this book

Really I think you'll find that documentary quite shocking, it's not surprising that a lot of people are trying to leave the US at the moment.
Here's just a small example: Is 'Trump-effect' to blame for US students fleeing to Canada?

More Chinese leave China than Americans leave the US.

The more worrying thing is how much further can the US go (i.e, Trump) in provoking China in to doing irrational things?

BBC Article: China aircraft carrier crosses Taiwan Strait amid tension

Quote for article: "It is the latest escalation amid tensions between the two neighbours, and Taiwanese authorities have asked the public to remain calm".

If Trump can provoke a war between China and it's neighbouring countries, that would certainly bolster the US economy through Arms trading (Defense industry) which apparently if fairly profitable.

Lets hope that we aren't caught in the cross fire.

Something tells me that Transparency International is going to have to down grade the US in its next league table.

BBC article: Trump Organization handover plan slammed by ethics chief