Some people in China have their own label for the polarizing American president: savior.
At dinner tables, in social media chats and in discreet conversations, some of the country’s intellectual and business elite are half-jokingly, half-seriously cheering on the leader who has built a large part of his political career on China-bashing.
“Only Trump can save China,” goes one quip. Others call him the “chief pressure officer” of China’s reform and opening.
Their semi-serious praise reflects the deepening despair among those in China who fear their country is on the wrong track. An aggressive outsider like President Trump, according to this thinking, can help China find its way again.
The Communist Party has become more involved in business, the economy, public discourse and other elements of everyday life. Many of these elite fear that after 40 years of reform and opening up, China is retreating. To make matters worse, nobody at home appears willing or able to fight the trend. President Xi Jinping has become the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, hurting the chances that internal opposition can push back.
Then came Mr. Trump and his trade war. Among other demands, American negotiators are calling on China to play a smaller role in the country’s economy. They want the Chinese government to stop throwing money at state-controlled companies. They want lower trade barriers and a level playing field for private businesses.
That puts Mr. Trump, oddly, in sync with a number of Chinese intellectuals and business types. Should the Communist Party step back from the economy, their thinking goes, it might have to loosen its tight grip over rest of the society, too.
“The trade war is a good thing,” said Zhu Ning, an economist at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “It gives us hope when we’re hopeless.”
“The various demands by the U.S. government could force us to carry on with the reforms,” said Tao Jingzhou, a partner at the law firm Dechert’s Beijing office. “There’s a Chinese saying that carrying out a reform is equivalent to a man cutting off his own arm, which is very hard. It might help if someone else forces you to do it.”
Even some retired officials have said they believe that the trade war could have positive effects. Long Yongtu, who led the negotiations for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, said at a forum last month that trade friction could be “a good thing.”
It could be “a healthy pressure that pushes China to move forward,” he said.
The chances that Mr. Trump alone can change China’s ways are exceedingly slim. The Communist Party risks looking weak if it agrees to too many of his demands. True reform would have to come from inside.
“We can’t count on the external force to save China,” said Wang Gongquan, a billionaire liberal activist and former venture capitalist. He was among the first group of people who were detained or jailed after the party intensified the crackdown on dissent and civil disobedience six years ago.
“Changes will only come,” Mr. Wang added, “when responsible people inside and outside the government push for it together.”
Still, the hopes about Mr. Trump acknowledge the role the outside world has played in China’s gradual opening over the past four decades. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party has largely been a reluctant reformer, often pushed and lured by internal and external forces.
Even some in the Trump administration seem to be hoping that internal voices will speak up. In an interview with National Public Radio, Robert Lighthizer, Mr. Trump’s top trade negotiator, was asked about the likelihood that the trade war would lead to changes in China.
“You have to start with the proposition that there are people in China who believe that reform is a good idea,” Mr. Lighthizer said. “And you have to believe that those people are at a very senior level.”
The challenge now will be to find those internal voices in a time when dissent can be quickly squelched.
“Unfortunately, there’s no force to be joined with in China,” Liu Suli, a liberal thinker and enthusiastic Trump supporter who founded an independent bookstore in Beijing. “There’s only a pool of stagnant water.”
The breadth of support for Mr. Trump in China isn’t clear. Many business leaders dare not speak out for fear of angering the Communist Party.
The talk is hard to miss. The first time I heard the “Only Trump can save China” quip was a few months ago from a self-described apolitical tech entrepreneur in Guangdong Province in southern China. He complained about rising taxes and growing government interference in the economy. He was worried that if his start-up failed, he could end up on a newly created blacklist that would prevent him from taking flights and checking in at some hotels.
This image of Mr. Trump is often at odds with reality. Supporters of his who have long pushed China on human rights are cheering a president who wants to make it harder for migrants fleeing political persecution to find sanctuary in the United States. It’s a strange disconnect to listen to graying activists — educated free thinkers, some of whom have gone to prison for their ideals — put their hopes in a man who openly admires autocrats and calls journalists “the enemy of the people.”
Optimists nevertheless point to signs that they say show Mr. Trump is having an impact. Facing both the trade war and a slowdown in growth that began in the middle of last year, China’s leadership has embraced some modest liberalization. The government has promised to cut taxes, ease other burdens on the private sector and give markets a somewhat bigger role in the economy.
“More market-oriented actions are being reconsidered or put back on the table,” said Mr. Zhu, the Tsinghua economist. “In this sense, the trade war is helping China’s reform.”
But there’s little evidence that the leadership is easing its grip in a lasting way. The few business-friendly gestures are reactive rather than proactive. In other words, there hasn’t been any fundamental change in the leadership’s thinking. The party must control, as Mr. Xi has said, “all tasks.”
Some Chinese supporters of Mr. Trump, particularly dissidents or those living in exile, believe that he plans something bigger: regime change. Liu Junning, a pro-democracy dissident in Beijing, pointed to Vice President Mike Pence’s stern speech in October in which he accused China of numerous offenses over the years. Mr. Liu also pointed to Venezuela, where the Trump administration has pushed for new leadership.
In part, this group believes past presidents were too soft on China’s Communist Party. But they also cite the patina of toughness that Mr. Trump accumulated in his pre-political days. Mr. Liu cited Mr. Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal” and his reality TV show, “The Apprentice.”
“Trump’s approach is that he gives you a task and he expects you to get it done. Otherwise, you’re fired,” Mr. Liu said, alluding to the reality show. “He can be very tough.”
How tough he will be about fixing China’s economy still isn’t clear. In public comments, Mr. Trump has focused on getting China to buy more American goods. His advisers have said he will press for economic reforms, but any pledge by China to cut subsidies to state-owned companies or favored industries would be difficult to verify, much less enforce.
“I don’t think helping China to reform is Trump’s main political goal,” Mr. Zhu said. “He may just want something to tweet about.”