In the Chinese media, Jared Kushner’s name almost never appears without the title diyi nǚxu, or First Son-in-Law. But, from a Chinese perspective, First Son-in-Law, as a job description, supersedes even Kushner’s official role as a senior adviser to Donald Trump, and the myriad jobs which that role has come to encompass, from bringing peace to the Middle East to handling relations with, among other countries, China. The position surpasses, in both influence and stature, the limits of any formally designated office.
Recently, the First Son-in-Law’s family appears to have been testing the boundaries of influence by marriage. Kushner’s sister Nicole Kushner Meyer went to Beijing seeking a hundred and fifty million dollars’ worth of financing for 1 Journal Square, a Kushner Companies luxury-apartment development in Jersey City. According to Javier C. Hernández, of the Times, during an information session at the Ritz-Carlton, Meyer said that the project “means a lot to me and my entire family.”
That remark drew sharp criticism in the Western media, and the Kushner Companies announced that family members would no longer appear at investor events in China. Chinese bloggers, in contrast, viewed the episode with a wry calm. “The Kushners are enterprising and the White House is a now a family business—what’s the fuss?” a Shanghai college student wrote on Weibo. “The seat of power is always a family business but for the first time the White House is also a billionaires’ social club!” a middle-aged man, using the name Midnight Observer, noted. A twenty-eight-year-old from Xi’an compared the situation to South Korea’s chaebol culture—the ecosystem of family-owned business empires that contributed to the downfall, last month, of President Park Geun-hye—and wrote, “All democracies are run like this: operated by capitalistic conglomerates behind the veil. The Trumps and Kushners are just making it a little more transparent.”
Indeed, it has long been in the Chinese government’s interest to sow cynicism among its citizens about the mechanisms of democracy. The current Administration and its steady stream of blunders have made Beijing’s task appreciably less difficult.
At the same time, millennia of dynastic rule have taught the Chinese a thing or two about the tribal tendencies of the ruling class, as well as about clannish behavior at all levels of society. The Confucian prioritization of family, order, and hierarchy is a cornerstone of Chinese culture. (Confucianism was banished during the Cultural Revolution, but Beijing has recently revived it, in a retrograde move to promote nationalism and the value of authority.) During the 2016 Presidential election, Trump was often praised in China for his commitment to family. Perhaps no one in that nation today appreciates the importance of familial relationships better than President Xi, the son of one of revolutionary China’s founding fathers, whose rise has been largely dependent on that status. The enrichment of the families of such “princelings” has become a source of discontent and even open anger about corruption within China.
Nepotism, though, is only part of the intricate Chinese art of relationship management known as guanxi. The other crucial component—favor-trading—binds the parties in a deal to a set of reciprocal obligations and is also inseparable from domestic unease about official corruption. In March, China granted preliminary approval of thirty-five trademarks for various Trump-related business projects, ranging from hotels and spas to bodyguard and concierge services. In April, on the same day Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner sat next to President Xi at a dinner at Mar-a-Lago, her company won provisional approval for three new trademarks. President Trump and his family would do well to recognize these gestures as something more than pure serendipity. While Trump the statesman might confuse Kim Jong-un with Kim Jong-il, Trump the businessman should at least understand the language of dealmaking. The more that China views Trump family businesses as beholden to Chinese interests, the more assertive the country may be at the international bargaining table.
And China has a lot at stake. Last Sunday, in Beijing, President Xi hosted what was billed as China’s version of Davos—the Belt and Road Forum (with the unfortunate acronym barf). Before an audience that included the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and authoritarian leaders from across Central Asia, Xi delivered a vision of China as the center of a new economic order, a five-trillion-dollar plan for global trade. Encompassing more than sixty nations across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia—along the ancient Silk Road—the project stands in marked contrast to Trump’s inward-looking design for America. Calling the initiative the “project of the century,” Xi emphasized the difference between the U.S. system of alliances and the way that commerce would operate in China. “We have no intention to form a small group that would dismantle stability,” Xi said, in an apparent reference to Trump’s Administration. “But we hope to create a big family of harmonious coexistence.”
Families are not always harmonious, though. On Tuesday, the Times ran a story about rising tensions in the White House, which contained a sentence that might be of particular interest to observers in Beijing. President Trump was turning against most of his aides, berating them and calling them “incompetent,” the Times reported, “even his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.”
By Jiayang Fan
The New Yorker