To find out what Chinese people truly think about Donald Trump.
We had some lovely American readers suggesting that, apart from Elephant Room’s usual China-centered stories, they’d also love to see some more “Western”/ “non-Chinese” stories with a Chinese point of view. We thought it's an awesome idea and what’s better to start this little new series than with the president of the United States, Mr. Donald J. Trump?
The Thought Process
Biyi: So we need real voices from real Chinese people, like COMPLETELY REAL AND HONEST AND OBJECTIVE AND UNBIASED, about what they think of Trump! (Serious face) Can we design a questionnaire and put it up on our WeChat/Weibo? Maybe we can even do a little giveaway to encourage more people to participate!
Yan: Are we going to do a survey? Quantitative or a qualitative one? And how about data collection? Are we gonna offer incentives? How large is the sample size? How long do we have for collecting the response? Don’t we need at least one month? And are we going to build a statistical model? OH A MODEL!!
Biyi: … I forgot you were a Psychology major and designed all those impossible surveys for your thesis…
Yan: Duhhh! (roll eyes) Given our resource and capability at this stage, it is almost impossible to do a mass-based survey and to collect objective responses from hundreds of thousands of people.
Biyi: Ok, I get what you mean, let’s change strategy then? Instead of being so careful to erase our own subjectivity let’s face it, and leverage on it!
Yan: Which means?
Biyi: Which means we need to think about questions we truly are curious about, and then have conversation with individual people around us. We won’t make them to represent anyone, just, you know, let them be real people with genuine and personal voices.
Yan: Sounds like a plan, let’s give it a week and see what kind of story we'd discover.
Biyi: Man I AM EXCITED ABOUT THIS!
After an afternoon of brainstorming, me and Yan came up with some questions that the two of us deemed the most interesting and important regarding Trump.
Before going full-fetched nagging around our friends and families with questions however, we need to first find out two things for the sake of constructing a more comprehensive narrative: What have Western medias been saying about the Chinese opinions on Trump, and, what and how are Chinese people online talking about him?
Let’s unclench these narratives.
Reading through these pieces, one'd easily form an impression that the majority of Chinese people is in favor of, or even wildly obsessed with Trump. Is it really the case though? We moved on to Chinese social medias to find out.
Did we come across a lot of Trump supporters on the Chinese Internet? Oh Yes.
Are all of the Chinese people Trump supporters? Hell no.
To get a taste about how the western medias have been reporting on Chinese views, we searched through an ocean of English sources to gather some of the most-read articles from established media outlets (We’d only be pulling out key quotes from these articles - however we encourage you to click on the titles, and read them through on your own for the purpose of forming a more objective, independent judgement :D) .
Here are what came up in our research:
Donald Trump Is Oddly Popular in China, Fortune, May 2016
- “Many Chinese observers see a silver lining in his focus on economic issues instead of human rights and political freedoms.”
There are tons of Trump supporters in China - even though he keeps bashing the country, Business Insider, Oct 2016
- “Donald Trump has a big following in China, particularly among the primarily upper-class population that has been closely watching the US election.”
Donald Trump's Victory Has Caused Glee In China, Times, Nov 2016
- “As the world digested the reality of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, the glee among China’s political establishment was hard to contain.”
Why Chinese Netizens Cheer Trump, Foreign Policy, Nov 2016
- “Within China, it’s fair to say the two U.S. candidates are not being judged on who is best positioned to run the American government safely and responsibly…If China was a state voting in the U.S. election, it would be red.”
What Does China Think of Trump? World Policy, Dec 2016
- “…Over the past several weeks, however, many in China have watched the events in America unfold, silently triumphant.”
What China and the Chinese Really Think of Donald Trump”, Intelligencer Post, May 2017
- “(Chinese think that) Not only did Trump escape the trappings of an “Idle Son”, but he went on to exceed everything his father did before him.”
- “People on the streets of China are saying that Trump and Xi are the new ‘powerhouse partners’ of the world. They look forward to the two nations uniting in common goals.”
To understand what and how Chinese netizens have talked about Trump, we focused on Zhihu, the largest knowledge-sharing, question-and-answer based community that’s known for gathering some of the most literate users of the Chinese Internet (ok, you can think of it as the Chinese Quora although the two are still very, very different).
To start, there are currently over 8,000 questions, over 1000 up-voted answers and 64,000 followers for the Trump topic on Zhihu. In comparison, Obama’s topic only has 3512 followers and 940 questions in total – almost a tenth of questions of those for Mr.Trump.
Among the most up-voted answers, many are critically examining the reasons of Trump’s victory from political, social, and cultural perspectives.While some are openly talking about “Things we should all learn from Donald Trump”, there are also a lot of people engaged in discussing questions such as “Why do we have more pro-Trump users on Zhihu than Quora?”, and “Why are some Chinese calling the educated elite Class in the West as ‘White Left’?”
A popular post (up-voted 7388 times) saying that Trump's victory has a special meaning for Zhihu, a community of which the mainstream rhetoric on Trump seems to be the opposite of Quora (where Hilary supporters dominates).
With all the background information gathered, we were (finally!) ready to move on to the next and most important part of our investigation: asking questions and collecting responses from our Chinese friends and families.
So, throughout the course of last week, me and Yan bugged a dozen people with our Trump questions. We tried to make our interviewee cohort as diverse as possible in terms of age (we even interviewed my grandfather who’s in his 80s, and Yan’s little sister who just entered middle school...) and backgrounds (some have studied and lived, or currently living overseas, others were raised and educated in China), and, most importantly, communicated with them relentlessly to ensure they would give us completely honest and personal opinions on the subject matter.
And here are their voices.
What were you doing on the day of the U.S presidential election? How did you react to the election results?
Bo (in 20s, U.S educated, now working in finance) :
I was in the office watching it live-streaming on TV with my colleagues. I liked Hiliary when I was little, and thought Trump was really dumb especially how he performed in the debates. Very shocked that he’d won.
Andy (in 20s, currently studying Politics in London):
I remember it was around 4am in London when the election result came out. I actually chipped in 10 pounds on Trump and won back 64 pounds thanks to him LOL. For me, his presidenciy was expected - that’s why I chipped in!
Qin (in 20s, PhD student in Chinese Philosophy):
I was in class when I saw the election result jumped out on my phone. For me it was more like entertainment news rather than politics – it’s pretty fun to watch how things have developed as an outsider.
Ethan (in 20s, Personal fitness trainer):
I was teaching a class in gym when I heard the news. His presidency really surprised me – seriously, how can such a person become the U.S president? What’s going on with the world?
David (in 20s, working in tech):
Couldn't remember that day. I don't follow political news and never liked Trump.
JoeSean (in 30s, China-educated, now working in tech):
I’d long thought that Trump was like a R-rated comedy for Americans, you know, a dirty-talk filled type of entertainment. His victory made the guilty pleasure no longer secretive - everything was flipped onto the surface, no one could pretend they didn’t see it anymore. For me it was harsh yet also very interesting.
Liu: (in 40s, China-educated, driver):
I couldn’t recall what I was doing that day, but I definitely got annoyed because of the election news everywhere! Overall I am pretty happy with him as the president - I never liked Hilary, and I honesty think there is more harm than good if the U.S elected a female president.
Xiaoxiao (in 30s, China-educated, now working in media):
The election day is a vivid memory for me - I was actually staying at the Trump soho hotel in NYC that day and was warned to not to go out at night in case of protest -but nothing happened actually.
When I heard that Trump was elected, I felt pretty excited: he seemed like a good guy to me, you know, very outspoken and straightforward. Will such a guy bring new changes to the U.S and to the world? He might not be the best president but I still thought he’s better than Hillary Clinton.
Alice (13, studying in international school in Beijing) :
It was a usual school day and everyone was watching the news as election results came out. When I heard Trump won, I rambled along with my friends for a little bit although in reality I really didn’t care! I noticed that none of my American classmates liked Trump, they all support Hillary – isn’t she more democratic or something?
Feng (in 80s, retired worker): I followed the news on WeChat as well as on TV. Trump seemed a better choice so I was glad he got elected – Hillary’s China policy is no good!
Have your opinions on him changed or evolved ever since his presidency?
Not much. Everytime I see he’s still talking the same way on Twitter, you know, “very very” “great” “America” “bad people” “really smart people” “tremendous” ! Pretty dumb as a president. But I guess he did carried quite a few policies through like tax reform.
I used to think he was a genius guy just pretending to be dumb, but now I think he’s really dumb. I feel he’s now overwhelemed, being a president really has nothing similar with being a businessman! Also he wasn't that much a successful businessman anyway, didn’t him screw up his own casino or something?
When he was just elected, I had this expectation that he’d be a smart, mature guy, I guess my expectation is now much lower given his performance over the past 6 months…
I now like him a lot more – this guy really has guts! I just watched the video clip of him talking about Syria and ISIS, and was really impressive by his bold statement.
I think he grew a lot over the past 6 months, he’s done some serious good things for the Americans! Quite a dude really.
I didn’t care about him before the election, but now I think he’s so mean! Didn’t he say he was going to to bomb some other countries? Also I just cannot stand his hand gestures, so annoying.
Do you think Donald Trump has a political ideology? If so what is it?
Of course he has an ideology, just not one that falls into traditional categories such as left or right or populist. Trump doesn’t play by the cards – he’s political ideology is to ditch the conventional ideologies I guess.
I think his understanding of political ideologies is seriously false. You can’t just apply the logics of running a business to running a country!
“Make America Great Again” - does it count as an ideology?
Yes, cutting taxes.
I don’t really know much about politics, but in my understanding, Trump’s political ideologies are definitely not “high-class”. But you can’t just say he’s vulgar – he’s just saying the things a lot of people are afraid to say! I guess being honest is his unique ideology.
My strongest impression is his emphasize on American first, he’s repeating on it all the time.
Hummm…I guessn no? (Yan: do you know what's political ideology?) No, but I know bombing other countries is WRONG.
Every American president swears by the same ideology : America is and must be the No.1 of the world. Trump is no difference.
What are your comments about his family members and their involvement in politics?
I don’t follow his family much but I do know that Ivanka has helped a lot for his popularity during the campaign.
I don’t understand why so many people like his family, the popularity of Ivanka Trump is really a negative strike for feminist progress, very pathetic! I gotta say though, as a Chinese, I am pretty used of politicians’ familial involvement in politics, you know what I mean…
I personally don’t like any of his family members, but I guess they are sexy story materials for the medias, “those who are prettier than you/wealthier than you are also working harder” - Chinese people nowadays are obsessed with these kind of chicken-soup articles.
I like his family! You can tell that his family members get along with each other very well. As Chinese ancient philosophers have said, no one can be successful without a happiness family, I think Trump’s experience has proven exactly that. Are they involved in Politics? More or less so, but so what? The American president has a whole team behind him, they’d for sure contain the family members’ power.
I think his daughter (Ivanka) and son-in-law have made Trump’s public image a lot more positive. Ivanka might be running for president herself in the future, just a guess.
His family is definitely over-involved in politics. Ivanka seems like a puppet of her dad.
Final question, what do you think about Donald Trump’s hairstyle?
Awesome! I like his hairstyle.
Just like his personality, ridiculous and crazy.
Like a bird-nest.
Better than mine. At least he has a hairstyle.
Pretty ugly, but it matches very well with his eyebrows…
Some people have mocked that he’s trying to hide his boldness by flipping hair from the back to the front, but I appreciate his effort - at least he’s flipping from the opposite direction of others...
Love his hairstyle! Those blond hairs along with a bright red tie – I think it’s super cool!
So disgusting! Looks almost bold but still has a few strands of hair flying up – wait so is he actually bold or not?!
He’s got his own swag.
(Thanks for attaching a photo, Bo!)
Biyi: So, what do you think?
Yan: I must say, I am really surprised by how diverse and insightful the responses are! I mean, I didn’t even know my sister has this much to say about politics before this interview, she just turned 13, 13!!
Biyi: LOLLLL. I feel the same. If just looking at western medias’ portrays or even at peoples’ opinions on Zhihu, you’d have this impression that the majority of Chinese are either Trump supporters or just ignorant of things like U.S politics. But none of them is true at least from the feedbacks we got.
Yan: Do you think there is a pattern between interviewees’ personal backgrounds and their opinions?
Biyi: I did assume there would be some kind of links, you know, maybe the more educated or more “westernized” ones would be more skeptical to Trump. But I realized how stupid and prejudiced my presumptions were after these interviews; I don’t think there’s any particular trend that could be generalized or marketed into sexy titles, unfortunately.
Yan: I am with you on this. The more I talked to each individual, the more I was amazed by their nuanced opinions and openness. Of course everyone has different sayings on different things, but these opinions are not blank accusations, they are backed with reasoning.
Biyi: You know what? This week’s investigation really got me thinking. So often we are simply referencing what the medias are saying – if some newspaper verdicts, say, a lot of Chinese like Trump, we then reference it in conversations with other people, and soon in these peoples’ mind it becomes a fact. A click-bait title would easily slip into our mind as reality - boom! Just unconsciously like that.
Yan: Unless we actually go talk to real people to find out what they are really thinking, like what we tried to do this week.
Biyi: Yes. It’s not about building a path towards 100% objectivity, but to actively engage in conversations and to become more empathic of each other through the process. It’s the means that matter not the ends, don’t you think so?
Yan: I think so. Perhaps we could do more interviews like this in the future, if our readers cared? Meanwhile I still fancy the idea of doing quantitative surveys someday, as an enthusiastic, data-loving psychology major…
Biyi: …Can I roll eyes like you always do?!
We hope you liked our story this week,
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Biyi and Yan
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