Why the Chinese Are Laughing at the United States

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds up a mask of himself as he speaks during a campaign rally in Sarasota, Florida, on November 7. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

In June 1989, Chinese students and laborers by the thousands occupied Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the central square in the capital city of the most populous nation in the world. A giant portrait of Mao Zedong glowered at them from across the street. There was an ineffable sense back then that history was in the air everywhere—that powerful forces were moving across the world, and that they were moving in the right direction.

Mikhail Gorbachev had by then come to power in the Soviet Union, and in the summer of 1989 he would allow Moscow's client states in Eastern Europe to go their own way politically: toward democracy. That's what the students in Tiananmen wanted too. Gorbachev had visited Beijing in mid-May amid the tumult, when it was legitimate to wonder whether the Communists in China were long for the world. By the time he visited, the demonstrators in the square had erected what would become one of the iconic images from that time: a replica of the Statue of Liberty known as "Goddess of Liberty." It stood tall throughout the demonstrations until June 4, when the troops moved in, killing thousands and destroying the statue.

Obviously, the United States and what it represented mattered to those students and workers in those days, as well as to the untold millions who supported what was happening in the square. The students risked their lives erecting that statue, because nearly 30 years ago the U.S. stood for something many in that country wanted.

Protesters carry a replica of the "Goddess of Democracy" statue during a demonstration in Hong Kong on May 29, 2011. The replica was inspired by the original statue created by students during the Tiananmen Square movement in China, which was in turn loosely modeled after the Statue of Liberty. Tyrone Siu/Reuters

The reason I'm writing this, on the eve of the 2016 presidential election, is also obvious—and dispiriting. I have lived in China as a foreign correspondent for more than a decade, and following the Chinese reaction to the display unfolding across the Pacific has been bracing. On social media—and in endless discussions with friends and colleagues of both mine and my wife's (she's a Shanghai native)—this is what's fair to say: Far from wanting to emulate us, many Chinese are now laughing at us. And they are laughing for obvious reasons.

Start with Donald Trump. For a long time, the Chinese reacted to his candidacy by basically ignoring it or considering it a sideshow, because they never thought it was a serious proposition. This reaction was similar to that of many political journalists in the U.S. The difference is this: The U.S. press wrote about him—and did constant interviews with him on television—as he rose and rose and rose. In China, they couldn't believe we were covering him at all.

Most, of course, had never heard of him. Those who had heard of him viewed him as a blustering businessman and television star, and the collective dismissal of him was replaced with sheer disbelief as his candidacy gained steam. "What are you people doing?" a longtime friend asked me.

Because I've known about Trump a long time, I would try to explain his appeal in the context of current times—why his bombastic political incorrectness, indeed his occasional in-your-face boorishness, was precisely what a segment of the population wanted from its candidate. What no one seemed to understand was just how large a segment that was. I'd get three-quarters of the way through this riff and realize all I was getting was blank or quizzical stares.

Then, once Trump won the nomination, came the laughter. The "Are you guys kidding me?" laughter. Throughout Trump's campaign, Luo Jinyu, the young editor of an online magazine in Guangzhou—one of the most developed and prosperous cities in China—has peppered me with questions about Trump. They all ultimately led to her asking: Does he really have a chance? I could almost hear her brain cells trying to wrap themselves around the fact that the answer was always: Well, yes, he has a chance.

Once I got them to the "Donald has a chance" phase, many friends in China then drew the logical conclusion: "Well, that must mean Hillary is really weak," as Jinyu says.

Yes, I'd respond, that would be correct.

Most Chinese, and Chinese businesspeople in particular, are nothing if not pragmatic. To the extent they pay attention to the U.S. election at all (and for the most part only those who sell to the U.S. do), they are simply trying to figure out who would be best for them. The impression Hillary Clinton has made during her years racking up frequent flyer miles as secretary of state, and now as a presidential candidate, is that she says anything at any time to advance whatever cause serves her at the moment. They believe she represents more or less the status quo when it comes to trade flows and that she told the truth in her private speeches ("open trade and open borders"), and that's what they want. So she's OK by them.

Beyond that, Chinese people see Clinton as someone who has used her connections—in her case, her "marriage"—to advance her political career and fatten her bank account. In other words, a longtime friend in Beijing joked to me recently, "she's just like our political leaders."

I asked Jinyu recently whether, as well as laughing at us, her Chinese friends "looked down" on the U.S. because of this preposterous campaign. "Yes," she responded, "most do."

But, she added, "I don't. We don't have democracy, [and thus] we are not qualified to mock the U.S." Some comfort, at least, on election eve; at least we have a choice.

Such as it is.