In the world according to Donald J Trump, China’s leaders showed resolve in crushing the Tiananmen protests with rifles and tanks; Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is somebody else’s problem; and Hillary Clinton, who has spent two decades standing up to Beijing over forced abortions and the “shameless” persecution of feminists, is worthy of jail.
When Chinese human rights activists realised he was the new leader of the free world, they despaired.
“Trump symbolises the collapse of civilisation,” complained Woeser, a Tibetan blogger and campaigner.
“As the old Chinese saying goes, he favours ‘sweeping the snow from your own doorstep and not worrying about the frost on the roof of your neighbour’.”
China experts say Trump’s plans for what may be the world’s most important geopolitical relationship are an unknown unknown.
“All we have heard from Trump at this point is political rhetoric,” said Paul Haenle, a veteran US diplomat who served as the China director of the US National Security Council under George W Bush and Barack Obama.
“We don’t know who Trump’s advisers are. We don’t know who is going to be in his cabinet working on these issues. And I know the Chinese are trying to figure that out as well.”
But, as the dust settles on last week’s epochal political rupture, some are speculating that the reality TV star could be preparing an extreme makeover of US-China ties that would see the New York property mogul attempt to broker his most audacious ever deal with China’s authoritarian leaders.
Orville Schell, a revered China scholar who has been writing about the Asian country since the days of Mao Zedong, said that boded badly for human rights activists, who would be cast aside by the Trump administration as it sought to forge a new friendship with Beijing.
“These sort of people will be roadkill in the way of his big leader machinations to reformat things [with China] and prove his acumen as a powerful and catalytic deal-maker,” he predicted.
Schell, the director of the Centre on US-China Relations at New York’s Asia Society, said he believed that, despite Trump’s fondness for China-bashing, the incoming president might now embark on an astonishing overhaul of the Washington-Beijing relationship.
“This guy has just gotten in here and has literally pulled the whole edifice of Sino-US relations down,” said the academic, who is part of a 20-member taskforce that has been preparing to make recommendations on China policy to the new president. “It could recast things in a very interesting but unpredictable way.”
China’s leaders have offered a typically cautious public response to the tycoon’s stunning triumph.
“Facts have shown that cooperation is the only correct choice,” President Xi Jinping reportedly told the American mogul on Monday in their first telephone conversation, hailing what he called “important opportunities and the huge potential” for US-China relations.
But political observers believe Beijing will have immediately seen the silver lining of Trump’s victory.
Shen Dingli, the head of the Centre for American Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University, said the wheeler-dealer’s elevation to the White House meant a “more collaborative relationship” was now on the cards.
“In everything he is better than Clinton,” Shen said, before launching into a lengthy list of Trump’s perceived merits.
With Trump in the Oval Office Shen predicted grumbling about human rights would cease, US troops would be pulled out of Japan and South Korea, aircraft carriers withdrawn from the South China Sea and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – which Beijing regards as an attempt to muscle in on its backyard – scrapped.
“We want to positively work with him to build a stronger and greater America and a stronger and greater China,” Shen said. “We must welcome him.”
Schell said he suspected an even more torrid affair was now in the making.
Just as Trump has made overtures to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, so too would he seek to spice up US-China ties, breathing new life into a relationship that has grown frosty under Obama amid tensions over cyber-hacking, human rights and the South China Sea.
“It might actually quite astound us,” Schell said of the potentially seismic strategic shift he believes would be partly inspired by the recent detente between China and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.
Already, the two sides appear to be gearing up for such a reconciliation. Last week a foreign ministry spokesperson dismissed as “unfounded” claims that Trump had engaged in negative attacks on China during his campaign. On Monday state media quoted Trump as telling Xi he believed “the two leaders will have one of the strongest relationships for both countries moving forward” while the president-elect’s team said the pair had “established a clear sense of mutual respect”.
Step one of this unforeseen rapprochement might be a state visit to Beijing where Trump, unlike Obama during his recent trip to the G20, would receive the reddest of red carpet welcomes.
“He would be completely suggestible to the grandiose goosestepping soldiers, the parade, all the pomp and ceremony and ritual that the Chinese do so well,” Schell said.
The veteran Asia specialist saw Trump jetting into the Chinese capital determined to strike a deal with Xi, a strongman leader whose preeminence was reaffirmed last month when he became only the fourth Chinese leader to be declared “the core” of the Communist party.
“Trump’s modus operandi is big leader couture: ‘I’m the leader. I know what to do. Just let me do it.’ And I think here, actually, there is a great consonance with China and Xi Jinping,” Schell said.
“So we could be very surprised at how quickly things change; how old barriers that divided us in value terms and just the conventions of the way international affairs work are just ignored and the whole kaleidoscope changes into a very different picture.
“Look at the South China Sea. Look at the East China Sea. One could imagine Trump just saying: ‘Oh don’t worry about that stuff. If that is important to you, go ahead. Let’s just divide up the world here. If this is your core interest, go ahead. You work it out with your neighbours. But why don’t you give us X or Y?’
“Possibly he could trade off let’s say Korea for the South China Sea and the East China Sea. It is hard to know. But I think we are going to get into a flurry of very megalomaniacal efforts at deal-making.”
Such a scenario would be devastating to the US’ regional allies and liberal Americans alike. “All these quaint notions [of human rights, international law and loyalty to friends] could be abandoned in a heartbeat.”
But, paradoxically, Schell argued that it was possible there could be a “zinc lining” to the abrupt change in course.
The US political upheaval might pave the way for a dramatic and, in the long-term, healthy reboot for what has become an increasingly toxic rivalry that some fear could eventually lead to war between the world’s two greatest powers.
“Sometimes it takes a war to change the paradigm, sometimes it takes an economic collapse,” Schell said. “In this occasion we have had a kind of political implosion. And one should never discount the ability of such a tectonic orogeny to reformat how countries interact.”
Not all China specialists are convinced Trump’s rise will transform US-China relations.
Haenle, the head of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre in Beijing, played down the idea Beijing was hoping Trump would undergo either a Duterte-esque conversion or try to mimic Richard Nixon, who reestablished relations with his historic 1972 mission to meet Mao.
“I don’t think that they have any grand notions that he is a Nixon. I think they are just hoping that he will be practical and pragmatic in his approach with China … They don’t want somebody who is going to make dramatic changes.”
One of the only clues as to Trump’s blueprint for the region can be found in a Foreign Policy article published on the eve of his election by two policy advisers.
One is Peter Navarro, a notorious China hawk whose bibliography includes books called Death by China and The Coming China Wars.
Earlier this year Navarro told the Guardian action was needed against China’s “brutal, authoritarian communist government” and accused Beijing of unleashing “carnage” on the US economy with its “rapacious” trade policies and currency manipulation.
When dealing with Beijing, he warned, Trump would “speak softly but carry a big stick”.
This week’s Foreign Policy article continues in a similar vein. It accuses Obama of having “invited Chinese aggression” with his weak attempt to counterbalance Beijing’s regional influence and claims the outgoing president was guilty of “talking loudly but carrying a small stick”.
Trump would “steadfastly pursue a strategy of peace through strength” while ditching the economic heart of Obama’s “pivot” towards Asia, the TPP.
By rebuilding the US navy, which the authors describe as the “great source of regional stability in Asia”, Trump’s US would remain “guarantor of the liberal order in Asia”.
Chinese experts have gleefully latched on to Trump’s campaign threats to turn away from longstanding security pacts with its regional rivals Japan and South Korea.
Shen Dingli said he believed the US’ new leader would not only scrap the TPP but would “bring US forces in Japan and Korea home, rather than dispatching aircraft carriers to the South China Sea”.
Haenle, however, said the advisers’ article suggested the Chinese were misreading Trump’s willingness to retreat.
“One of the things they think is that Trump is going to draw inwards … which they obviously see as good for China. [But] I’m not sure he is going to withdraw from the region as they think about it. His advisers are writing about not just maintaining a US military presence but actually enhancing that military presence … The idea that we are going to pull back somehow from our alliance relationships – I don’t necessarily think that is going to be the case.”
Bill Bishop, another seasoned China watcher, said a significant recalibration of US-China ties had been likely no matter who had won the election because of a “building bipartisan backlash” against China on issues such as trade, cybersecurity, Beijing’s perceived lack of cooperation on North Korea and its island building spree in the South China Sea.
“But what is sort of scary is that, whereas under president Clinton we had a pretty good idea of what her policy would be, under Trump it’s sort of like Pekingology, trying to read the tea leaves. Trump has said so many different things it is hard to know what is really going to happen.”
Bishop said he was skeptical that Trump and Xi would strike “a broader grand US-China bargain”.
“But, at the same time, I certainly hope that we do everything we have to avoid actually creating conflict with the People’s Republic of China,” he said.
“That risk is not small and if the US gets more aggressive in its operations in the East China Sea and the South China or brings the Taiwan issue back into the equation [then] the risks of conflict … are higher than they have been in a very long time.”
Schell said he sensed US-China relations were on the verge of a new era but accepted the approach of his country’s new commander-in-chief was “completely mysterious and very difficult to predict”.
“For all we know Trump could show up in Pyongyang with Kim Jong-un saying, ‘Let’s make a deal’.”
First, though, he would take his “Celebrity Apprentice mentality” on board Air Force One for direct flights to Moscow and Beijing.
“He wants to go to the biggest, brassiest leaders of the world and that is, of course, China and Putin. He wants to swagger into these countries and show that his acumen is not policy, its not experience, it is, ‘Let’s make a deal’. That is what he has got going for him, that is what he prides himself on and I think that is what he is going to do.”
“Trump has this grandiose notion of his ability to make a deal. And his deals don’t normally trifle with such things as human rights [or] American values.”
For China’s embattled community of activists, already reeling from what some describe as the worst crackdown since Tiananmen, their likely abandonment is a major blow.
“I cannot accept the result,” said Li Maizi, a prominent feminist who received Clinton’s support when she was hauled into detention last year during a police crackdown.
That powerful ally has now gone, vanquished by a populist insurgent whose threat to throw his presidential opponent in jail owed more to Mao’s Cultural Revolution than James Madison’s bill of rights.
“I cannot believe my eyes,” added Li. “I never could have imagined this kind of person could become president.”
Additional reporting by Christy Yao
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