IRVINE – When Donald Trump won the United States’ presidential election in November, he had a lot of Chinese fans. But Trump’s popularity has since plummeted, owing to his statements – often via Twitter – on contentious issues, such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. This isn’t the first time China’s view of a US leader has deteriorated rapidly.
The abrupt change in Chinese sentiment toward Trump is reminiscent of what happened to US President Woodrow Wilson after his reelection a century ago. At the time, many Chinese intellectuals, including the young Mao Zedong, admired Wilson, a political scientist and former president of Princeton University. Then, in 1919, Wilson backed the Treaty of Versailles, which transferred control of former German territories in Shandong Province to Japan, rather than return them to China. Wilson quickly lost his luster in China.
The shift was similar – but the reasons are very different. A century ago, China was driven to support Wilson, and then to loathe him, by its own weakness. Today, it is China’s strength that is guiding its view of the US president.
In 1916, the year Wilson was elected to his second term, China was in terrible shape. While the republic established in 1912 was ostensibly a single entity, it was actually highly fragmented. Military strongmen controlled different regions, while foreign powers, through bribes and bullying, seized large swaths of China’s territory. For Chinese intellectuals, Wilson offered a bookish contrast to thuggish warlords.