Beijing’s Propaganda Is Playing the Trade War Safe

Why China isn’t turning nationalism up to 11—yet.

A Chinese riot policeman (C) directs protesters as they march and display anti-Japanese banners during a protest over the Diaoyu islands issue, known as the Senkaku islands in Japan, in Chengdu, southwest China's Sichuan province on September 16, 2012.
A Chinese riot policeman (C) directs protesters as they march and display anti-Japanese banners during a protest over the Diaoyu islands issue, known as the Senkaku islands in Japan, in Chengdu, southwest China's Sichuan province on September 16, 2012. STR/AFP/GettyImages

After a week of tense anticipation, the 11th bilateral trade negotiations between China and the United States concluded on Friday in Washington with no deal, once more postponing a resolution to the trade war between the two countries that has been going on since January 2018.

In the aftermath of the decision, Chinese state media adopted the usual strident rhetoric, applauding the bravery and principles of the Chinese side for not surrendering to “extreme pressure” from the United States. A statement from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce expressed “deep regret” and promised retaliation in the form of “necessary countermeasures.” In a tweet, leading Chinese Communist Party propagandist Hu Xijin of the Global Times effectively called for an escalation of the trade war, declaring that the sooner the tariffs take effect, the better.

But the tone of state media in the days leading up to the talks had been different. After U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweet the weekend before announcing that tariffs on Chinese imported goods would be raised from 10 percent to 25 percent following what he characterized as the Chinese side’s renege in the previous round of talks, Chinese social media erupted with outrage and nationalism. State media, however, remained mild. Two days before the talks, Hu tweeted hopefully that Trump’s announcement that the United States would levy the tariff on Friday rather than immediately showed that the U.S. side “still has the willingness to reach a deal,” and that the Chinese delegation was similarly demonstrating a will to reach a deal by coming to the United States.

On the official side, China’s lead trade negotiator, Vice Premier Liu He, struck a similarly conciliatory tone, saying before the talks in Washington, “I hope to resolve some of the issues or differences we face frankly, confidently, and rationally. I think there is hope.”

It seems clear that China believed it would reach a deal in the 11th round of talks. Beijing probably thought Trump would agree to whatever conditions it had changed at the last minute—a common tactic in its toolbox—in the previous round. That’s why domestic media sought to spin a trade deal as the only responsible option, hoping to nip in the bud criticism from nationalists about Chinese surrender. Then, after China was unable to get the deal it believed it would get, state media spun around and tried to characterize the failure to reach a deal as a reflection of China’s principled and uncompromising attitude toward the trade war.

It’s hardly the first time Beijing has done an about-face like this. The Chinese Communist Party tends to treat latent nationalist sentiment as just another device in its toolkit of social control, letting nationalism bubble to surface when it needs a scapegoat or distraction and abruptly slamming the lid when it’s ready to reestablish stability. The quintessential example here is the anti-Japanese demonstrations of 2012 over the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu islands, which in many cities were allowed to escalate into violence, including the smashing of cars and assaults on Japanese businesses, before being suddenly shut down. In some cases, authorities have even arranged buses from campuses to protest sites in order to fuel the crowds.

This time it went in reverse: Before the 11th round of talks commenced, the Chinese government was coming in for criticism from online nationalists hoping China would retaliate with a full-on escalation of the trade war. A critical editorial from the economist Deng Yuwen compared Liu to Li Hongzhang, the late Qing dynasty official who ceded territory to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Chinese official media, however, basically ignored the swirling nationalistic rhetoric in the lead-up to the talks, adopting an uncharacteristically neutral tone toward the prospect of a deal.

Now that the trade war must continue, China has mildly ramped up the nationalism—although not to anywhere near the level of the anti-Japanese frenzy, or even the kind of anti-United States protests that hit after the Belgrade bombing in 1999 that killed three Chinese journalists. Rather than full-on battle rhetoric, the language being used around the trade war is “fighting while negotiating” (yi bian da, yi bian tan), suggesting that China is still hoping for a resolution sometime soon.

This undoubtedly has to do with the very real effects the trade war is having. After Trump tweeted about the tariff increase earlier this month, the Chinese stock market took its biggest single-day plunge in three years, causing many to joke that the Chinese economy is “too weak to withstand a tweet” (a play on a well-known Chinese idiom, ruo bu jin feng or “too weak to withstand a gust of wind”). Since the announcement, Hu Xijin has devoted much space on his Weibo to placating disgruntled Chinese stockholders, expressing his sympathy and understanding, and reassuring them of their long-term economic prospects.

Yet ire in China is still limited. With the tariffs mostly enacted on the U.S. side, few Chinese other than stockholders have felt the effects yet. Nationalistic sentiment seems mostly limited to mildly irked memes about Trump’s irresponsible behavior during the negotiations.

But China’s retaliatory measure announced on Monday—tariff hikes on $60 billion worth of goods—is much more likely to affect the average Chinese consumer. As such, the announcement was mediated by more rhetoric about protecting the Chinese economy. “China is drafting a plan that will have precise effects, making sure it hits the U.S. while minimizing damage to itself,” speculated Hu just before the new tariffs were announced.

Right now, China is portraying itself as a good-faith participant in the talks and the United States as irresponsible—Liu’s statement accompanying the new tariff announcement, that China is only responding to “U.S. unilateralism and protectionism,” is a good indication how the tone is changing.

But none of this goes outside the bounds of the regular anti-American language in Chinese state media. If China starts to adopt fully antagonistic language, it’s a sign it has really abandoned the prospect of a deal and is looking to unleash nationalistic sentiment to cover up its failure. If the economic effects get serious enough, the country could even see nationalistic real-world demonstrations in the vein of those against Japan and the United States in the past—with the connivance of the authorities, naturally. That would mean rough times for China-U.S. relations, and an even rougher time for the tens of thousands of Americans—and U.S. businesses—in China.


Lauren Teixeira is a freelance writer based in Chengdu, China.

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