HONG KONG — Donald Trump is all about branding, and here’s a striking irony: while his political brand is built on Muslim-bashing, Hispanic-bashing, and, not least, China-bashing, his hotel brand appears to be thriving here in Asia.
Last October, well after Trump’s xenophobic and sinophobic presidential campaign got under way, Trump’s man in China, Eric Danziger, told Chinese state-run media that the Trump Hotel Collection is actively seeking expansion opportunities in Asian metropolises, including Chinese cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen.
Trump’s hotels are a hit with Chinese travelers. They appreciate the extra touches put in place with them in mind, like dedicated arrival procedures for Chinese nationals and “red envelope” perks during Chinese New Year.
Trump’s remarks that, say, mock East Asian accents don’t seem to affect their consumption choices. In fact, his overblown antics have only drawn the Chinese to his brand; nowadays, a trip to New York is not complete without a selfie in front of Trump Tower.
Chinese consumers may loathe Trump for using them as theatrical punching bags, but they also love him as a novelty, as entertainment.
More importantly, he is seen by many as an inspiration.
Trump’s self-perpetuated narrative of starting from the bottom with a “small loan” of a million dollars from his father, and turning that into a major company, resonates deeply with those who believe in the Chinese Dream. On identity, his demagogic message of us-versus-them speaks to a society that is largely homogeneous and at times wary of the intentions of foreign powers.
Chinese state media has labeled Trump “unpredictable,” a “celebrity potato,” and “seriously wrong.” They have even imagined a scenario where gunshots ring out on Fifth Avenue, the GOP-hopeful pulling the trigger. Behind the litany of CCP-backed commentary, what truly worries Beijing is the unpredictability of America’s current presidential race. That a businessman with hollow, inflammatory rhetoric is able to stump professional politicians and wrangle popular support is a phenomenon that unnerves the Chinese political establishment. The Chinese Communist Party has mooted concern about how trade policies between the planet’s two largest economies may mutate or regress under a Trump presidency.
However, in private, China has proven to be a lifeline for Trump’s business dealings. For big chunks of cash, Trump and his associates actively seek Chinese investment for their projects. In March, Bloomberg reported that about a quarter of the funding of a tower bearing Trump’s name in New Jersey was fulfilled by loans from a visa program called EB-5, which offers green cards for cash.
By forking over half a million dollars, Chinese oligarchs, who are repeatedly disparaged by Trump at his rallies, can receive U.S. visas under the controversial EB-5 program that expedites these things for foreign investors in American properties.
The same Bloomberg report, which should have gotten more attention, indicated 85 percent of those who received EB-5 visas in 2014 were from China. And those are just the kind of investors the New Jersey project was seeking with, among other things, a Chinese-subtitled video of the building with background music from The Sopranos.
The 50-story tower in question, Trump Bay Street, was being built by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, campaign booster, and, most recently, defender against charges of anti-Semitism. The company soliciting investors was called, ahem, U.S. Immigration Fund.
A former Chinese public servant who acquired a green card through the EB-5 program told The Daily Beast that he never expected a profitable return on his $500,000 investment. This is common, as many projects funded via EB-5 become inactive or are poorly managed. For Trump, who has had four businesses file for bankruptcy, the program is perfect.
In fact, during the application process, details of the investor’s previous employment were never called into question—how did a low-level official accumulate half a million dollars to burn, with plenty to spare? The former public servant never had to provide an answer.
Congressional overseers and the Department of Homeland Security have pointed out the vetting process for EB-5 is lacking, and could be a portal for dirty money and those who possess it to enter America.
So, let’s be clear: Trump-branded projects have ignored concerns raised by government overseers and might be actively creating channels for money laundering. But the Chinese aren’t complaining about the program, they’re enjoying it.
Back in 2011, Trump said, “China is raping this country.” But more recently he was able to claim, when talking about China’s political and business elite, “I like China. I just sold an apartment for $15 million to somebody from China. Am I supposed to dislike them?”
That attitude—dissing foreigners, then cashing in on them, and the law be damned—extends to the presumptive Republican nominee’s political operation. The Trump campaign appears to have solicited financing from foreign nationals, even from foreign politicians.
During Trump’s recent visit to Scotland to promote a new golf resort, Scottish members of parliament received emails that urged them to “make America great again” by giving money to the Trump campaign. That was not an isolated incident. A pattern has emerged of the Trump campaign asking for campaign donations from foreign nationals in Iceland, Australia, and Britain.
Let this be clear: Donald Trump is not only fine with letting foreign money taint the American presidential election, he encourages it. And this despite laws that American political candidates cannot accept donations from individuals who hold neither American citizenship nor permanent U.S. residency.
The Washington-based Campaign Legal Center, which is presided by a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, has already collaborated with Democracy 21 to file a complaint against Donald Trump with the FEC.
With a representative office in Shanghai, Trump is determined to crack into the Chinese market. Already, The Trump Hotel Collection is developing two resorts in Indonesia, including Bali, a current favorite of Chinese tourists. Chinese travel agencies advertise packages to stay in resorts branded with a potential American president’s name, and Trump’s resort in Waikiki sees a steady rotation of Chinese visitors.
(That said, it appears the influx of Asian clients has not been able to counterbalance the loss of business in other Trump-branded locations. Hipmunk’s hotel booking data from the first quarter of this year tells us that Waikiki is an outlier, not the norm. In the worst case, bookings at Trump Soho New York dropped by 74 percent compared to the same period a year ago.)
At home and abroad, fans of Trump give the same reason for why they love him: He’s a businessman, not a politician, not someone beholden to lobbyists and the current establishment. However, a businessman naturally takes care of what concerns him the most—his business. The grassroots supporters of Trump’s campaign are neither his clients nor investors, and he owes them nothing. If his business practices are any indication, those who vote for him in November should expect nothing in return.
Trumpeteers may say their “God Emperor,” as some call him, taking the name from a video game, is strong and intelligent, able to deal harshly with the other, and at the same time profit from them. Trump continues to fan xeno-hating flames, rehashing the probably fake story about an American general who executed Muslim insurgents in the Philippines with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, suggesting that China is “raping” America, and hawking bad but rhetorically popular economics by threatening to wage a trade war.
As Trump continues to wax polemical, his supporters fail to realize the issues that have been hijacked to fuel their fervor will not be addressed to their satisfaction, and his promises cannot be kept because they simply make little economic sense. Trump and his business expend far more effort to please Chinese travelers and oligarchs than his grassroots supporters at home. Win or lose, he will walk away a rich man, and perhaps live to file for bankruptcy another day.