China expats polarized by Trump’s literary cocktail
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China expats polarized by Trump’s literary cocktail

By Tammy Bai, Guest Contributor

Remember back in May of this year when Donald Trump tricked us into thinking he was seriously considering running for President of the United States? Okay, well, he didn’t actually succeed in tricking us; we all saw right through his megalomaniacal publicity stunt. Nonetheless, the billionaire brilliantly managed to still get himself a billion dollars worth of free publicity.

But more than any other demographic, it was the expat populace right here in China who were most traumatized by Trump’s tactics. First came Trump’s threats to levy a 25-40% tax (the figure varies by newspaper) on Chinese imports.

“Listen you M*therf*ckers, we’re gonna tax the hell out of you,” he was quoted as shouting before an audience of frothing-at-the-mouth Republicans. And by “M*therf*ckers,” we all knew he meant the Chinese.


Donald Trump. Pic: AP.

A collective groan could be heard in gweilo communities from Shanghai to Shenzhen as fears of a second Boxer Rebellion loomed over us as a result of Trump’s trash talk of China.

When Xinhua, China’s government-run media agency, confronted the business tycoon about his proposed trade tariffs, Trump reportedly defended his “Chinese credentials” by citing a list of books about China which he claimed helped him formulate his foreign policies.

“I’ve read hundreds of books about China,” boasted Trump, “I understand the Chinese mind.”

The Xinhua interview was immediately pulled offline by Communist censors (purportedly because it mentioned banned books such as Mao: The Untold Story by Jung Chang and Richard McGregor’s The Party). But Trump’s “Best China Books” list nonetheless went viral across the world wide web. Everyone from book critics to Sinophiles were now abuzz not about Trump’s trade war with the Chinese, but the LITERATURE that had lead him to making such extreme policy decisions.

Wall Street Journal, International Business Times and even the Times of India all ran Trump’s top 20 reading list, as did the Los Angeles Times, who put a comical spin on the story by comparing the list with Katie Couric’s interview with Sarah Palin, in which the empty-headed Vice Presidential candidate was unable to name a single newspaper or book that she reads.

Back in China, expatriates were dissecting Trump’s list and debating the merits of each book therein. Beijing rock star-turned-writer Kaiser Kuo twittered: “Trump’s China book list is funny in so many ways. Gavin Menzies?? And how does Amy Chua’s “BHotTM” count as a China book?”  Indeed most bloggers, including The Shanghaiist, reached a general consensus that the Tiger Mother had no business being on a China reading list (or any other reading list for that matter), while fans of Gavin Menzies’ controversial “faction” novel 1421 rejoiced that their man had finally received mainstream recognition by appearing on Trump’s bookshelf.

But what of the other books on Trump’s recommended reading list? Nobody seemed surprised that Trump had endorsed expatriate extraordinaire Peter Hessler. Hessler, who has been on literary cruise control ever since his best-selling novel River Town turned him into a millionaire, probably sips Cristal with The Donald when Hessler is not out hogging headlines at the Shanghai Literary Festival.

The Coming China Wars by Peter Navarro is another “no duh” for being exactly the kind of Trump-esque fear-mongering book that appeals to xenophobes who have never met a real Chinese person. And then there’s Mr. China, aka, Tim Clissold, who has managed to polarize sponsored expatriates (i.e. bankers and businessmen) with his self-depreciating memoir about his Sino-business failures while at the same time categorically accusing all Chinese CEOs of being inherently dishonest.

Other oddities that appear on Trump’s book list include The Heavenly Man by Brother Yun (for Bible-thumpers), CHINA: Portrait of a People by Tom Carter (a coffee table book, WTF?) and Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet (no doubt Trump’s attempt at kissing Tibet-hugging Hollywood hiney).

All in all, it is such an eclectic reading list that, when you think about it, it seems perfectly in line with Trump’s erratic, mercurial formula for success: one-part politics, a fifth of fear-mongering, a twist of business, and a splash of sensationalism and, voila, there you have a Trump literary cocktail.

Below is the now-notorious list in its entirety, just in case anyone actually wants to get bombed on books. Beware the wicked hangover, however:

1. The Party by Richard McGregor

2. On China by Henry Kissinger

3. Mao: The Untold Story by Jung Chang

4. Tide Players by Jianying Zha

5. One Billion Customers by James McGregor

6. The Coming China Wars by Peter W. Navarro

7. The Beijing Consensus by Stefan Halper

8. China CEO by Juan Antonio Fernandez and Laurie Underwood

9. Poorly Made in China by Paul Midler

10. CHINA: Portrait of a People by Tom Carter

11. The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester

12. China Shakes the World by James Kynge

13. Mr. China by Tim Clissold

14. Country Driving by Peter Hessler

15. The Dragon’s Gift by Deborah Brautigam

16. Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang

17. The Heavenly Man by Brother Yun

18. 1421 by Gavin Menzies

19. Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer

20. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

Tammy Bai has worked in China for 9.9 years and divides her time between Beijing and Shanghai. If she’s not there, she’s in Shenzhen. Otherwise you can find her in Hong Kong. But right now she’s in Chengdu.