Written by: Wenzhe Teng
During his term, the former United States president Donald J. Trump demonstrated continuous hostility towards China and the Chinese communist government. On the 2016 campaign trail, Trump criticized China for “stealing” US jobs and promised to wage a trade war against China which he put into practice in 2018. Additionally, he closed the Chinese embassy in Houston and implemented sanctions on Chinese companies, such as Huawei and TikTok. Beyond economics and politics, Trump also offended the Chinese with bogus racist terms like the “China virus” and “Kung Flu”. Nonetheless, despite Trump’s numerous inimical policies and behaviors against China, Trump was a popular celebrity on Chinese social media. While mockery of Trump existed, Chinese social media users or “netizens” actually gave Trump fawning nicknames, and some even idolized him. As a cultural phenomenon, Trump’s popularity among Chinese netizens reflected their perception of the US-China relationship.
While US presidents were able to attract attention and become internet celebrities due to their status as the leader of the current global superpower, Trump’s personality played a decisive role in contributing to his popularity in China. He was a straight talker who only used simple language. While Trump was originally hated by the political American establishment for his indecency and incivility, his directness was welcomed among both common American and Chinese, who viewed traditional politician’s rhetoric as hypocritical. Trump was also one of the few politicians who dared to challenge the mainstream media like CNN and New York Times, represented by his infamous punchline “Fake News.” Chinese netizens adopted the term without even translating it to Chinese. Additionally, Trump’s constant tweeting made him much more influential online, since internet users worldwide have more direct and abundant access to Trump without traditional media organizations acting as intermediaries. Tuite Zhiguo, meaning “Twitter presidency,” was thus created, and it was an accurate nickname for the Trump administration. Moreover, Trump was a gaffe machine and a political amateur, so he had numerous boulders throughout his presidency. Some nicknames that came from his scandals included “Bunker Boy” and “Bleach Drinker.” The most iconic nickname of Trump’s character was Dongwang, the “King of Omniscience.” This nickname captured Trump’s overconfidence, in which he claimed “nobody knows more than I do” regarding almost every aspect of the world. In fact, “King of Omniscience” was so popular, Chinese netizens were eager to continue this tradition, and named Biden “King of Sleep” after Trump’s “Sleepy Joe” nickname for Biden.
The celebrity status of the US presidency and Trump’s personality contributed to the previously mentioned nicknames, which were relatively apolitical. Nonetheless, Chinese netizens also created politically motivated nicknames for Trump.
Since the 1978 economic reform, China has had consistent and rapid economic development. During the same period, the country became more powerful, both in terms of military and global influence. Although US presidents in the last decade all acted to stop China’s rise, such as Obama’s TPP proposal and Trump’s Trade War, their policies have not yielded clear success for the US. Consequently, the Chinese public holds strong confidence in their country, and many believe that China is on its way to becoming the next global superpower. The internet users in China may not be perfectly representative of the Chinese population, but the nicknames for US presidents online do reflect this highly optimistic vision Chinese netizens have for China.
Obama’s nickname was “Guanhai.” It came from a gift exchange in 2009 between one Chinese general and Obama, in which the general gave Obama a calligraphy work with four Chinese characters “Guanhai Tingtao.” These four characters together mean watching the ocean and listening to the wave, and this combination is very poetic in Chinese. Coincidentally, the chairman of China in 2009 was Hu Jintao, whose name included the character “tao” meaning wave. The Chinese netizens saw this coincidence and gave “Guanhai Tingtao” a different interpretation. In their theory, Obama was a Chinese asset in the US government, and his codename is “Guanhai”, so “Guanhai Tingtao” became “Guanhai” (Obama) to listen to the wave (Chairman Hu Jintao). While the clever pun and funny coincidence made “Guanhai” a popular nickname for Obama in the Chinese internet community, it would not be widely used if people do not find Obama’s identity as a Chinese spy acceptable.
Similar to Obama’s “Guanhai,” Trump also got a nickname “Jianguo” with the same assumption. “Jianguo” means building a nation in Chinese, and it was a common name used by the old generation of Chinese people during Chairman Mao’s reign. By naming Trump “Jianguo”, the Chinese netizens indicated both Trump’s identity as a Chinese asset and his role in building a strong China. Furthermore, Trump’s iconic red tie resembled the red scarf worn by the communist young pioneers, so the term “comrade” was added in front of “Jianguo”, making Trump the honorary “Comrade Jianguo”. Surprisingly, innovative Chinese netizens were not the only ones thinking that Trump was doing China’s bidding, a New York Times opinion post referred to the netizen’s usage of “Comrade Jianguo” to criticize Trump’s policy towards China as weak, without ever mentioning Obama’s similar nickname.
Even before the 2020 United States presidential election, Chinese netizens remained eager to express their optimism in China’s future. Joe Biden was therefore called “Zhenhua,” which meant vitalizing China. Ironically, like the Chinese netizens, Trump also viewed Biden as a puppet of China, calling him Beijing Joe constantly in his speech and tweets.
While “Comrade Jianguo” was wishful thinking of the overconfident Chinese netizens, the fact that anti-China politician Donald Trump was idolized required further examination. The theory of this article was that Trump’s nationalist identity boosted his popularity among Chinese internet users. The rise of nationalism did not only happen in the US in the form of Trump’s inauguration; it also occurred in China. The internet was especially an important tool for nationalists to spread and recruit in China. With a significant amount of Chinese netizens being nationalists, the popularity of a nationalist Trump can be explained. If Trump committed blunders, the Chinese nationalists would praise “Comrade Jianguo” as an effective asset, as the decline of the US would pave the way for China’s rise. Trump’s disastrous COVID response was one of these examples, as he received praise from the nationalists in China, who seemed to be apathetic for the American lives lost during the pandemic. However, if Trump implemented a hostile policy against China, the internet nationalists would also praise Trump. Instead of calling Trump a Chinese asset, they considered Trump’s action as an American patriot doing his duty, and they would do the same if they were in Trump’s position, because Chinese nationalists believed that China was indeed the biggest threat to the US in terms of being the next global superpower. Chinese nationalists viewed Trump as an ideological ally, so they would justify Trump’s action.
Besides the nationalists, pro-West Chinese liberals on the internet also viewed Trump positively. They might not like the nickname “Comrade Jianguo,” but they did appreciate Trump’s criticism of the Chinese government. For the liberals, Trump was also an ideological ally. With the emphasis being in opposition to the authoritarian Chinese government, the liberals in China would easily overlook the numerous issues western liberals had on Trump.
In conclusion, Trump’s status and personality were essential in shaping his image, but the Chinese netizen’s nationalism and liberal ideals also played an important role. Trump’s nickname and his popularity on the Chinese internet was a cultural phenomenon worthy of exploring since it reflected the Chinese public’s perception of American politics.