How has China reacted to the Trump-Tsai phone call?

Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party leader Tsai Ing-wen called US president-elect Donald Trump last Friday

The protocol-bending phone call between US president-elect Donald Trump and Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen on last Friday has caught the two powers across the Pacific off guard and put Sino-US relation experts on edge. While Beijing’s response appears to be fairly self-possessed over this supposedly provoking episode and tries to play it down, China’s social media are flooded by strikingly divided stances on Trump’s move.

US president-elect Donald Trump

The dispute between mainland China and Taiwan has long been regarded as the most politically sensitive issues underlying the thin ice upon which the Sino-US relations tread. When taking the phone call from Taiwan leader Tsai, Trump has apparently attempted to shake the “One China” consensus that has buttressed the diplomatic relations between China and US for decades, which was then followed by his complaint about people’s “overreaction” where he called Tsai Ing-wen “Taiwan President”, and his bashing China’s currency devaluation and complex-building in the South China Sea on Twitter. The president-elect’s capricious disregard of diplomatic niceties with the US’s most powerful friend and rival during the transition period is, absolutely confusing.

Donald Trump’s Twitter posts about the phone call

However, alarming as it may seem, the diplomatic episode has not elicited a furious impeachment from Beijing other than a soft-pedalling statement. Chinese authority frowns upon the “inexperience” that Trump has demonstrated on foreign policy. “For Trump, it exposed nothing but his and his transition team’s inexperience in dealing with foreign affairs,” writes China Daily, Trumps’ move is “striking” but does not “bear the same importance as it seems to be”. The article continues to rail against Tsai Ing-wen, saying that the call “achieves nothing substantial, only pride in making what is an illusionary ‘groundbreaking move’, and temporarily diverting public attention on the island away from her bad performance”. Another state-run newspaper Global Times calls Trump a “fickle and unpredictable” leader who has no actual plan to overthrow America’s international relationships but tries to make waves for some “bargaining chips” with China, saying that the president-elect is “unaware of the repercussions of shaking up Sino-U.S. relations”.

Instead, Beijing diverts its target to Taiwan’s “small trick”, criticising its over-interpretation of the call to stir up tension. Observers on Taiwan-mainland issues speculate that some form of punishment on Taiwan may be imposed by mainland China.

Ever since Trump was elected to be US president, Beijing has been cautiously reticent about its attitude towards the Trump presidency. On one hand, China is uncertain about what cards this unorthodox president would play behind all of his bluffing; on the other hand, China does not attempt any high-profile conflicts with the US during the presidency transition period, or the “hinge moment between China and the US”, described in the recent meeting between China’s president Xi Jinping and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Chinese government has veiled its warning in its well-measured response to this seemingly shocking diplomatic incident.

A stronger ripple fomented by this unsettling phone call is seen in China’s social media where Chinese internet users debate about their divided perceptions of Trump. A survey conducted by Chinese internet forum “Tianya” recently shows that 85.63% of Chinese internet users hold neutral opinions to Trump, with 8.75% of the other “positive” and only 3.13% negative. “Trump”, “Taiwan”, “China”, “Twitter”, “President” are the most frequent words on Chinese social media.

Chinese internet users’ attitudes towards Donald Trump: 85.63% neutral, 8.75% positive, 3.13% negative, 2.50% alarmed

“Trump”, “Taiwan”, “China”, “Twitter”, “President” are the most frequent words on Chinese social media

It is not a secret that Trump’s unconventionally outspoken image has won a legion of Chinese supporters. Surprisingly, these supporters say that they found Trump even more “adorable” after this phone call incident and he played the Taiwan card cleverly, implying that they are little concerned about the potential political risks of the phone call.

WeChat user @Robert comments under a relevant post, “I think Trump is quite adorable. His being elected to be president shows that Americans are tired of the hypocrisy of politicians. Trump says and does everything so candidly, which makes him a reliable leader. Whether Trump can make America greater is yet to be validated by his national policies and political achievements. Though he needs to be more careful about his personal speech as he now represents the whole country, it is only a trivial part compared to what his presidency will actually bring to America.” Under the same post, another WeChat user writes that Trump is “neither stupid nor crazy”, but “like a naughty kid” who wants to draw attention, “he wants to makes fun of hypocrisy of the White House… He just wants to test the water. I don’t believe that a seventy-something man with a wealth of fortune and life experience would be this naive.” “There must be some reasons that Trump can be the president. Just have fun with that, but, anyway, NEVER underestimate him!” Says WeChat user @Haibiandezhongtian.

@HasakeFacingtheSun writes on Chinese microblog Weibo, “he’s someone who’s willing to make sacrifices for his country and this deserves respect and is part of his personal charisma. Of course we still know he’s the president of the US, the leader of the arch-enemy, and we still bash him when needed.”

The article was originally published on China Info 24 on December 5, 2016.

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