There was a game I would play with Beijing taxi drivers when asked where I was from. I gave one of three answers: America, the UK or Iran, to see how their reaction differed.
To the latter I received a thumbs up, and gesticulations of a nuclear bomb going off. “Boom kapow!” the driver would rejoin, in a curiously sympathetic onomatopoeia.
“English gentleman” was the response to saying I was British, followed by a conversation never not about fog.
To being American I received a longer more considered riposte, but ending without fail in the observation that China should be wary of its foe across the Pacific, and by association me.
Were I to hail a cab now, things might be a little different. Our Prime Minister’s recent red-carpet kowtow to China’s visiting President has, according to a recent survey, improved the UK’s standing with the average Chinese person. I wonder what Donald Trump might have done for America’s.
Of the Chinese friends I asked on the matter of “Chuan Pu” (the Chinese nickname for Trump), the results were instructive. To those who spoke little to no English, Trump was an unheard of quantity. Telling, if unsurprising, given how tightly Chinese language media is controlled in the country. To those who did, and for whom outside media sources were more accessible, the results presented a rare pin hole into the complex and sometimes fragile psyche of Chinese nationalism.
“He is jealous of China stealing opportunities from Americans,” a friend argued. Another commented on how scared he felt by just how many Americans seemed to sympathise. “A big joke,” one declared, pausing before adding, “although he probably hates us”.
These comments are perhaps not misplaced. At the end of last year, the Republican favourite asserted that “China has gotten rich off us”. “They’re killing us,” he added, but not before proclaiming that the country would soon “be in trouble”.
Despite persistent reminders from Communist Party apparatchiks that China does not concern itself with the “internal affairs” of other countries, a seemingly credible President Trump will have pricked wily ears in Beijing.
Yes, for now, he is a bothersome curiosity for many in the country. Netizens on China’s Twitter – Weibo – did not take kindly to him calling their government out for a lax attitude to the North Koreans. The 2,522 fans of the “Chuan Pu” Weibo page, however, didn’t seem to mind. A few have quipped that Americans made history only seven years ago by voting in the country’s first black President; they may make it again by voting for its first orange one.
Yet minds far greater and guileful than ours in the Zhong Nan Hai (China’s Communist Party’s central HQ) will be watching Trump closely. For in him the perfect bogeyman presents itself.
To understand why, one must look to the Chinese classroom. Children’s textbooks point to a century of great shame at the hands of world powers. Successive governments have imbued three, perhaps four generations with a sense of victimhood: a bitterness held not just towards the Japanese and the British who occupied the country, but also to “imperialist” Americans who carved up the world for their own benefit. So the argument goes.
Current President Xi Jinping has shone a light on a new fork in the road of this narrative – China regaining its rightful place at the head of the world’s table. A reminder to all of the Chinese name of his country: “the Middle Kingdom”.
A bellicose, obdurate President Trump would provide more hawkish factions within the Party leadership with the opportunity to cool what has so far been a polite détente. The finger could be pointed more easily than against Obama. Why should China stop its land grab in the Pacific? Trump’s America engages in a combative foreign policy, it would be argued. How can America criticise China’s repression of indigenous Muslims in its restive Xinjiang province, when gun-toting Trump is “getting tough” on Muslims back home?
Trump’s belligerence now, and god forbid in power, might well suit the strategic designs China has on aggrandising its sphere of geographical influence. For there are fewer things the Communist Party loves more than a case study in what it regards as hypocrisy from foreign governments.
The Party knows all too well the visceral power of demarcating a foreign threat as a way of distracting its own citizens. I saw this personally in 2012 when Beijing’s police, in an unprecedented move, allowed public protests against Japan’s claim over a small set of islands in the South China Sea. Thousands took to the streets, throwing stones at Toyotas and a branch of Uniqlo, and forcing the closure of Japan’s embassy in the city. Many argued it was a calculated move to allow current President Xi to dispose quietly of his main political opponents and solidify his grip on power.
This now forgotten episode holds a chilling forewarning of the Party’s reaction to what is only now emerging as the slowest period of economic growth in 25 years. As China’s masters prepare for a hard landing, with painful readjustments to its economy in the pipeline, a foreign bogeyman is just what they need. And in Trump, they may have found the perfect candidate.
Paul Afshar ran a successful e-commerce startup in China, selling it last year to return to the UK. He now consults for corporations looking to improve their reputation in the region. He can be contacted @paulrezaafshar