Opinion | Why Do Chinese Liberals Embrace American Conservatives?

For months, some of China’s best-known dissidents have served up a striking anomaly: While pushing for democracy and free speech at home, they have supported the re-election of Donald Trump, a president who has disdained democratic norms in the United States, sometimes even mimicking China’s leaders, for example by calling for political opponents to be locked up.

Now that Joe Biden has defeated Mr. Trump, this paradox might seem to be of interest only to historians of Chinese thought. In fact, these Chinese liberal thinkers offer a stark warning about the potential direction of U.S. foreign policy and, more so still, the pitfalls facing American society.

Many Chinese liberals have expressed enthusiasm for Mr. Trump for so demonstrably ignoring the conventional wisdom of diplomatic engagement with China, in particular the claims that more trade would soften China’s authoritarian politics and that it is better to talk quietly behind closed doors than openly confront China over any disagreements.

In some ways this position can be chalked up to the adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”: For some Chinese liberals, Mr. Trump’s strident opposition to the Chinese Communist Party automatically made him seem like an ally.

Now these thinkers and activists are worried because President-elect Biden was at the center of the old U.S. foreign policy establishment for decades. As vice president, for example, Mr. Biden met President Xi Jinping of China on numerous occasions in the hope that what Mr. Biden calls “strategic empathy” could win Mr. Xi’s support for U.S. positions — but the tactic failed to curb China’s growing ambitions in Asia.

People like the Hong Kong-based media tycoon Jimmy Lai think a return of the Washington consensus would be a mistake. A fervent supporter of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, Mr. Lai is also a staunch Trump supporter.

“Biden will try to make progress through trade-offs, but that hasn’t worked in the past,” Mr. Lai told me by phone recently. “Trump has succeeded by playing hardball.”

Mr. Lai pointed out, for example, that Mr. Trump had dramatically increased weapons sales to Taiwan, a self-governing island off China’s coast that China claims as its own, a move that could help deter an attack from the mainland. Past U.S. administrations had tiptoed around weapons sales for fear of angering Beijing, arguably weakening Taiwan’s defenses in the process.

Yet these diplomatic issues are secondary to what really interests many Chinese liberal intellectuals: the American culture wars, in which some see a reflection of the debates about the limits of free speech in China. Given how robust public discussion is in the United States, the comparison may seem overdrawn. But it speaks to the intensity with which many Chinese thinkers want Western liberal democracies to remain free.

The issue of political correctness in particular fascinates them, with many seeing in it uncomfortable echoes of their own experiences in a society where speech is severely constrained. They perceive Mr. Trump as embodying the sort of no-filter approach to free speech that they dream of, while viewing American liberalism as having strayed from its core values.

Sun Liping, a leading Chinese sociologist, argued in an essay published last year on WeChat that while political correctness in America began as a way to avoid insulting people and to promote equality, it has helped turn a set of debatable beliefs into an edifice of near dogmas — that immigration, free trade and globalization are unquestionably good; that minorities are almost all victims; that major countries are responsible for setting the world right. Nowadays, Mr. Sun wrote, political correctness is “a burden, a kind of shackle America has placed on itself, a kind of self-inflicted bondage.”

Referring to the end of rigid Maoist ideology in the late 1970s, Mr. Sun added that “Trump’s attack on political correctness has a similar significance to the attack on the rigid dogma of the past carried out by the campaign to liberate thought at the beginning of reform and opening period.”

Mr. Trump’s defeat in this month’s election has not lessened support from these Chinese liberals. The Tsinghua University sociologist Guo Yuhua recently retweeted a Trump tweet that predicted, “we will win,” adding emojis of a clenched fist and two hands pressed together in thanks. Ms. Guo, a strong advocate for impoverished farmers and detained academics in China, praises Mr. Trump as a realist who didn’t follow the “utopian” policies popular among some on the American left, such as income redistribution.

A handful of Chinese liberals disagree that Mr. Trump is a fitting symbol for liberal beliefs. One is the historian Xu Jilin, who in a recent WeChat post called Mr. Trump’s election in 2016 one of the four major examples of the rise of destructive populism over the past century.

Another skeptic is the Peking University law professor Zhang Qianfan, who chides Chinese liberals for being so enamored of free-market thinkers like Friedrich Hayek that they mistakenly believe any right-wing U.S. politician is a defender of freedom.

“This misunderstanding will not only cost us allies in the fight against totalitarianism, but has already created a confusion of values within the world of Chinese liberals, and may even change the very meaning of ‘liberalism,’” Mr. Zhang wrote in a blog post last month, which was translated by the University of Montreal professor David Ownby on his “Reading the China Dream” website.

“If Chinese ‘liberalism’ is opposed to equality, to ‘one man, one vote,’ to the separation of church and state and secularism, and to at least some freedoms (such as gay marriage) for religious reasons, and if they advocate a particular religious belief as a kind of national orthodoxy, then what’s left of liberalism?” he added, referring to Chinese liberals.

One answer is provided by the political scientist Yao Lin in an article for The Journal of Contemporary China earlier this year. Mr. Lin wrote that many Chinese liberal intellectuals are victims of what he calls “beaconism”: an idolization of the United States that treats ideas from there as a guiding light to follow. One effect, Mr. Lin warned, is that even as these thinkers fight for human rights, they also reflect colonialist, racist attitudes.

Some Chinese liberals sympathized with Mr. Trump’s 2017 policy to stop Muslims from certain countries from entering the United States. In a 2018 discussion about Edmund Burke that appeared in the magazine Open Times, the Chinese constitutional scholar Gao Quanxi justified the immigration ban by arguing that it was meant to defend “the uniqueness of the American people” and oppose “the weakening of American society due to unrestrained pluralism.”

Mr. Biden’s presidency is unlikely to dampen many Chinese liberals’ support for American conservatism.

Many criticize left-leaning U.S. politicians such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Retweeting a video mash of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez speaking with rhetorical flourishes, Ms. Guo commented, “it seems we’ve seen something like this before in China.” She was alluding to the Cultural Revolution.

These fierce debates among scholars point to China’s febrile intellectual landscape. They also suggest that it may be easier for Washington to calibrate a new foreign policy toward Beijing than to engage with the people the Biden administration wants to help the most: China’s dissidents and liberal intellectuals.

Ian Johnson, a 2020-21 grantee of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Public Scholars program, is the author, most recently, of “The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao.” @iandenisjohnson

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