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China Brief

The Trump Administration’s Divisions Over China Are Deeper Than Ever

Contradictions over the status of the U.S.-China trade deal show that the White House isn’t unified in its approach toward Beijing—even amid the pandemic.

U.S. President Donald Trump, and China's Vice Premier Liu He, the country's top trade negotiator, sign a trade agreement in Washington on January 15.
U.S. President Donald Trump, and China's Vice Premier Liu He, the country's top trade negotiator, sign a trade agreement in Washington on January 15. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief. The highlights this week: The Trump administration contradicts itself over the U.S.-China trade deal, the Three Gorges Dam could be at risk of failure, and how Beijing slowed its renewed coronavirus outbreak. 

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Trump Has Had a Bad Week on China Policy

Six months on, the status of the U.S.-China trade deal remains murky. On Monday, U.S. trade advisor and China hawk Peter Navarro called the deal “over” in a TV interview, only to have President Donald Trump contradict him hours later after markets dipped. Trump attempted to put the onus of the breakdown in relations on China, but the state of the global economy makes fulfillment of even the “phase one” terms, which governed the first two years, unlikely.

Meanwhile, in a week that typified the administration’s inconsistent attitude on China, Trump has also doubled down on anti-Chinese racism, repeatedly using a racist term to describe the coronavirus. That gives easy ammunition to Beijing, seeking to position itself as the global defender of the Chinese diaspora against anti-Asian racism stirred by the pandemic. The wild swings coming out of Washington make it difficult to form coherent policy, but they also stir further mistrust in Beijing, where officials find it hard to grasp that the administration can be as chaotic as it is and instead see plots or deceit.

Political revelations. The rhetoric followed the release of former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s book, which alleges that Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help him win reelection, sided with Xi on China’s description of its concentration camps for ethnic minorities, and dismissed the plight of the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Trump signed the Uighur Human Rights Act last week after congressional pressure but admitted in an interview that he delayed sanctions in order to push through the trade deal—as FP’s Amy Mackinnon reported last year. Today it emerged that the White House had asked a senator to hold up another China sanctions bill.

Divided team. There have always been factions within Trump’s administration on China: the business-first approach of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; the racism of advisors such as Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon; the full-blown hawkishness of Navarro; the human rights-led policy of Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger.

As Bolton’s book shows, Trump—who has praised the 1989 Tiananmen massacre as showing “strength”—couldn’t give a damn about human rights in China. As in the rest of his foreign policy, personal need and flattery have shaped his attitude toward Beijing.


What We’re Following

Three Gorges Dam is at risk. The Chinese government is denying that the infamous Three Gorges Dam is at risk of collapse after heavy flooding and a warning from a famous hydrologist—raising suspicions, naturally, that it is in fact at risk. Foreign journalists attempting to report on the recent issues were followed and their sources threatened. A Three Gorges Dam collapse would be a disaster even greater than the last time a major dam failed in China. In 1975, the collapse of the Banqiao Dam killed 230,000 people.

Media spat intensifies. The United States has listed four more Chinese outlets as “foreign missions,” requiring them to register their staff and property in the United States. This round includes the Global Times, a belligerent tabloid owned by the People’s Daily, and the China News Service, which traditionally targets overseas Chinese communities and has been involved in social media propaganda campaigns. (I worked at both when I lived in China, and while there are diligent journalists at these publications doing the best they can, there’s no doubt the government ultimately pulls the strings.)

Expect a round of retaliatory expulsions of Western journalists, like the ones that followed the earlier measures in March.

Beijing’s new outbreak is halted. The comprehensive measures taken against a renewed coronavirus outbreak in Beijing appear successful, with just 249 cases reported total since the outbreak emerged last week. Chinese epidemiologists have warned that the country will live with the risk of future outbreaks for the foreseeable future, even when there are zero cases officially reported. Beijing performed 300,000 daily tests during this new outbreak, over half the number administered in the entire United States in one day.

Contentious book release delayed. A new book by Clive Hamilton—the author of the controversial but influential Silent Invasion—and Mareike Ohlberg on Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence in Western democracies is being held up by legal action threatened by one of the groups named, a Sino-British business association called the 48 Group Club.

This is notable because it presages future legal battles over ties to Beijing—and because it shows how clumsy Chinese influence can be. It’s often difficult for Chinese officials to know what’s important in other countries: The 48 Group Club holds little significance in U.K. politics but has been heavily promoted by Chinese media.


Tech and Business

Trade threats against India. Following the deadly border clash last week, Chinese media is making threats against India’s economy if boycotts continue. “Boycott China” is a popular call in India—even predating the border violence—and it is likely to pick up steam as India’s pandemic death toll grows. States are already canceling deals with Chinese firms. The Indian national leadership has so far held back, attracting criticism at home. But Beijing’s desire to pick fights—literal and metaphorical—seems strong at the moment, from Australia to Taiwan.

Tech backlash. Another consequence of the border clash is India’s decision to exclude Chinese companies from critical telecommunications infrastructure. That’s new: Even at the end of last year, India was looking to Huawei and other firms as potential partners. It’s going to be tough for Indian firms to separate from Chinese funding, but it’s a significant step. Security concerns over 5G are the potential foundation of a loose alliance directed at containing Chinese influence. A growing number of states once willing to work with Chinese firms, such as the U.K., are now calling for alternatives.

Baidu ends U.S. deal. The Chinese search giant Baidu, which has rebranded itself as an artificial intelligence firm in recent years, has left the Partnership for AI—a largely U.S.-led effort on global AI ethics. Baidu’s official reasoning was cost, but the increasingly cold atmosphere over tech policy likely played a role. Other AI firms have already been banned from working in the United States due to involvement with surveillance and control in Xinjiang.

As Jacob Helberg wrote in Foreign Policy this week, the walls are going up: Even firms that want to be neutral will have to pick sides.


What We’re Reading

Reading the China Dream does essential work collecting and translating Chinese essays by establishment intellectuals—and their critics. This full-on blast by the critic Rong Jian against the New Left scholar Wang Hui’s essay on Lenin shows how interesting this work can be when writers are able to write with some freedom. Rong and Wang were both Tiananmen participants, but Rong sees Wang as having sold out to the CCP.

Rong gets straight to the hollow ideas of establishment Maoists in contemporary China: “The conundrum faced by today’s Maoists is not much better; they would like to bring back Lenin’s ideas by commemorating the 150th anniversary of Lenin’s birth, but are prisoners of their poor imagination, crude language, and outdated notions, and are hence unable to reshape ‘Comrade Lenin’ into a modern Internet celebrity,” he writes.


That’s it for this week.

We welcome your feedback at newsletters@foreignpolicy.com. You can find older editions of China Brief here. For more from Foreign Policy, subscribe here or sign up for our other newsletters.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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