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Chinese students, academics closely watching changes in American politics, historian says

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

LAWRENCE —Not only did Donald Trump's election as president surprise most pollsters and many Americans, but his rise to power also has piqued the interest of Chinese students and academics, said a University of Kansas historian who recently lectured in China.

"They were anxious. Chinese students feel there is this whole new world opening up to them. They feel their generation might be able to be global citizens, much like most Americans are," said David Farber, KU's Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor of History. "They are worried that this is not going to happen now either through their own internal problems in China or America turning away from the rest of the world."

Farber lectured at Chinese universities in 2016, and recently the Chinese Journal of American Studies published an article about his work on the history of American conservatism — the topic of his lectures in China.

In his 2012 book, "The Rise of Fall of Modern American Conservatism," Farber contends that conservatism in the United States is best understood not as a well-considered political philosophy or rigorous ideology but instead as an odd job word used by a hodgepodge of political actors to organize a movement capable of gaining political power in the United States. American conservatism, then, is a historically contingent, fragile project that has produced an uneasy alliance of disparate elements.

This framework likely helped set up Donald Trump's recent victory not only for the Republican nomination, he said, but ultimately the presidency, as he was able to win several key Midwestern states that put his unconventional Electoral College victory over the top.

"To be most useful for a Chinese audience, I tried to explore the contradictions and tension within American conservatism," Farber said. "It isn't like there is one single strand that all conservatives recognize as the essence of their political identity. It gave them ways to understand the conservative populism that Trump embodies and the long history of that electoral influence."

Typically the Chinese academics saw conservative as synonymous with free-market ideology, which historically might or might not be at the core of a conservative political movement, he said.

"Trump is very pro-capitalist, but he certainly is willing to use the state to intervene in the workings of the market, whether that is to single out individual companies, close down trade relations or impinge upon corporate decision making," Farber said. "It's really ironic in some ways and closer to the Chinese model."

Farber said Trump was able to find enough dissatisfied voters in key states, such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, to give him an Electoral College victory by appealing to people who typically don't follow a coherent conservative ideology.

"His victory drove home that Americans are increasingly divided over some really fundamental issues," Farber said. "I tried to get that across to the Chinese."

Trump also during the campaign was heavily critical of America’s trade deficit with China and threatened to levy tariffs in retaliation. The U.S. relationship with China looms as one of the major questions of the Trump presidency.

"The Chinese fear deteriorating relations between our two countries," Farber said. "They have no desire to go to war economically or militarily. Many Chinese students are interested in the United States, and they desire to visit and come here. We're still a beacon for a lot of people around the world, and I certainly saw that in China."

The Chinese Association for American Studies and the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing published the journal that included Farber's article.

Image: The U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. Photo by Martin Falbisoner, via WikiCommons.