In this Year of the Monkey, China has been riveted by the U.S. presidential election, and more specifically by Republican contender Donald Trump. Those who usually pontificate on the nature of democracy and about what kind of U.S. president would be better for China are at a loss to explain the Trump phenomenon to the Chinese public.
Two parallel but irreconcilable narratives about U.S. politics have guided Chinese understanding of the United States for decades. The conservatives tell the public that American democracy is a sham in which money and special interests manipulate public opinions and rig the system for their own benefit—the House of Cards version of democracy. The liberals promote it as a system in which the people determine their own fate by electing their leaders, in contrast to one-party rule at home, and as something China must aspire to—the Goddess of Democracy version.
The Chinese perspectives on democracy in general and the country’s own future are very much influenced by the divide over the United States, the standard-bearer of democracy of our time. But the American real estate mogul is forcing the Chinese public to reassess its understanding of the U.S. political system. More consequentially, depending on the eventual outcome of the election and its long-term impact, the Trump phenomenon may change how the Chinese think about democracy.
In the sphere of geopolitics, the experts are even more conflicted. Trump has made China, along with Japan and Mexico, a target of his bellicose language against foreign rivals, which would seem certain to upset Chinese hawks. Yet his expressed admiration for China’s accomplishments and his advocacy for restraint in foreign interference complicate the picture.
For those who disparage American democracy, Trump’s rise gives the impression that, at least on the Republican side, ordinary Americans are close to checkmating the well-financed elites. Trump is himself a rich man. But that is beside the point. He’s running as a protest candidate