Why China Has Sharpened Its Anti-American Rhetoric
Washington has become a convenient scapegoat for Beijing. That says more about Chinese President Xi Jinping than it does about their relationship.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: Chinese official rhetoric increasingly targets the United States as a scapegoat for its own problems, the annual meetings of China’s rubberstamp parliament get underway, and more details of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s governance restructuring plan emerge.
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Washington Has Become Beijing’s Scapegoat
Recent days have seen yet another uptick in China’s anti-American rhetoric, with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang—a former ambassador to the United States—complaining about how the country was “cheating” in global competition at a press conference and with Chinese President Xi Jinping taking direct aim at Washington and its allies in a speech.
What is striking is how both officials leaned on a recent theme in Chinese politics: Everything is the fault of the United States. Washington has become a convenient scapegoat for anything that doesn’t go Beijing’s way. Economy faltering? Xi claimed in his speech that Western countries, led by the United States, “implemented all-round containment, encirclement, and suppression against us.” Pushback in the South China Sea? Washington has stirred up trouble. Is the public revolting against the elite? The United States must be behind so-called color revolutions.
This mentality is dangerous, not only for international relations but also if China is to have any chance of solving its domestic issues. To be sure, the inverse rhetoric has appeared in U.S. politics too. But the rule of power applies: China thinks more about the United States than the United States thinks about China. In a divided Washington, shots at Beijing are usually aimed at the other side of the political table. Meanwhile, op-eds about how the United States is too harsh on China can easily be published in the United States; doing the opposite would be personally risky in China.
Anti-American rhetoric has been a staple in Beijing since the People’s Republic of China was founded. Even during the relatively conciliatory 1990s and 2000s, griping about “a certain country”—as the United States was often called in state media editorials—was common. But the leadership and intellectuals were willing to accept that China needed to change and that the roots of many problems might be domestic failings—not the machinations of a foreign opponent. The state even endorsed the idea that China could learn from foreign practices, particularly in science and economics.
By the early 2010s, a new emphasis on blaming the United States for internal and geopolitical problems had become visible. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s paranoia about color revolutions grew stronger after the Arab Spring, fueling propaganda. Fears that the United States was winning the hearts and minds of young Chinese led to cultural crackdowns and online censorship. Revelations about successful U.S. intelligence penetration within China helped drive political purges. But then, Xi had a ready-made excuse for reforms and purges: fighting corruption that had grown within the CCP and government during the 2000s.
Xi has now entered his third term, and national failings are more clearly linked to his leadership. But acknowledging this has become impossible: Even hinting at disagreement with Xi has become a political disaster. That has worsened already-hyperbolic CCP official language. So the collapse of Chinese diplomatic efforts during the pandemic has become the “glorious accomplishments” of Chinese diplomacy. The abrupt end of China’s zero-COVID policy has become its triumph over the virus. The only entity left to blame when things have gone too wrong to cover up—such as the economy—is the United States.
As a result, finding a so-called floor for the U.S.-China relationship has become increasingly difficult. Anti-American language is not merely a reaction to U.S. actions; it is useful for China’s domestic politics. U.S. officials may have to accept that Chinese trash-talking is inevitable, even while they are carrying out backdoor diplomacy on areas of genuine shared interest. Meanwhile, Chinese officials should understand that the White House can’t punish any U.S. politician who engages in a bit of China-bashing.
The anti-American mood will also eventually trickle down into the treatment of U.S. businesses in China, adding more regulatory barriers. Although Beijing is happy to carve out exceptions for finance firms with close links to the elite, officials will be sniffing the wind and unwilling to take risks for other U.S. companies. For example, the recent thaw that allowed for many Hollywood releases in China is likely to be gone in the next six months.
But it’s an open question as to how much the amped-up rhetoric will shape Chinese state actions on a larger scale. The appetite for direct confrontation with Washington may be smaller than the volume of rhetorical aggression suggests. As I wrote recently, the litmus test for this remains whether or not China actually supplies Russia with weapons for its war in Ukraine or sticks with complaining about NATO on every evening news broadcast. It’s easy to blame the United States for everything. It’s much harder to challenge it directly.
What We’re Following
China’s lobbying season. The annual meetings of China’s rubberstamp parliament, called the Two Sessions, are now fully underway. The event is used to formally confirm decisions already made within the CCP, such as Xi’s third term or a change of premier. But it is also an important lobbying opportunity for mid-rank politicians and business leaders. Being a representative of the National People’s Congress (NPC), one of the two bodies involved, is an honorary position often granted to the rich. As China expert Zichen Wang smartly pointed out, this session has seen numerous NPC representatives put forward proposals that advance their own interests.
The NPC is also a venue for token representation deployed as propaganda, such as including ethnic minority delegates who are expected to attend in traditional costume or making 25 percent of the delegates women. By contrast, the party’s Standing Committee wields actual power, and there, the number of women is at a record low at 5 percent.
The other body that’s meeting this week, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, is used to float wilder propositions—usually to stir media discussion. Sometimes these conversations are more positive, but they have recently turned toward vicious nationalism, such as a proposal this year to create kill lists of Taiwanese intellectuals in the event of an invasion.
Warming up. This spring is unusually hot for China. Cities are seeing record-breaking temperatures for March, as high as 25 degrees Celsius (or 77 degrees Fahrenheit), which is normally early summer weather. The warm weather has made for a lot of family outings, but it is disturbing news given China’s climate vulnerabilities. The country has been pummeled by unseasonable weather in the last few years, from a brutal cold snap this winter—which may have played a part in setting the spy balloon off course—to drought last year that contributed to an electricity crisis.
In a country where much of the public was beholden within living memory to the patterns of seasonal agriculture, these weather extremes are worrisome, especially given food security concerns.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• China’s Ukraine Peace Plan Is Actually About Taiwan by Craig Singleton
• Why China Is Not a Superpower by Jo Inge Bekkevold
• Putin’s Russian Critics Are Growing Ever Louder by Anchal Vohra
Tech and Business
The grand reorganizing. More details of Xi’s plan to restructure Chinese governance are emerging. There is no formal sign yet of the security services’ rumored rework, but the state has formally presented plans to consolidate technological and financial control, including the creation of a National Data Bureau. That consolidation solidifies the CCP’s grip over big technology firms established during recent crackdowns—and echoes how aspects of civil society like religion and cultural production were bought under tighter party leadership a few years ago.
One key element of the shift is greater CCP control over top private firms. It will result in a greater prominence for party branches and takes place in the context of China holding so-called golden shares, named for a mechanism created in 2013 for advisory purposes that now gives the CCP direct formal control of many business decisions.
For ordinary people, the reorganizing will mostly create a new level of bureaucracy to deal with at work, especially if they are party members themselves. (Meetings, for example, have doubled or tripled in frequency in some firms, according to sources.) For the elite, the disappearance of billionaire Bao Fan remains an unpleasant reminder of the costs of making an error.
Watching Ukraine. China is increasingly irate about Western aid to Ukraine—in part because of its pro-Russian sympathies but also because the assistance sets a precedent for the United States to get in the way of Chinese aggression against Taiwan or other neighbors. The use of U.S. weapons in Ukraine gives Chinese strategists particular pause and creates an opportunity to consider how to counter U.S. strengths, such as satellite-based systems and man-portable missiles.
Meanwhile, Chinese firm DJI—the world’s dominant producer of civilian drones—is struggling with being drawn into the war’s politics. Both sides have made extensive use of civilian drones, mostly sourced secondhand from DJI. The company pulled direct orders from Ukraine and Russia last April, but it has now made its products unavailable on other vendors’ sites, such as AliExpress—possibly in response to the story that another Chinese firm was negotiating drone sales with the Russian military.
The move reflects the overall attitude of Chinese firms: willing to profit from the Russian market but extremely reluctant to get pulled into the war.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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