IRVINE, CALIFORNIA – When Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election in November, he had a lot of Chinese fans. But Trump’s popularity has since plummeted, owing to his statements — often via Twitter — on contentious issues, such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. This isn’t the first time China’s view of a U.S. leader has deteriorated rapidly.
The abrupt change in Chinese sentiment toward Trump is reminiscent of what happened to President Woodrow Wilson after his re-election a century ago. At the time, many Chinese intellectuals, including the young Mao Zedong, admired Wilson, a political scientist and former president of Princeton University. Then, in 1919, Wilson backed the Treaty of Versailles, which transferred control of former German territories in Shandong Province to Japan, rather than return them to China. Wilson quickly lost his luster in China.
The shift was similar — but the reasons are very different. A century ago, China was driven to support Wilson, and then to loathe him, by its own weakness. Today, it is China’s strength that is guiding its view of the U.S. president.
In 1916, the year Wilson was elected to his second term, China was in terrible shape. While the republic established in 1912 was ostensibly a single entity, it was actually highly fragmented. Military strongmen controlled different regions, while foreign powers, through bribes and bullying, seized large swaths of China’s territory. For Chinese intellectuals, Wilson offered a bookish contrast to thuggish warlords.
But Wilson’s appeal in China went beyond image. In 1918, his popularity soared — and not just in China — following an address to Congress calling for national “self-determination.” Overlooking his support of Jim Crow in the United States and the invasion of Haiti, intellectuals in imperialism-ravaged countries from Egypt to Korea took his declaration to heart, and began to view him as a savior and champion of the oppressed.
Chinese patriots, in particular, hoped that, under Wilson’s leadership, America might deepen its involvement in Asia in ways that would help protect China from the predations of Imperial Japan. For them, the U.S. president’s support of the Treaty of Versailles constituted a profound betrayal.
The China of 2016 is unimaginably different from the China of 1916. It has leapfrogged even advanced countries in the global economic hierarchy. It is unified under a strong and focused leadership. And it is very big, including nearly all the territories that were part of the Qing Empire at its peak. A rare exception is Taiwan, but the “one-China” diplomatic fiction sustains the fantasy that someday, somehow, the democratic island and authoritarian mainland will be reintegrated.
In short, China no longer needs U.S. protection. Instead, it wants a U.S. president who is occupied largely with domestic issues, and is not much concerned with constraining China’s rise, as Barack Obama was. That way, China could get to work reshuffling power relationships in Asia for its own benefit, without having to worry about American interference.
Before the election, Trump was already known to level wild accusations at China, typically related to economic issues like trade. But his apparent lack of interest in foreign policy was very appealing for Chinese leaders. He seemed far more likely than his opponent, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to leave China alone. His suggestion that he would be less committed than his predecessors to supporting traditional U.S. allies in Asia, like South Korea and Japan, was music to Chinese nationalists’ ears, much as his questioning of American commitments to NATO was music to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s.
Like Wilson, Trump also gained some fans simply by virtue of a personality that is atypical for a politician. Of course, Trump is no bookworm. But many people liked that he seemed to say (or tweet) whatever he felt, offering “straight talk” that contrasted sharply with the approach of more polished politicians, including President Xi Jinping, who watches his every word.
A similar desire for “authenticity” has fueled — albeit in a very different way — the popularity of another U.S. official, Gary Locke, who became the U.S. ambassador to China in 2011. Photographs of Locke carrying his own daypack and buying coffee at Starbucks — humble acts that high-ranking Chinese officials would have underlings do — spurred a flurry of online posts celebrating him as a virtuous public servant. How different America must be, his fans claimed, from China, where corrupt officials and their pampered offspring indulge in luxurious lifestyles reminiscent of the imperial families of dynastic times.
It is hard to imagine that particular U.S.-China contrast carrying weight now, as photos of Trump’s garish Manhattan penthouse and opulent Mar-a-Lago parties continue to emerge. And while Trump’s communication style remains striking, particularly in comparison to Xi’s, it becomes far less appealing when one is the target of his blunt comments on touchy topics. Just as a weak China was not able to count on Wilson’s protection, a strong China will not be able to count on Trump to get out of its way — at least not without throwing a few elbows.
Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at UC Irvine. © Project Syndicate, 2017 www.project-syndicate.org