By HELEN GAO
BEIJING — President Donald J. Trump uttered the rallying cry familiar from his campaign to close his inauguration speech, urging citizens to help “make America great again.” But his appeal for patriotism and loyalty at home will only further sink the hearts of leaders in Beijing.
Mr. Trump the straight-talking dealmaker, on whom they had pinned their early hopes, has increasingly been eclipsed by Mr. Trump the trade bully and nationalist, for whom the pledge “America first” may entail measures like a 45 percent tariff on goods imported from China and appointing a trade chief ready to carry out such proposals.
The inauguration speech forms a stark contrast to President Xi Jinping’s address at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week, where he positioned himself as a champion of globalization. But if the power of Mr. Xi’s claim is weakened by an ideological crackdown at home and his record of flouting commercial and territorial laws abroad, President Trump may in turn see his plans checked by the domestic economic damage that could result from a trade war with China.
Given Mr. Trump’s penchant for provocative pronouncements and unpredictable policy positions, China has good reason not to resort to immediate verbal retaliation, but to let the tension roused by his words dissipate before deciding on its course of action.
Online reactions here to Mr. Trump’s speech have been dominated by anger and confusion. For more than a few Chinese, though, his jabs at the Washington’s power elite resonated. Yawning income inequality, loss of employment and a profound disconnect between the government and the governed are, after all, not unfamiliar stories among people here.
In the long run, the public disaffection shared by both countries will probably play a larger role in shaping Sino-American relations than the inflammatory rhetoric of national leaders.
Helen Gao is a social policy analyst at a research company and a frequent Op-Ed contributor.