Amid the tumultuous end to his first month in office, President Donald Trump got a piece of long-awaited good news: After more than a decade of hold-ups in court, his application to trademark his name in China was finally approved.
Because the announcement came shortly after Trump announced for the first time his commitment to the so-called “One China Policy,” in which governments officially recognize the Republic of China but not Taiwan, the decision immediately prompted speculation about conflicts of interest. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, for instance, wasted little time in declaring the new trademark unconstitutional. “China’s decision to award President Trump with a new trademark allowing him to profit from the use of his name is a clear conflict of interest and deeply troubling,” said Feinstein, adding, “If this isn’t a violation of the Emoluments Clause, I don’t know what is.” (Feinstein was referring to a section of the constitution that prohibits officeholders from accepting “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”) A report from ThinkProgress that the decision violated a Chinese rule prohibiting trademarks that are “the same as or similar to the name of leaders of national, regional, or international political organizations” only further fueled charges of corruption.
According to critics, China’s decision to grant Trump’s trademark application is a means to curry favor with the president, to give the president a revocable gift that would nudge him in the direction of a more favorable stance toward the country. After all, there’s plenty of incentive for China to do so: Trump has repeatedly taken rhetorical, if not yet actual, stances that jeopardize the relationship between the two countries. For example, Trump has accused the Chinese government of currency manipulation, which, coupled with his calls to re-negotiate trade deals, has led to concerns that he could spark a trade war with China. Then there’s the fact that, even before he became president, Trump already indicated that the United States may do away with the One China Policy by calling the president of Taiwan in December, something U.S. presidents had not done for nearly 40 years, well before he called his Chinese counterpart. The British newspaper the Independent appeared to articulate precisely this viewpoint, titling its article on the development “China awards Donald Trump valuable trademark days after he agrees to honour ‘One China’ policy.”