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From Hero to Villain? Trump's China Popularity Jolted by Taiwan Call

FILE - Chinese fan websites for Donald Trump are displayed on a computer with the words "Donald J. Trump super fan nation, Full and unconditional support for Donald J. Trump to be elected U.S. president" in Beijing, China.
FILE - Chinese fan websites for Donald Trump are displayed on a computer with the words "Donald J. Trump super fan nation, Full and unconditional support for Donald J. Trump to be elected U.S. president" in Beijing, China.

Donald Trump's convention-breaking phone call with Taiwan's president has triggered a sudden shift in the U.S. President-elect’s popularity among Chinese social media users.

Prior to that December 2 phone call with Tsai Ing-wen, Trump had been gaining admirers on Chinese social media for much of this U.S. election year – a trend that accelerated after his November 8 triumph over his main rival Hillary Clinton. But in the days since the Taiwan call, Trump has faced a torrent of criticism from users of the Chinese micro-blogging site, Weibo.

In March, when Trump was in the midst of his battle for the Republican presidential nomination, Chinese state-run news site Global Times said it conducted an online survey indicating that 54 percent of respondents favored the then-Republican front-runner. It also reported that Trump was getting “increasing support” from Weibo users who were following pro-Trump accounts such as "Trump fan club" and "Great man Donald Trump."

How his popularity grew

Michel Hockx, director of the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, told VOA’s China 360 podcast that Trump had endeared himself to many Chinese with his reputation as an anti-establishment business tycoon and reality TV star.

"People saw him as a strong leader, as someone with personality, a kind of celebrity politician of the kind that they don’t get in China,” said Hockx. “For sure, there also was criticism – mainly about the system that makes it possible for someone like Donald Trump to be elected, and whether or not such a system, that we call democracy, would be suitable for China."

Days after Trump surprised many people by winning last month’s election, his Chinese social media standing got another boost from a little known member of his family. A nine-month-old Instagram video of his granddaughter Arabella reciting Chinese poetry resurfaced in China and went viral, generating a wave of positive comments. Arabella’s mother Ivanka – Donald Trump’s eldest daughter – had uploaded the clip in February to show her family celebrating Chinese New Year. Arabella, then aged five, had been learning Mandarin with a Chinese nanny.

Hockx, also a professor of Chinese literature, said there were two main reasons for the warm Chinese responses to the Arabella video. "One is, she is cute, and people like seeing cute images on the internet,” he said. “But in addition, what makes the clip stand out is that Arabella is not just speaking Chinese, she actually is reciting Tang dynasty poetry, which Chinese people value as the epitome of what is great about their classical tradition.”

Hockx said the Instagram clip also demonstrated to Chinese netizens that there are some Westerners who encourage their children to take an interest in Chinese culture. “Chinese people are used to the West dictating global language and culture, so to see the granddaughter of the U.S. president-elect reciting Chinese poetry in fluent Mandarin makes a lot of Chinese people feel good and proud of their country."

Trump further improved his post-election image among Chinese netizens by reiterating a campaign pledge to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement when he takes office. The TPP deal championed by outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama was intended to create a U.S.-led Asia-Pacific trade bloc that excludes China.

The prospect of TPP’s impending demise was welcome news to Chinese netizens, according to Manya Koetse, chief editor of WhatsonWeibo, an independent blog about Chinese social media trends. “They thought that if Trump abandons the TPP, it could be a good deal for China,” said Koetse, also speaking to VOA China 360. “Only last week, I read a lot of people saying that, 'I really like this president, go Trump!' But after the (December 2) Taiwan phone call, a lot of people have shifted and they don't like this incoming president so much anymore.”

Social media mood quickly sours

Koetse said many Chinese netizens were confused by Trump’s decision to speak directly to Taiwan’s leader, something no U.S. president or president-elect has publicly acknowledged doing since 1979. China has long viewed Taiwan as a renegade province and objects to foreign governments engaging in high-level contact with the island’s leadership.

“A lot of Chinese netizens just call Trump a fool who doesn't know anything about diplomatic etiquette,” said Koetse. “But there also are many people who say this phone call was a strategic, calculated move by Trump and we should be worried about it. Others netizens are angry, saying Trump should not attempt to meddle in China’s business, and there is some arrogance within that (perspective), because they say, ‘no matter what Trump will do, China will win anyway’.” Trump tweeted that he took the Taiwan president’s call because she wanted to congratulate him on the U.S. election and that he appreciated the courtesy.

Will the good impressions that Trump and his granddaughter previously made in the Chinese social media sphere be forgotten?

“It all depends on what Trump is going to do in the next few weeks and months,” Koetse said. She also said many Chinese netizens did not like the alternative to Trump. “They thought of Hillary Clinton as a fake politician with a fake smile and saw her as hypocritical or corrupt. So even if they didn't like Trump that much, they liked him much more than Hillary, and I think even after the phone call, that feeling will remain."