A Trump Supporter Dwells in Beijing

What could possibly make a young Chinese person go all-in for the Republican nominee?

People watch direct broadcast of first U.S. presidential debate between Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at a cafe in Beijing, China, September 27, 2016.
People watch a direct broadcast of first U.S. presidential debate in Beijing, China, September 27, 2016.  (Damir Sagolj / Reuters)

BEIJING—Ardent Chinese supporters of Donald Trump are a rare breed. The Republican presidential candidate has promised to slap heavy tariffs on China, punish it for manipulating its currency, stop its “outrageous theft of intellectual property,” and aggressively curtail its hacking by responding in a “swift, robust, and unequivocal” way. Trump’s boasts about sexually assaulting women don’t help his case in Beijing. Nor does the peculiar sneer with which he spits out the word “China.” Moreover, the vast majority of Chinese people don’t follow the U.S. election closely. And there can be political consequences for Chinese citizens who speak about the election with aggressive frankness. Add all that to the fact that the third and final debate between Trump and the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton ran from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m on Thursday morning, Beijing time, and it was hard to find a Trump supporter willing to watch it with me.

But 29-year-old financial analyst Ding Yongliang, who I met through the Chinese microblogging platform Sina Weibo, did so with gusto. On Thursday, we watched the debate together at a smoky internet café in the western part of Beijing. Trump stared confidently and sternly into the camera as he spoke about building a “phenomenal company” and illegal immigrants “brutally” murdering American children. Ding, sitting serenely in a rumpled blue suit, would laugh in approval, flash a thumbs up at the screen, and occasionally degrade China’s roughly 24 million Muslims (about 2 percent of the country’s population). “I have a lot in common with Trump,” he told me halfway through the debate. “Both Trump and I dare to love, and dare to hate.”

Ding’s anti-Muslim animus may seem to come out of nowhere, but tensions between China’s ethnic Han population and the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking minority, have been on the rise. Muslims point to profound discrimination by Han Chinese, while Han complain about a series of gruesome terrorist attacks carried out by Uighurs. These tensions boiled over in the July 2009 riots in the northwestern city of Urumuqi between the Han and the Uighurs. Five years later in March 2014, a knife attack in the southwestern city of Kunming in March 2014 left 29 civilians dead and more than 140 injured.

When I asked Ding about Trump’s anti-China policies, he replied, “You can’t have your butt decide your belt,” a Chinese expression I’d never heard before, but which he said means one shouldn’t do something only to protect his or her interests. He saw himself as an evangelist of the Trump cause, of those who speak out about the threat he thinks Muslims pose to the Western (and Chinese) world order. Also, he plans to marry later this year, but worries that having a wife could make receiving a green card difficult. He doesn't seem to have concrete plans to emigrate just yet, and wants to keep his Chinese citizenship—“I love China,” he told me. So he’s hesitant. In the meantime, he thinks publicly supporting Trump, in the event that he wins, couldn’t hurt his chances of getting into America.

Ding regards himself as an exceptionally high-quality immigrant—a rare talent that America would wholeheartedly welcome. He doesn’t want an America run by Clinton, who he criticized throughout the debate for her “hypocrisy,” her insistence on believing that people are equal, and for being “all flower and no fruit”—flash without substance. Instead, he wants an America that Trump makes great, and (mostly) white. “Trump is not against immigration, just illegal immigration,” Ding told me. “He wants people like me to come to America, not Muslim extremists.”

Ding explained how he and Trump agree on what Ding sees as the polluting nature of Muslims, African immigrants, and Mexicans, and expounded on the Western media’s “defamation” of Trump and Clinton, and President Barack Obama’s “indulgence” of gay and transgender people. Like Trump, Ding repeats half-truths and dolled-up lies about the crimes of American immigrants, the rights of powerful men to “play” women, and Clinton’s alleged rigging of American democracy.

Ding works as a securities and futures analyst for China Investment Securities, a major mainland securities firm. Like Trump, he likes to repeat self-aggrandizing facts, as if to will himself and his listener into believing them. (I was unable to independently confirm anything Ding said about himself.) He told me that he’s studied Wall Street tycoons like the billionaire Ray Dalio and George Soros (“When the price of gold collapsed I made a good amount of money,” he claimed), and that he plans “to exceed them.” I have spent a total of seven years in China, off and on, and Ding is the first person I’ve met who uses the word “humble” as an insult.

The son of an architect, Ding grew up middle class in Xian—an ancient capital of China, formerly known as Chang’an, or “Constant Peace.” He felt that his country was too peaceful around the turn of the first millennium: Although Song Dynasty China was “more awesome than America,” it focused too much on economics and culture, Ding said, and not enough on strength, enabling the Mongols to overrun China in the 13th century. Trump, Ding believes, occupies the right place in the political spectrum, with his belief in protecting America’s borders, improving its standard of living, and fighting Muslim terrorism. Adolf Hitler had the right idea, Ding believes, but was too extreme, what with all the “killing of the Jews and attacking the world.” But going too far the other way also leads to disaster, he said. “Europe is now like the Song Dynasty, before the Mongols swept in. Mongols are like the Muslims.”

Ding hates Muslims more than anyone I’ve ever had to spend two hours listening to. At the end of the debate, Huma Abedin, a top Clinton advisor, confidante, and vice chairwoman of her campaign, appeared on the screen. “She disgusts me,” he said. I asked why. “Because Muslims disgust me.” This disgust, he told me, derives from what he claims are “objective truths”: Chinese Muslims are “savage” and Muslim culture is inferior to both Chinese and American culture, for example. “Their religion has always been coercive and military, ever since its birth,” he said. He theatrically looked around the internet café, like someone’s uncle preparing to tell a racist joke. “I have to make sure there are no Hui here,” he said, referring to a Chinese Muslim minority, “otherwise, they’ll slash me. Damn! They dare come and slash you, even in Beijing.”

Ding’s views of Muslims, and Trump, are extreme, though it’s hard to generalize about the views of a country of 1.4 billion people. Because of the sensitivity of political polling, there are no good statistics about the level of support Trump receives in China. (The Trump campaign didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment about their candidate’s support in China.) And the ruling Chinese Communist Party—unsurprisingly for a foreign government, especially one that claims to espouse the value of non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs—has not publicly shown a preference for either candidate. “The United States is the largest developed country, and China is the largest developing country,” a Chinese official told me, repeating an oft-quoted description of the two countries. “We believe whomever assumes office, the development of friendly relations between [the] U.S. and China is important to world peace.” He added, however, that this election is “unconventional.”

It’s reasonable to suppose that, among the Chinese elite, those who desire stability in the Sino-U.S. relationship, and in the world, would prefer Clinton. Those who view the international world order as a zero-sum game, and want China to garner influence at the expense of the United States—or those driven by their hatred for American criticism of China’s human rights record, who want the two countries’ governments to be on a more equal footing—would support Trump.

Clinton’s long history of publicly criticizing China, and Trump’s reputation as a businessman, also play a role in elite Chinese views. “Many Chinese businesspeople are saying, yes, we can work with Trump, we can do business with him,” said a former top U.S. official familiar with high-level Chinese politics, who asked to speak anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject. He added, however, that “Chinese officials are much less naïve, and recognize that Trump has no chance of winning the election.” Currently, The New York Times estimates that Trump has an 8 percent chance of winning—certainly not impossible, but quite unlikely. On October 18, the Irish betting site Paddy Power called the election for Clinton, and paid out more than $1 million to people who placed bets on her.

That said, Trump does appeal to some young and ambitious Chinese: men who appreciate the idea of a strong leader, respect his aggressive sexism and swagger, and value his alt-right nationalism. “Everyone is racist, to some degree,” Ding told me. “If you were to ask me, for example, ‘who’s better, white people or Chinese,’ I will of course say Chinese because I’m Chinese.”

For Trump, who said in the debate that he might not concede the election if he loses, it will be the end of a decades-long dream. Throughout the world, however, there will be those who, like the Indian politician Subramanian Swamy, or Frauke Petry, the chairwoman of the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany, seek to carry on a version of Trump’s ideological crusade, tailored to their own national circumstances. When I asked Ding if he ever wanted to get into politics, he likened himself to Trump in the 1980s and 1990s: An outsider who, if he ever got fed up with the system, would do something about it. “If China in the future is not like I want it to be,” he said, “I will go and change it.”