Trump Transition

The incredible secret weapon Trump brings to US-China relations (and why matters)

Trump transition spokesman Jason Miller sounds off on 'Fox & Friends'

 

Several U.S. media outlets have picked up on the story of Donald Trump’s rising popularity in China – one of the countries that he represented most negatively during his presidential campaign.

Since doing political opinion polls in China is not a viable option, most reporters interested in what the Chinese people might think about a given topic tend to rely on the country’s vibrant social media, especially the Weibo platform, which is like a mixture of Twitter and Facebook and circulates millions of short messages and images per day.

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Weibo is censored by the Chinese government, for sure, but research has shown that frank opinions about political leaders can be freely expressed on these microblogs, as long as they do not go accompanied by calls for public action. Frank opinions about foreign government leaders are even less censored, so social media trends in China can be a pretty good indicator of what educated Chinese urbanites (the majority of Weibo users) think about Donald Trump.

China is pursuing what is called a “soft power” policy, using initiatives in the teaching of Chinese language and culture to non-Chinese people as a mechanism to foster a deeper understanding of what motivates the country, its people, and especially its leaders, in the hope of eventually presenting a perspective on the world that is persuasive enough to cast doubt on the dominant model of capitalist democracy.

Well, it would seem that many of them love him, at least if we judge by the fact that a video in which his granddaughter Arabella Kushner recites a Chinese poem has gone viral.

The video was recorded in February 2016, around the time of the Chinese New Year, and put on Instagram by Arabella’s mother Ivanka Trump. It drew attention in China back in February but has gone viral in China since Donald Trump won the November 8 election.

Five-year-old Arabella has not lived in China but has apparently been learning Chinese with a Chinese nanny. In the short video, we see and hear Arabella reciting the poem “Sympathy for the Peasants,” as well as the first two lines of the poem “Ode to the Geese.” Both are perennial favorites written during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) and continue to be routinely memorized by schoolchildren across China.

“Sympathy for the Peasants” is also popular for ideological reasons, because its theme (hardship among workers in the countryside) can be put to good use in education about the common people’s suffering in China in “feudal” times – from which the people were of course liberated by the Communist Party.

Tang-dynasty poetry is viewed by Chinese people as one of its culture’s highest achievements, if not the highest. It would be unthinkable for any public figure, including political leaders, not to be able to recite at least some of the most canonical Tang poems and to refer to them in speeches and in conversation.

Those same Chinese political leaders, when visiting Western countries, have in recent years been prone to comment on the fact that westerners know so little about Chinese culture.

When former Premier Wen Jiabao visited the U.K. in 2011, he spoke about his love of Shakespeare, as well as his disappointed that none of his Western counterparts were familiar with any of the literary giants of his own country.

Wen was quoted at the time as saying: “Only those political leaders who respect the history of other countries and the creativity of the people of other countries will be able to lay a foundation for fostering friendship with other countries.”

China is pursuing what is called a “soft power” policy, using initiatives in the teaching of Chinese language and culture to non-Chinese people as a mechanism to foster a deeper understanding of what motivates the country, its people, and especially its leaders, in the hope of eventually presenting a perspective on the world that is persuasive enough to cast doubt on the dominant model of capitalist democracy.

Boosting the status of Mandarin as a global language, like English, is part and parcel of that initiative, and what better way of illustrating this than having the granddaughter of the  president-elect reciting Tang poetry with a very good pronunciation.

Amidst all the hard-headed posturing towards China as trade enemy and “currency manipulator,” the surprising popularity of this video, and its message of respect for China’s cultural achievements, may well signal an opening in U.S.-China relations that few will have expected but that is not to be underestimated.

Michel Hockx is a professor of Chinese Literature and Director of the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies in Notre Dame's new Keough School of Global Affairs. He is a specialist in Chinese poetry and an experienced observer and analyst of China's soft power initiatives.