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Asia’s pro-democracy activists surprisingly favour Trump over Biden

US president praised for talking tough with China as conspiracies about Biden embraced

US president Donald Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in Florida in 2017. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

A dissident once branded Enemy No 1 by the Chinese Communist Party is spreading conspiracy theories about vote-rigging in the US presidential election.

Pro-democracy campaigners from Hong Kong are championing President Donald Trump’s claims of an electoral victory. Human rights activists and religious leaders in Vietnam and Myanmar are expressing reservations about president-elect Joe Biden’s ability to keep authoritarians in check.

It might seem counterintuitive that Asian defenders of democracy are among the most ardent supporters of Trump, who has declared his friendship with Xi Jinping of China and Kim Jong-un of North Korea. But it is precisely Trump’s willingness to flout diplomatic protocol, abandon international accords and keep his opponents off-balance that have earned him plaudits as a leader strong enough to stand up to dictators and defend democratic ideals overseas, even if he has been criticised as diminishing them at home.

As Biden now assembles his foreign-policy team, prominent human rights activists across Asia are worried about his desire for the United States to hew again to international norms.

They believe that Biden, like former president Barack Obama, will pursue accommodation rather than confrontation in the face of China’s assertive moves. And their pro-Trump views have been cemented by online misinformation, often delivered by dubious news sources, that Biden is working in tandem with communists or is a closet socialist sympathiser.

“Biden is president, and it’s like having Xi Jinping sitting in the White House, ” said Elmer Yuen, a Hong Kong entrepreneur who has posted YouTube videos criticizing the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP. “He wants to coexist with China, and whoever coexists with the CCP loses.”

Final stand

With Trump’s presidential tenure in its twilight, these activists are calling for the administration to make a final stand against Asian autocrats, similar to a last-ditch effort to expand the border wall with Mexico.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo took a five-nation swing through Asia in October in which he abandoned politesse and described the Chinese government as a “predator”, “lawless and threatening”, and “the gravest threat to the future of religious freedom”. The tour was meant as a counterweight to China in a region where Beijing’s dollar diplomacy has bought significant influence.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo in Hanoi, Vietnam in October. Photograph: Nhac Nguyen/AFP via Getty Images

In November, Lobsang Sangay became the first head of the Tibetan government-in-exile to visit the White House; the provocative invite infuriated Beijing, which considers Sangay to be a separatist.

In June, Pompeo attended a virtual gathering with Hong Kong democracy leader Joshua Wong and President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, both of whom are loathed by the Chinese government.

Trump’s popularity is particularly enduring among Christians, such as Chinese-born legal scholars chafing against communism’s atheist core and ethnic minority activists in Southeast Asia. Pompeo and other Trump administration officials, they believe, have been fulfilling a faith-based mission overseas.

Last year, Trump met in the White House with a group of religious leaders from across the world, including Hkalam Samson, president of the Kachin Baptist Convention, which represents the persecuted Christian Kachin minority in Myanmar.

“My experience in the White House, when I was given one minute to speak out about the Kachin, meant a lot, and it also meant that Trump cares about us,” Samson said. “Trump is better for the Kachin than Biden.”

Diplomatic custom

Scepticism for Biden extends to those fighting for secular political rights as well. The president-elect’s embrace of diplomatic custom will not work when only one side is playing fairly, they say.

“For Biden’s policies toward China, the part about making China play by the international rules, I think, is very hollow,” said Wang Dan, who helped lead the 1989 Tiananmen protests as a university student. “As we know, the Chinese Communist Party hardly abides by international rules.

“The United States must realise that there will be no improvements on human rights issues in China if there is no regime change,” Wang added. He has continued to question Trump’s electoral loss, baseless claims shared by other prominent Chinese-born dissidents.

But others within the community, particularly in Hong Kong and China, said that backing Trump is hypocritical at best and dangerous at worst. “Trump’s human rights record – what he does to migrant children, the Muslim ban, white supremacy, alternative truth – removes him from my support, but this is apparently not the popular attitude among many dissidents in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan,” said Badiucao, a China-born political artist who now lives in self-exile in Australia.

Badiucao, who is known by a pseudonym to protect his family in China, has skirmished online with Wang and other well-known dissidents and has made the scuffle a topic for his art.

“These guys are utilitarian, and they believe that if Trump is waging war against the CCP then he’s right for them,” Badiucao said. “That mentality fits the whole ‘America First’ ideology, where it’s okay for other people to suffer if your goal is met, and their goal is overthrowing the CCP.”

Stepping up

Over the last 12 months, the Trump administration has stepped up its actions in Asia. Late last year, the US government barred military leaders from Myanmar from entering the country because of their role in what Pompeo called “gross violations of human rights” of Rohingya Muslims and other minority groups.

Financial sanctions were also placed on individuals in Pakistan and Cambodia, among other countries, where civil liberties are under threat.

This summer, the treasury department imposed sanctions on Carrie Lam, chief executive of Hong Kong, and 10 others for “undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy and restricting the freedom of expression or assembly of the citizens of Hong Kong”. Four more officials were added to the sanctions list in November.

In June, Trump signed legislation that led to sanctions being placed on Chinese officials who have overseen the construction of mass detention camps in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, where more than 1 million people, mostly members of the Uighur Muslim minority, have been imprisoned.

“The Trump administration by far has done more to raise our issue than all other countries combined,” said Salih Hudayar, who was born in Xinjiang and moved to the United States as a child. “I’m very sceptical of a Biden administration because I am worried he will allow China to go back to normal, which is a 21st-century genocide of the Uighurs.”

During the presidential campaign, Biden released a statement calling the situation in Xinjiang a “genocide”. The Trump administration has not used such a designation, and a book by his former national security adviser said that Trump told Xi that he should continue building the detention camps in Xinjiang.

Biden’s defence

Foreign policy advisers to Biden say it is unfair to presume that he will continue the Obama administration’s moderate stance. It is, they say, a different era. The recent human rights legislation championed by the Trump administration has received broad bipartisan support.

And some Asian dissidents acknowledge that the antipathy toward Biden is driven in part by a deluge of online misinformation that paints the president-elect as a secret socialist or contends, without any proof, that foreign “communist money” turned the election against Trump. Such unsubstantiated claims have been repeated by niche online publications in Vietnamese, Chinese and other languages.

“The crisis of democracy in the world makes people, especially activists, confused and susceptible to the influence of conspiracy theories and information manipulation,” said Nguyen Quang A, a Vietnamese dissident who has been detained multiple times for his criticism of the country’s communist leadership. “Vietnam doesn’t have independent media, and people, especially activists, already hate mainstream media.”

One of the most influential voices spreading false narratives about Biden and the election on Twitter is Ai Weiwei, the Chinese contemporary artist who now lives in overseas exile. In an interview, Ai said that he was not a fan of Trump.

For his art, he has posed at Trump properties with his middle finger raised. But Ai said that by shutting off debate on his social media feed, he would be no different from an authoritarian government like China’s.

“All over Asia, all over the world, people don’t have the right to speak,” he said. “In America, left or right, you have personal freedoms. This has to be protected.” – New York Times