by Jane Tang
My coverage of the U.S. presidential campaign began in April of last year, when Hillary R. Clinton announced she was running.
My first assignment from my Chinese editors was to focus on corruption in American politics, but over time I became more and more enthralled in the process as a whole.
Let me just start by giving you a bit of background on myself, and how I ended up here in Washington.
Like many of you, for me college is a time of not just personal exploration, but also political awakening.
In my homeland of Taiwan, I became very dove into the electoral and democratic process and became a regular online poster and commentator on politics, social issues, so it was a natural transition into journalism. I was offered a position at Caixin, one of the most prestigious publications in China, back in 2009.
When the chance to come to the U.S. popped up in 2012—covering political and economic news affecting the Asia Pacific region–I jumped at the opportunity.
After a couple years, Sina managed to lure me away from Caixin, in large part due to the influence and reach they have in the Chinese market. Sina is one of the largest online presences in the world, with a global Alexa rank of 13, and over 100 million daily page views. They also control Weibo, basically Chinese Twitter, with over 200 million users. This may seem like a crazy amount, but China’s explosive growth favored greater success for fewer companies, meaning much less variety for readers.
My editors and I did not approach the 2016 election cycle the same way American reporters or even European reporters did.
Rather than focusing on the traditional narrative, we wanted to dig deeper into the American public’s view of the process. Why people are angry? Why was there such a strong grassroots movement for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I.-Vt.)?
In some ways, most Asian media is the same as the American media in this regard. There is a huge focus on the two-party power players, but rarely do they dig below the surface. Some of this similarity might be because many Chinese reporters in the United States did little more than roughly translate Western media articles.
I wanted to help break this mold, write American story through an Chinese journalist eyes and perspective, and from what I learned and experienced in this cycle, both in China and the U.S. gives me a lot of hope for the future.
One critical development since the 2012 election cycle is an explosion in the amount of content being put out there by non-traditional sources on overlooked topics. We see it on Weibo, Twitter, Wechat and blogging platforms. More and more citizens, from both countries, are becoming involved and sharing their views with the rest of the electorate.
For example, we’ve seen a ton of Chinese students in America documenting their experiences through social media and live-streaming. The Chinese public now has a lot more options on where to get their content.
This has inspired us at Sina to focus on more of this non-traditional news. I spend as much time engaging on social media and live-streaming events as I do relaying breaking news to our Beijing-based editors. We’ve put a lot more time into making short documentaries. These are the kinds of things we’ve been focusing on when covering the 2016 election.
My experiences with the election this time around have been as varied as the ways I try to report them.
For example, there has been a huge difference in emotions on display at the different rallies and conventions I covered.
Clinton’s campaign is very organized and composed. I was lucky enough to be the first Chinese journalist to tour the Hillary HQ in Brooklyn, New York, by reaching out to their field organizer and then their Asian-American Political Interactions director.
The headquarters was lively and welcoming and in private chats, the campaign staffers were passionate and kind. However, Hillary and DNC reps are bound and determined to stick to the script in interviews, which often makes them seem stiff or boring. They never really fire off-the-cuff, which is obviously the polar opposite of Donald J. Trump’s rhetorical style and the culture of his campaign.
A Bernie Sanders town hall I attended had an even friendlier feel. There were no strict entry procedures or confrontations among the mostly very young crowd. Everyone was welcome, and sincerely discussed topics affecting their communities. I was thrilled by one of his campaign staff by greeting me by name. A congenial feeling permeated the event.
To be completely honest, what I experienced at Trump’s February rally at Radford University, in Radford, Virginia a small town in rural southern Virginia a four-or-five hour drive from Washington. The rally was much more uncomfortable than anything I experienced with the Clinton or Sanders campaign.
If I had to pick a word to describe it, it would be contentious. All foreign media were denied access at the door, and were stuck covering the clash between protestors and supporters outside. I would guess that 99 percent of the Trump supporters were white and people were constantly being kicked out as supporters chanted: “Build the Wall! Build the Wall! Build the Wall!”
It was absolute chaos.
After the Radford University event, I decided I wanted to know more about any minority groups, especially Chinese, which may be supporting Trump. I thought they would be extremely rare, but after asking for some help from relatives in New York, I managed to discover the Chinese Americans for Trump group. By participating very early on in the formation of the group, I was able to gain their trust and get them to open up about their motivations. Operating mostly on WeChat, and in Chinese, they are largely first generation immigrants, many with green cards earned through real estate investment. As time went on and they gained more exposure, however, they became far more elitist and controlling in how they dealt with the media. I started to see why they were supporting Trump.
After everything I had seen, I did not know exactly what to expect going into the Republican National Committee in Cleveland, Ohio, but I had a feeling it would be The Trump Show.
I was not wrong. Yet, I was surprised that in speaking to Republicans there, I got the distinct feeling that they were only supporting him because they felt they had to. You know all about the various controversies from the event, but these conversations with everyday Republicans were what really hit home the most for me.
At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, I was of course expecting The Hillary Show. I was surprised to discover that a very high percentage were there for The Bernie Show. Walking around, seeking out brief interviews, it was actually difficult to locate Hillary supporters. This Bernie v. Hillary battle made for a much more chaotic convention than I expected.
Despite all this, there is a large contrast in how the Chinese public sees these candidates. They know of Clinton’s experience as Secretary of State and her strong stances on South China Sea policy and human rights. Whenever there’s something like a Weibo poll, there’s always a very negative impression of her.
Trump, on the other hand, is actually quite popular.
People know him as a successful businessman. In Chinese culture, there is a strong respect for those who achieve success in business, especially in things like real estate. And while he is not exactly a self-made man, many Chinese see him that way. They also think he’s fun to watch.
Sadly, the biggest selling point for Trump among the Chinese is the chaos he brought to this election. State media has compared the rise of Trump to that of Hitler or Mussolini, emphasizing the dangers of democracy, and many members of the public enjoy seeing the American electoral process as a joke.
I am aware that what you’ve heard from me so far makes me sound decidedly anti-Trump, but I still believe I’m neutral.
There are strengths and weaknesses to all the candidates, but it’s difficult for me to ignore the negativity that’s come from Trump’s rhetoric. In my opinion, it is a huge over simplification.
Losing jobs? China’s fault. Factories are closing? China’s fault. These are complex, global issues with many trends and forces at play, so it is not helpful to talk about these things in such basic and binary terms. China and the U.S. do not exist in a vacuum—yet, one of the negative by-products of Trump’s rhetorical is to definitely stifle improvements in Sino-U.S. Relations, as Americans rely more and more on such simplistic narratives.
People always ask me about what drives Chinese interest in this U.S. election and what ways they differ from Americans on some of the key issues.
Economically and geopolitical, the Chinese are obviously very interested in news that concerns them specifically. One such example would be changes within the American economy or economic policy. Any events that change the dynamic between the two greatest superpowers are going to be of utmost importance to the Chinese. A couple examples would be South China Sea, the Trans Pacific Partnership, and accusations of Russian hacking into the email server of the Democratic National Committee.
Through the TPP, American allies are looking to strengthen American engagement in the region in order to stifle the growth of Chinese influence. The result of the TPP negotiation will directly affect the Asia Pacific power dynamic, so this is a key issue for Chinese readers.
The Russian DNC hacking accusations are also important to the Chinese, and not just because of a sort of solidarity with Russia in being a constant scapegoat for U.S. cyber security blunders.
The American reaction, specifically Clinton’s, to this event is what concerns them most. Clinton stated that the U.S. would “treat cyber-attacks just like any other attack,” threatening “political, economic, and military responses.” The Chinese view this is an immature and dangerous response, as do many Americans it seems. Obama’s cyber security policy, on the other hand, stresses deterrence and proportional response. This is certainly a contributing factor in the Chinese being much more favorable towards Obama than Clinton.
Now, equally as notable are social dynamic issues, of huge importance in America, which the Chinese just don’t seem to care much about. Things like racism or rhetoric against Muslim communities just are not seen as important. The idea of “racism” is a tricky one for the Chinese, as it can be with other non-melting-pot countries.
Countries like China and Japan have been described as being fairly xenophobic. While xenophobia does not necessarily mean physical characteristics, the demographics of places like China are mostly uniform. There may be large cultural differences across China’s different regions, but physically, they look mostly the same. So for the Chinese, especially those outside Tier-1 cities with large international presences, the idea of racism being a core issue is completely foreign.
Discrimination against Muslims is a touchier subject in China than general racism. While racism might be seen as a non-issue, the Muslim issue is a sensitive one. There are ongoing tensions between China and their Xinjiang Autonomous Region, home to many Chinese ethnic minorities, many which are Muslim. The government’s treatment of these peoples, for example, outlawing two dozen names that they considered “too Muslim,” or prohibiting men from having beards, would suggest that most Chinese would not really be fazed by Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Last, let me just talk a little bit about the media’s role in this election process.
Many people have asked how we decide or sense what the interests of the Chinese public are. Back in 2012, I would have said that we did not have the sophistication we have now. We did not really look to poll the public on what they would want to see and read. But, with the advent of social media and blogging, it is easy for us to tell what issues are most important to Chinese society.
When I take a step back and look at the whole of the media industry, I see a lot of similarities between the U.S. and China. The majority of Chinese media is state-run, and as a result, you often see a very negative reaction to the viability of Democracy. However, in many cases, I do not see the American media as much better. There are outlets with extreme left or right biases, and most convey a negative message about the way Chinese politics operates.
I cannot take sides. I’m sure it’s partially because as a Taiwanese person, I have a more neutral view. But I’ve also drawn huge inspiration from honest and unbiased media sources in both the US and China. They have shown me that it’s possible to break from this idea of taking sides and only reporting the negative.
As I said before, a new generation of individual new media journalists has sprung up recently, and I feel I owe it to them and to my readers to report in a responsible and unbiased manner by sticking to the fact I see in the front line.
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- Building the (Great) Wall— Chinese Americans are looking past Trump’s racism
About the author
Jane is a Taiwanese Journalist working for Chinese News Media. Currently she is the DC Bureau Chief with Sina News and multimedia Contributor at BBC, FT, Quarz, Huff, and Caixin. She is bilingual in English and Mandarin Chinese, speaks some Taiwanese Hokkien and a little bit of French. Twitter: @goodaylala
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