There was a lot to unpack in President Donald Trump’s freewheeling New York Times interview last week, but one part that attracted little notice featured Ivanka Trump’s five-year-old daughter, Arabella. In the middle of the interview, Trump’s granddaughter wanders into the Oval Office and this incredible exchange ensues:
ARABELLA KUSHNER: [enters room] Hi, Grandpa.
TRUMP: My granddaughter Arabella, who speaks — say hello to them in Chinese.
KUSHNER: Ni hao.
TRUMP: This is Ivanka. You know Ivanka.
IVANKA TRUMP: [from doorway] Hi, how are you? See you later, just wanted to come say hi.
TRUMP: She’s great. She speaks fluent Chinese. She’s amazing.
PETER BAKER: That’s very impressive.
TRUMP: She spoke with President Xi [Jinping of China]. Honey? Can you say a few words in Chinese? Say, like, “I love you, Grandpa” —
KUSHNER: Wo ai ni, Grandpa.
BAKER: That’s great.
TRUMP: She’s unbelievable, huh?
TRUMP: Good, smart genes.
As Trump mentioned, this is not the first time that the family has trotted Arabella out to display her proficiency in Mandarin. In April, when Xi was visiting Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate, Arabella was made to sing a Chinese folk song that Peng Liyuan, Xi’s wife, had once performed on Chinese television. “We wanted to make you feel at home,” Ivanka told Xi.
And back during the Lunar New Year, Ivanka posted a video of Arabella singing another song in Mandarin. Ivanka also brought her daughter to a Lunar New Year party at the Chinese embassy, where they met Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai.
Setting aside the ethics of treating your child like a performing monkey, there is a reason Arabella will probably be singing Chinese songs for the rest of Trump’s first term: It works. These videos have gone viral in China, garnering tens of millions of viewers. Women in the country idolize Ivanka (referred to as Yi Wan Ka in Mandarin), going so far as to compare her to a goddess. One Chinese business student told The New York Times that when she wakes up in the morning, she asks herself, “What would Ivanka do?”
Ivanka and Arabella’s outreach to China is a rare deployment of soft power from the Trump administration, which by all accounts has presided over an unprecedented hollowing-out of the State Department. The beautifully-spoken Arabella cushions the words and actions of her grandfather, who was a belligerent China hawk on the campaign trail, telling supporters that “we can’t continue to allow China to rape our country.” As unlikely as it sounds, Ivanka and Arabella Trump have become useful ambassadors for the Trump administration, signaling that the fiery populist rhetoric Trump uses for the anti-trade, anti-immigrant white working class is a show, masking the bridge that connects America’s globalist plutocrats with the Chinese regime.
After all, there is no child-rearing practice that more ostentatiously screams cosmopolitan upper class than having your kid learn Mandarin. The language has developed a cachet among the business elite in the United States, in response to China’s rise as an economic superpower. The practice has engendered numerous stories of terrible rich Americans forcing Mandarin on their children, often through the hiring of Chinese immigrants as nannies.
For example, Jim Rogers, a wealthy international investor, told New York magazine that he wanted to know whether the nanny he was hiring spoke “gutter Mandarin or a queen’s Mandarin” to ensure that his daughter didn’t grow up to “suddenly start talking like a tramp at age 9.” He considered it a good investment because “even if my little girl weren’t very smart, she’s always going to get a job because she’ll be totally fluent in Chinese.”
Then there is Ying-Shu Hsu, the Chinese woman who was hired by Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng—one of Ivanka’s closest friends—to teach their daughters Mandarin. Hsu did a tell-all with Gawker in 2012, detailing the numerous exploitative labor practices and verbal abuse she experienced at the hand of Deng.
And, naturally, Arabella Trump herself has a Chinese nanny, XiXi, the person who originally taught her how to speak Mandarin. XiXi exists almost wholly behind the scenes, her existence first revealed by Ivanka in a 2012 interview. In the entirety of Women Who Work, Ivanka’s Lean In-inspired book about how (ultra-wealthy) women can have it all, the word “nanny” is only mentioned once and XiXi is not referred to by name at all until the acknowledgements, where Ivanka writes, “Liza and Xixi, who are helping me raise my own children, thank you for being a part of our extended family and enabling me to do what I do.” XiXi has also been scrubbed from Ivanka’s lauded Instagram account, making it seem like Ivanka, Jared Kushner, and their three children have cultivated a perfect life without any help from the very people who form a giant underclass of transnational labor in our globalized economy.
For all we know XiXi is getting remunerated beyond her wildest dreams and isn’t being shoved into a closet every time Ivanka Instagrams her kids. But the invisibility of her labor extends beyond the Kushner household, part of an economic relationship between the two countries that Trump has publicly promised to upend in the name of protecting American workers. This hypocrisy is not even merely symbolic: While Trump has stoked anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S., asserting that the Chinese are “stealing” our jobs, Ivanka has directly profited from the use of cheap Chinese labor—a factory that manufactures her brand’s clothing only paid employees as little as $62 for 60-hour work weeks.
The Trump administration has been notorious for speaking out of both sides of its mouth when it comes to foreign policy. The boss says one thing, while his apparatchiks say another. In the case of China, Trump is full of bluster, while his granddaughter sings a different tune.