GUANGZHOU, China — From his perch in the Pearl River Delta in southern China, Yin Hao tries to make sense of America. Lately, that’s been tough.
Yin, a 30-year-old PhD student, spent the Obama era obsessing over U.S. politics. When he’s not conducting doctoral research on 3-D printing or singing karaoke, he translates American news and comedy clips, sharing his work with about 800,000 followers on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site.
To stay on top of fellow U.S. political junkies in China, he watches “Morning Joe” and reads Politico’s Playbook. He can’t quit quoting Chuck Todd of “Meet the Press.”
He’s been the go-to guy for thousands who want to make sense of what’s happening on the other side of the Pacific.
After he was interviewed on Chinese state television, a fan expressed shock that he was so young. “I thought you were an elder scholar!” the fan wrote.
But studying the architecture of American government did not prepare him for the political earthquakes of 2016. On the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Yin was still mulling a “stunning” victory and sifting for clues about what comes next.
So, of course, is everybody else.
From college dorms in Guangzhou to the halls of power in Beijing, China is struggling to come to grips with a Trump presidency, unsure what the brash American businessman will bring.
As a candidate, Trump used the world’s second-largest economy as a foil for American decline. Beijing was an always-winning villain that “raped” the United States. China, he claimed, was manipulating its currency. China, he said, was stealing jobs.
On China’s Internet, where posts about domestic politics are often censored, the Trump campaign became a freewheeling form of entertainment, a reality show that tested the boundaries of good taste. (How do you translate some of Trump’s more notorious remarks?) The worst comments were dismissed as opportunistic mudslinging. The drama, surely, would stop.
But in December, President-elect Trump took a protocol-breaking call from Taiwan’s president, then tweeted about it, shocking Beijing. When China seized — then promised to return — a U.S. naval drone, Trumpagain took to Twitter. “Keep it,” he wrote.
Although the official Chinese response has been measured, party-controlled media have voiced dismay. After Trump appointed Peter Navarro, a man who wrote a book called “Death by China,” to chair a White House National Trade Council, China Daily had clearly had enough. “No laughing matter,” the paper wrote.
For Communist Party cadres and amateur pundits alike, the first days of the new administration will thus be spent trying to understand the Trump phenomenon — a study, Yin says, in democratic decay, the conservative mindset and the hidden reaches of the human heart.
Observations from well-informed outsiders proved prescient during the U.S. presidential race. Chen Dingding, a professor at Guangzhou’s Jinan University, predicted a Trump win well before his American peers. “Looking back, it was because I’m from China,” he said. “I don’t have a personal stake in all this.”
Yin spent the past eight years studying the United States with an engineer’s eye for detail, striving, like Chen, to “decode” America, piece by piece.
For Yin, it started in the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency, when, like many of his peers, he downloaded episodes of “The Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live” to improve his English.
He loved the challenge of parsing obscure American references. He watched “30 Rock,” the Tina Fey comedy, and then discovered Aaron Sorkin’s political drama “The West Wing,” devouring it until the season that Sorkin quit and things got sappy. “Too idealistic,” he said.
By Obama’s second term, Yin, like many, was growing cynical, feeling less “West Wing” than “House of Cards.” Jon Stewart’s rants about Fox News had him scouring conservative websites, and he was struck by the seething anger and emotional tenor.
He cites the appeal of Sarah Palin as an example. She “didn’t give good points or arguments, but she gave you a feeling,” he said. “People felt like she was right, even if they would not say it.”
Yin’s analysis? American journalists, he thinks, blinded by their confidence in American exceptionalism overestimated the strength of U.S. institutions and underestimated grass-roots rage.
“I’ve always seen American democracy as a second-rate democracy,” he said, “because the parliamentary system is better in nearly every way.”
From the perspective of one-party China, he argues that the two-party system fuels populist politics, turning democracy into a personality contest. “For too long, the press focused on Trump’s personality and missed the real story — Trump’s supporters,” he said.
To understand “Make America Great Again,” Yin looks to home. Since coming to power in 2012, President Xi Jinping has promised the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” a slogan with similar appeal.
Both messages are both, at their core, conservative, Yin said. They portray “a world in decay, where things will go bad if they do nothing.”
“Good things always happen yesterday. They must preserve and protect. It’s about national pride, traditional values and military might,” he said.
The question is how Trump and Xi, conservative nationalists, will interact at a moment when there is much at stake, from maritime disputes in the South China Sea to trade to the future of Taiwan.
If Yin had a vote, or a say beyond his Chinese social-media following, Trump would not tweet.
“Confiscating his phone is a good idea. Love him or hate him, we should stop his habit of tweeting impulsively, because he cannot advance his agenda or substantive policy this way.”
And what of his approach to China, the country he turned into a campaign and transition talking point?
“We will wait and see.”
Luna Lin and Xin Jin reported from Beijing.