The Chinese ‘alt-left’ who support Trump’s alt-right9 min read

How Trump still has fans among social conservatives in China – Alec Ash

“To change a president is common; to change an era is very rare.” So wrote Li Ziyang (李子暘), a 43-year old self-described Chinese nationalist and “self-media” opinion influencer, at 6:24pm on November 9, 2016, Beijing time, when Donald Trump’s electoral victory was secure but America was just waking up to discover it. Li was posting on China’s Twitter-like social media platform Sina Weibo, where he has almost 900,000 followers. And as a Chinese supporter of Trump, he was delighted.

“I like Trump because he’s a businessman, not a revolutionary,” Li told me after the election. We were in a Beijing Starbucks, and the Chinese patriot was wearing an Oakland Athletics baseball cap, slurping an Americano. There were three key areas where he was in agreement with Trump’s policy, he said. First: like Trump, Li is anti-immigration, in a Chinese context as much as an American one. Second: he hates social welfare policies, especially for ethnic minorities (“only Trump openly says that’s not all right”). And last: he enjoys giving the liberal Western mainstream a hard time, taking relish in the drumming that Trump doles out to what he, too, calls jia xinwen, “fake news.”

Then he added matter-of-factly, in his gunfire stutter, that he also admired Trump “because of [his] racial prejudice.”

“Isn’t prejudice a negative word?” I suggested.

“Yes,” he replied, “but you still have to be prejudiced,” rattling off why he didn’t like black people — the casual racism that is all too common in China. He has just as strong opinions about Muslims, whom he considers potential terrorists inside China’s borders, especially in Xinjiang where he supports the reeducation camps. (Imagine my surprise to discover that he is huizu himself, a Chinese Muslim minority.) Above all he disliked Hillary Clinton, viewing her as a corrupt career politician to Trump’s breath of fresh air. “America needs a change right now,” he said, back in 2016 – though he also supports Trump’s re-election this year.

If Li Ziyang invites comparison to Trump’s home base in America, he is not the only one. The rise of Chinese Trump supporters has been well noted, and — like their U.S. equivalents — they are very vocal online. For Trump topics on Zhihu, the Chinese Quora, and the majority of the comments are positive. Li estimates that 60 percent of Chinese netizens on Weibo cheer for Trump. In seeming irony, many of these Trump supporters in China identify, as Li does, with the Chinese left. The political spectrum is reversed in China: the left is conservative, backing the centralist economic and political power of the state, while the right is for more liberal politics and market reforms. So it is in the American alt-right that the Chinese alt-left found its true comrade.

The political spectrum is reversed in China: the left is conservative, backing the centralist power of the state, while the right is for more liberal politics and market reforms”

At first, the 2016 U.S. election was regarded in China by the same light as previous iterations: a distant distraction, not on the radar for most, and swiftly pushed aside after the shock result. Over the six-month period after the election, out of 711 articles in the U.S. and Canada section of the state newspaper China Daily, only 11 mentioned Trump. On social media, Trump was still largely a joke, enjoyed for an entertainment value made all the sweeter by schadenfreude as America fractured. But for a hardcore group of Chinese lefties — many of them attracted to nationalism and a strongman theory of government — the pro-Trump movement in the U.S. has become a torchbearer for their own beliefs about how governments and societies should be run.

A critical element of this unlikely alliance is shared disdain of political correctness and liberalism in the age of inclusiveness and gender pronouns. In China, the phrase “white left” (白左 bǎi zùo) is a popular derogratory term for what the Brietbart brigade calls “libtards” — as derided on the Chinese nationalist net as they are in American right-wing circles. Parents of Chinese students in the U.S. have voiced support for Trump due to his critical views on affirmative action, which affects their children’s chances of getting into good colleges. And just as Trump supporters in America flirt with the line of white supremacism (and occasionally cross it), in China this has found its analog in Han supremacism and military jingoism, coinciding with Xi Jinping’s program of national rejuvenation to Make China Great Again.

Parallels to China’s own historical strongmen are uncomfortable. The most active supporters online have been nicknamed “Trump Guards” (川卫兵 chuān wèibīng), a pun on the “Red Guards” of the Cultural Revolution. One such group made a video adaptation of an old Communist song about Mao Zedong, “The East Is Red,” updating the lyrics to praise Trump as “America’s great savior.” Yet among China’s Trump Guard, politics aren’t a big factor: most are just attracted to his image as a successful businessman and TV alpha male, in a culture that prizes ostentatious wealth and machismo. Others see Trump as a people’s champion against the corruption of the political class — a vice they are well used to in China – without appreciating Trump’s own status among the much-reviled “rich second generation” (富二代 fù èr dài), the “rich second generation.” Some simply appreciate his broadsides at the American media, and Washington in general, as enjoyable establishment-bashing.

Ma Tianjie (马天杰), who writes a blog on Chinese public opinion, told me that “the appeal of Trump is not based on self-interest or the interest of China, but on personal values,” including a rejection of liberalism and the worship of personal enrichment. The rise of self-media in China is a further factor, with pro-Trump voices amplified (but not fact-checked) online, where extreme views bring high view counts, and Trump is only a lightly censored topic compared to more pressing sensitivities inside China. Some of the Chinese alt-left have followings in the millions on Weibo and other platforms — just like the alt-right in America, which breeds online by pushing the same clickbait identity politics.

In 2016, collateral benefits for China’s national self-interest seemed a clear — sometimes directly acknowledged — advantage of the Trump administration for his Chinese acolytes. Hillary Clinton was widely seen as hawkish, tough on China, while Trump’s America-first platform was thought to give China a free run. Under Trump, the U.S. sought to retreat from its post-WWII role as an international arbiter of the Western liberal world order, just as China stepped up to the plate with its own geopolitical agenda. An internet poll in February 2017 found that 45 percent of netizens supported Trump “from China’s perspective,” but only 19 percent supported him “from your own perspective.” And anything that undermines America’s status and respect in the world was thought to be good for China, its biggest rival. Or so the thinking went.

Others have revised their views of Trump in light of his hostile attitude toward China”

What is most surprising is how pro-Trump sentiments have largely held among China’s alt-left, despite Trump’s many provocations of Beijing since. Trump has taken a phone call from Taiwan’s president; accused China’s government of currency devaluation; goaded them over their military build-up in the South China Sea; engaged China in a full-on trade war; and repeatedly dubbed the Covid pandemic the “China virus.” Yet Li Ziyang isn’t overly concerned that Trump seems set to attack China. He told me that America’s punitive tariffs “isn’t a big deal,” and that Trump would come to see the sense of doing business with China. “Trump’s a businessman,” he clarified. “He might not understand other things, but he understands what is in his interest.”Others among the alt-left have revised their views of Trump in light of his hostile attitude toward China”

Others among the alt-left have revised their views of Trump in light of his hostile attitude toward China. “This is only Trump’s first bite,” posted one netizen, Wang Jiangyu, in the wake of the trade war. “With ever more provocations like this to come, how will those inside China who cheer Trump’s victory console themselves?” Most seem to find a way, in the same way that Trump’s base in America writes off scandal after scandal. According to Ma Tianjie, the blogger on Chinese public opinion, “it depends on what Trump does and says. If he touches on some of the more sensitive issues in Chinese psychology, including hurting the face or insulting the character of the Chinese people in general, that could trigger a different response.”

We have begun to see that, with Trump’s scapegoating of China over the coronavirus outbreak in America touching a nerve. Yet the predominant attitude to international politics in China remains solipsistic. If foreign policy directly affects China, fervent passions can be aroused; if it is complex or incidental, most people just don’t care. The majority of my Chinese friends have the same opinion of Trump as most of my Anglophone friends: that he’s a buffoon. Yet the tens of thousands of netizens who support him and the alt-right agenda do so with a passion that outmatches the apathy of those who disagree. And the authorities who censor Chinese state media appear keen not to stir up anti-Trump emotion, even in the face of his provocations; their censorship instructions instruct media: “don’t attack Trump’s vulgarity; don’t make this a war of insults.”

The most important opinion within China is the one we can never fully know — that of the nation’s leader. Xi Jinping is not going to start posting late-night rants on Weibo anytime soon, though increasingly fuming state-media editorials are a decent bellwether. Trump’s China-baiting tweets continue to be “unpresidented,” and Sino-U.S. relations are at a forty-year low point. Influence operations from China now seem to indicate that Zhongnanhai favor a Biden presidency in 2021. Yet while Trump has lost the love of netizens who see him as anti-China, he still has a base of support in the Chinese alt-left who admire him for his bravado and baiting of liberals, just as his base in America does. The rest doesn’t matter.

As for Li Ziyang, he is still putting up pro-Trump content on Weibo. “I hope Trump wins in November,” he posted recently. “America still needs him.” Whether China does is another question. ∎

A version of this article was originally published in supChina in September 2018, and has been updated.