Why you should care
The U.S. president has support in surprising places.
Growing up in the volatile Xinjiang province, Liu Jì was taught that the Han were wealthier than the region’s Muslim Uighur minority because they were more industrious workers. Like many Han, Liu resented the Uighurs and blamed them for violence and rioting — even though independent experts have found that currently more than 1 million Uighurs are locked up in internment camps.
After graduating from Xinjiang University and traveling as an engineer through the Uighur-populated southern part of the province, the focus of Liu’s blame shifted to the Chinese government. Globally, Beijing is known for its crackdowns on Tibetans and Uighurs, but from Liu’s perspective, the government ignores Han interests to pander to minorities through the subsidies and other benefits it offers them. “The Uighurs will play with fire and burn themselves … and without the Han as the main nationality, China would instantly disappear,” Liu says.
Now 29 years old and commuting to an advertising job in Beijing from a nearby suburb, Liu is among a growing number of Chinese millennials who have embraced a radical nationalist ideology. They identify themselves as “Han nationalists” on popular Chinese social media platforms Zhihu, Weibo and WeChat. Their anxieties include the discriminatory treatment of the Han people and low Han fertility rates. They believe German Chancellor Angela Merkel has ruined Europe. But core to their beliefs is another, unlikely recurrent theme: that Donald Trump is a visionary leader. And they call their liberal, politically correct critics in the West Báizuǒ — a mocking term that translates to “White left.”
Many Chinese … think he is a clown, but I think he is as great as the Mount Rushmore sculptures.
Liu Jì, Chinese Trump supporter
While circumspect when speaking about the trade war, China’s state-run media has highlighted Trump’s missteps since early in his presidency, hoping to demonstrate the flaws of Western democracy. Most Chinese treat Trump with ridicule and disdain, with many blaming him for the trade war and its potential harm to their economy. Online he is frequently called chuanjianguo — chuan because it sounds like “trum,” and jianguo because it’s a typical Chinese name, meaning Chinese lover or builder, the joke being that Trump’s efforts to hurt China have often ended up doing the exact opposite. Trump’s move on Wednesday to sign two bills seeking greater scrutiny of China’s role in Hong Kong will likely further fuel these sentiments.
Liu and his online peers are breaking with the dominant narrative. They’re neither pro-America nor “subverting” the state, but what others see as Trump’s problematic moves are what attract them to the U.S. president. That Trump escalated the trade war and threatens China is the point: A true leader always puts their country first.
“A nationalist can’t dislike Trump, even though he is an enemy,” says Liu.
Despite its reputation for strict censorship, the Chinese internet does allow some political discussion. Purportedly less monitored than Weibo and WeChat, Zhihu, often considered the Chinese Quora, but with more idea-sharing features, is particularly popular among Trump supporters. A question — “What is your opinion about Trump being the 45th president?” — has 3,749 mostly positive answers. Another — “What Can We Learn from Donald Trump?” — has 245 answers, some with up to 8,000 votes. Not all on the site who support Trump are Han nationalists. But their answers reveal that much of their support is based on Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigration policies and a resolve toward this issue that they believe China lacks.
In a typical post, Chrisxun writes: “I don’t like Muslims, and compared to Trump’s anti-Muslim policy, his disadvantageous policies on China are just little trifles.” In another, Castaway writes: “In order to keep a good image in the world, the Communist Party doesn’t want to offend Muslims.… Only Trump is brave enough to stand out.… [With] Trump as their president, America will become great … again.” Similar conversations are playing out on WeChat and Weibo.
In the wake of Trump’s 2016 victory, a well-circulated essay, “The Road to Spiritual Plague: The History of the Evolution of the White Left,” appeared on Weibo. “White left,” or Báizuǒ — comparable to the slur “libtard” — has been used in China for years by all political persuasions to make fun of a Western liberalism overly concerned with identity politics while ignoring real-world problems. For Han nationalists, like Trump’s American base, the U.S. president’s “lack of political correctness” is evidence of his sincerity and capability.
Andy Mok, a CGTN commentator and fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, isn’t surprised by the trend of Chinese Trump supporters. “Trump is a successful businessman and TV personality,” he says. “Chinese tend to idolize rich and famous people. Luxury real estate and other glitzy businesses are especially appealing.”
On the platforms, there are also unfavorable mentions of Trump, including on his economic policies. But to the Han nationalists, this is less important than his views on Muslims and immigrants. “Many Chinese … think he is a clown, but I think he is as great as the Mount Rushmore sculptures,” says Liu. “Some of my friends [have] called Trump ‘the light of the U.S.’… Thanks to Trump, the U.S. is safe.”
Chinese millennials who support Trump, particularly for reasons emerging from a radical nationalist ideology, aren’t part of the mainstream, although they’re not like the Feminist Five, activists who in 2015 openly defied the Communist Party. In many ways, they are typical members of their generation — products of a post-1989 government-implemented nationalistic education who have curiosity about the world.
However, their online engagement also illustrates how China has had to adapt its censorship practices to social media and users keen to speak. Like Liu says, “I would like to let the outside world hear a voice belonging to the ordinary Chinese Han people.”