An expert on U.S.-China relations, Chinese political risk, North Korea,international affairs, and Asian politics
On-air contributor, CBS-N, international affairs analyst, PRI’s The World
Senior Fellow, Asia Society
An expert on U.S.-China relations, Chinese political risk, North Korea,international affairs, and Asian politics
On-air contributor, CBS-N, international affairs analyst, PRI’s The World
Isaac Stone Fish is an expert on China’s foreign policy, elite politics, and political economy; Sino-U.S. relations; China’s complicated relationship with North Korea; and the Trump team’s Asia policy. He also tries to make some sense out of what is happening inside North Korea.
Currently, Stone Fish serves as a senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations. He is also an on-air contributor to CBSN, an international affairs analyst for PRI’s The World, and a regular guest on TV and radio programs about China and North Korea. He previously served as Foreign Policy Magazine’s Asia Editor; before that, he was Newsweek’s Beijing correspondent. A fluent Mandarin speaker, Stone Fish spent seven years in China: he has travelled widely in the region and in the country, visiting every Chinese province, autonomous region, and municipality.
His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Slate, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and The Daily Beast, among others. His views on international affairs have been widely quoted, including in MSNBC, ABC, NPR, the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, Slate, The Guardian, the BBC, Talking Points Memo, Deutsche Welle, the Sydney Morning Herald, and Al-Jazeera, among others; and in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese media.
An experienced public speaker, Stone Fish has given talks at dozens of conferences, universities, think tanks, and events around the world.
Stone Fish is a graduate of Columbia University, where he studied Chinese literature.He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, a Truman National Security Fellow, and alumni of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shaper program.
Trump’s policies would be softer on China, but the global instability he’d create as President would be bad for business in Beijing.
The United States, China’s largest trading partner but also its greatest geopolitical rival, faces an election that threatens domestic instability. A Donald Trump victory would confirm to many Chinese the inherent weakness of American democracy. A Hillary Clinton victory, on the other hand, would force Beijing to deal with a politician widely viewed as unfriendly, and sometimes even hostile, to Chinese interests.
One might think that China would therefore welcome a Trump presidency. Yet conversations over the past six months with roughly half-a-dozen mid-ranking and high-ranking Chinese officials, as well as with sources afforded insight into the thinking of top Chinese policymakers, show that many in the Chinese political class grudgingly support Clinton — precisely because they believe a Trump presidency would be a disaster for the United States. Although on their face, many of Trump’s economic, political, and military policies would be far more beneficial to China than Clinton’s, the Chinese elite seem to prefer Trump’s opponent because they feel she would be better for the United States, its place in the world, and thus global stability, which remains of great importance to Beijing.
“While China’s elites scrupulously avoid taking public positions on internal affairs of other countries — especially U.S. politics — their incessant concern for stability, international as well as domestic, moves many to believe that Clinton, not Trump, would be better for China,” said a source familiar with Chinese leaders’ thinking, who asked to speak anonymously. And a source close to China’s leaders, who also asked to speak anonymously, said that although Beijing reaps huge public relations gains from Trump’s meteoric rise and what it says about the state of American democracy, “the perfect outcome is for [Trump] to lose narrowly.”
This would seem to run counter to China’s interests. Despite Trump’s inveterate China-bashing, many of his proposed policies could actually benefit China. His desire todismantleAmerica’s alliance structure in Asia would greatly improve Beijing’s military position with regards to its rival Japan. Unlike Clinton, who has vociferously criticized China’s human rights violations, Trump appeared to applaud Beijing’s 1989 slaughtering of student protestors in Tiananmen Square during a 1990 interview with Playboy. (In a March 2016 GOP debate, he said he wasn’t endorsing Beijing’s behavior, but proceeded to call the protests “a riot,” echoing language used by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.) And while Trump touts himself as a masterful deal-maker, Chinese bureaucrats — themselves known internationally for tough negotiating — seem to regard Clinton more seriously. “Clinton will be very tough on China,” a senior official complained, earlier this year. Yet when asked about Trump, the official failed to stifle a grin. “We can handle Trump,” the official said.
But for many of Beijing’s political elite, the risks and uncertainties of a Trump presidency outweigh the benefits. Even though China would gain tremendously if Trump weakened U.S. commitments and alliances in Asia, they mostly believe Clinton is ultimately better for China, the source familiar with Chinese leader’s thinking said.
Trump’s isolationism and his disregard for multilateral institutions would leave an international power vacuum that Beijing is not ready to fill. One influential Chinese academic, who asked to speak anonymously so he could talk freely about the election, told Foreign Policy that a Trump victory “would be a heavy blow against global governance and globalization,” two international trends that have benefited China immensely. The economic pain from a Trump presidency’s repudiation of global trade, and its mishandling of the U.S. economy, could further decelerate China’s already slowing economic growth, and by doing so, weaken the party’s hold on power.
Moreover, the party’s grip on power is never as strong as it appears from the outside. Many see President Xi Jinping as a serenely confident leader who has consolidated power via an anti-corruption drive, the appointment of himself to various “leading groups,” and the recent conferral of “core” leader status at a Party plenum. Yet there’s an element of fragility to Xi’s hold on power. China’s economy is dealing with worrying high levels of debt and, in some cities, real estate markets that many fear are bubbles. Official corruption, and discontent over elements of Party rule, still simmer throughout the country. A Trump victory could inject unwanted uncertainty and instability into China’s most important bilateral relationship.
To be sure, speculating about what China’s political class feels about the U.S. election — especially what the 24 men and one woman who make up China’s secretive ruling Politburo feel — is fraught. What Xi personally feels is even more difficult to glean. What’s clear, however, is the massive propaganda victory Beijing gains from the effect Trump has on American democracy’s image abroad. “They see this as what popular democracy brings,” said the source close to China’s leaders. “Le Pen in France, the rise of the far right in Germany, Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, and Trump — a bunch of nutcases.”
But the futures of China and the United States are too interconnected forSchadenfreude to dominate. “If I were America’s enemy, I would hope Trump is elected .. he will leave the U.S.’s domestic and foreign policies in disarray,” Ren Xiao, a former diplomat and a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai,toldthe journalist Vincent Ni. “But if I were America’s friend, I would think that Hillary would be a better president.” For Beijing’s political elite, friendship and cooperation — at least, the desire for predictability and stability — seems to outweigh whatever glee would greet the weakening of American interests.
What could possibly make a young Chinese person go all-in for the Republican nominee?
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.”
Originally by: Isaac Stone Fish, Source Oct. 21, 2016, The Atlantic
Ever since Deng Xiaoping launched his reforms in 1978, “openness” (对外开放) has been a central tenet of Chinese policy. While the actual degree of China’s openness has varied from time to time and sector to sector over the past 38 years, the trend toward greater liberalization of society, institutions, and the economy has been clear.
Until recently. The passage of China’s foreign NGO law raises doubts about Xi Jinping’s commitment to further opening and reform. The law, which places foreign NGO’s under the supervision of the Ministry of Public Security, is the latest in a series of regulations meant to control “hostile foreign forces.” Surveys indicate that foreign companies are concerned about tightening business regulations in China and wonder whether they are as welcome as they were in recent decades. International journalists and publishers, too, are finding it difficult to obtain visas and to reach Chinese audiences. Is China’s door closing to foreigners? Why are conditions changing for international actors in China? How should the United States respond?
Our panel discussed the future of American NGO’s, corporations, and media in Xi’s China.