How it got personal between Trump and China

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in Wilmington, Ohio.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in Wilmington, Ohio. AP

It was May of 2009, and Donald Trump’s team had arrived in China with precious cargo: 300 pounds of Donald Trump.

Led by one of Trump’s sons, the team carried piles of material attesting to Trump’s “world-renowned name.” Articles, books, videos, “magazine covers featuring me.”

It didn’t work. A court in China refused to acknowledge Trump’s brand name. It did not sit well.

“Their entire system is faithless, corrupt and tainted,” Trump wrote in a 2011 letter to then-U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke. “Their behavior should be a clear warning to the rest of the world to refrain from any trade practice or business relationship with them!” He went further, calling the Chinese a “deceitful culture” that even cheated at the Olympics.

The letter reveals how deeply personal China is to Trump, and how he was arguably at least as offended at how it treated him as how it treats the United States. He’s been a leading critic of U.S. trade policy with China since at least 2011 – in the wake of his personal and business dispute.

Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

His two-page, single-spaced blast on Feb. 7, 2011, obtained by McClatchy under a Freedom of Information Act request, appeared to be motivated by comments by Locke on TV that China was doing better at protecting intellectual property rights.

Trump lashed out at Locke that a Chinese court had ruled against him, denying what he said were the “exclusive rights to my own name.” He said he had sent a team to defend his personal brand but that the court had ruled that neither he nor his company name “is well known in China.” The notion infuriated the businessman, who insisted his “Apprentice” television show was “big in China.”

“Who could expect anything different from a deceitful culture where they send underage children to the Olympics to compete and, when caught, claim they were completely unaware?” Trump asked. Critics and news reports in 2008 had raised questions about whether some members of the Chinese gymnastics team were under the age of 16. China said they were of age.

A third-generation Chinese-American, Locke was in his final year as the Obama administration’s commerce secretary when Trump wrote him following Locke’s comments about China in an appearance on CNBC. Locke would later serve as U.S. ambassador to China.

In his letter, beyond assailing the Chinese culture, Trump hit themes that have since become part of his standard campaign rhetoric.

The Chinese political and legal systems, he complained, are “totally corrupt.” The country’s judges are “ignorant.” Trump himself, in his own words, is a giant among businessmen.

“The Trump name resonates throughout the entire world,” Trump advised the commerce secretary, “whether it is from a world class building, my highly rated television show, my dozens of best-selling books, or any of the other products and services which bear my name.”

The State Department in its annual human rights report on China sharply criticizes the country’s legal system, saying judges “regularly received political guidance on pending cases.”

At one point in 2011, Trump briefly took a different tack. He boasted in an interview with Xinhua, the official news agency of the People’s Republic of China, that he’d read hundreds of book about China.

“I know the Chinese. I’ve made a lot of money with the Chinese. I understand the Chinese mind,” Trump told the news agency.

Trump now routinely rails against China, accusing the country of stealing American jobs and cheating in trade deals. He has also threatened to impose a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods.

“They’re devaluing their currency to a level that you wouldn’t believe. It makes it impossible for our companies to compete,” Trump said as he announced his presidential bid in 2015.

At the same time, Trump insisted he loves China, noting at his announcement speech that he’d recently sold an apartment for $15 million “to somebody from China. Am I supposed to dislike them?” He’s also boasted that the “biggest bank in the world” is Chinese and has its U.S. headquarters in Trump Tower in New York.

“I love them, but their leaders are much smarter than our leaders,” he said in June.

In an August speech, he pledged that the center of his trade plan would be trade enforcement with China, accusing the country of being responsible for nearly half of the U.S. trade deficit.

“They break the rules in every way imaginable,” he said.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark