Trade war with U.S. as seen by Chinese media


Chinese media have devoted considerable airtime and news pages this spring to the trade war with the United States.

China’s President Xi Jinping has drawn guidelines for Chinese media on several occasions since 2013. In particular, he pointed out that the Communist Party’s media should guide the public, serve the country’s overall interests, instill confidence and pool strength and connect China to the world after his official visits in 2016 to China Central Television (CCTV), Xinhua News Agency and the People’s Daily — all of which major stakeholders under direct leadership of the Party.

Xi also highlighted the role of the internet in “telling the China stories well” to help international communities better understand Chinese economy and society. A new TV and radio network is combining CCTV, China National Radio and China Radio International, using the name the “Voice of China.” The goal is to present a multidimensional China and show the country’s efforts to keep international order and build a community of common destiny.

China is determined to protect its national interest. As frictions between China and the United States increase, Chinese state media stories and editorials about the trade fight showcase new moves and changing media strategies.

None of the media coverage is critical of China. The reason, Chinese media analysts say, is Chinese media see no blame on the part of the Chinese government.

Use foreign sources to tell China stories

The state media are using foreign sources to enhance their credibility. Instead of airing only Chinese scholars’ analysis of the trade issue, influential international experts and politicians are also invited to talk.

..Xinhua quoted Thore Schlaak, a German economist, who has spoken out against a trade war. Xinhua News Agency also reported Michael Bloomberg, the founder of Bloomberg L.P., as saying, “The U.S. and China need cooperation instead of trade wars.” The People’s Daily interviewed Lee Hsien Loong, prime minister of Singapore, who said the trade war would hurt all countries involved.

By presenting the stories from an international perspective, Chinese state media are hoping to appeal to an international audience, thus encouraging the audience to feel such stories are more balanced and persuasive. To Chinese viewers, having international experts analyze China-U.S. trade issues promotes China as a major country in affecting issues of global significance. Too, this is a response to Xi’s instruction to the Chinese media to “tell China stories well.”

Voice tough stance

With the mission to guide the public in mind, Chinese news outlets have run both opinion pieces and regular news coverage. Recent People’s Daily headlines include:

• “China doesn’t want a trade war”

• “China isn’t afraid to fight a trade war”

• “We will accompany the U.S. until the end”

All three headlines mirror remarks made by Lu Kang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, at a recent press conference.

Such sentiments are easily found in state media’s news coverage. Xinhua blamed America for the trade war. On the People’s Daily’s website, many opinion pieces have been published since early April when the American government announced the result of 301 investigations and a tariff of 25 percent to be imposed on more than 1,300 imported products from China. Most of these op-ed pieces said the U.S action “was wrong” or “showed over-confidence” in the trade conflict. Xinhua concluded, “The country has never surrendered to external pressure, and it will not surrender this time either,” emphasizing China will retaliate against U.S. protectionism at any cost.

As reported by the Guardian, Dennis Wilder, an Asian policy adviser to the Bush administration, said, “The Chinese will feel they have the moral high-ground since the U.S. is operating outside of the WTO system and the administration has not co-ordinated with other countries.”

“I hope that American politicians and so-called strategists will not take the wrong direction, but make the right choices at the crossroads of history,” Xinhua quoted Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the U.S.

Media reports also assessed the underlying reasons and consequences  of U.S.-China trade friction. The China Daily reported Beijing has warned hegemonic thinking is behind the U.S. Treasury Department’s plan to restrict sensitive Chinese investments in the country’s high-tech sector. According to this report, Teng Jianqun, director of the Department for American Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, said the Trump administration is concerned China may bring changes to the existing global business order led by the U.S.

Phoenix TV, a Hong Kong news network, suggests the current trade fight is also a “trump card” played by the president for the upcoming mid-term elections. “In order to win the support of the voters, it is necessary to try more or less to implement the promises made during the election.”

Phoenix TV also analyzed the China-U.S. trade structure, saying that if the Sino-US trade war escalated, it would threaten China’s high-end manufacturing development and economic growth, increase the cost of living for the American people, push up U.S. inflation, restrict consumption and cast a shadow on the global economic recovery.

Chinese media have sent a clear message that the trade war will hurt all nations. By emphasizing trade war’s negative impact, these reports show China endeavors to avoid a trade war not just for its own sake, but also for the sake of all international communities.

Mixed views on social media

The trade conflicts have also created a social media buzz. Sina Weibo is a microblog service with some 360 million registered users. According to a popular saying here, to know what indeed is going on in China, one only needs to read Weibo posts. On Weibo, the topic “hit back trade war” ranked top three in the social issue section.

According to Weibo’s official data, in the past month, the heat discussion index of the hot-word “trade war” reached a maximum of 246,166 (Figure 1), and users concerned about this issue range mostly between 30 and 50 years old. The index was calculated by the times the hot-word was mentioned in original posts and reposts. Peaks indicate when important announcements about tariffs impositions were made by China and the U.S.

On March 23, Trump announced he would impose a tariff of 25 percent on high-end products including aviation products, modern railways, new energy vehicles and high-tech products. China announced the list of counter-attack products the same day. And on April 4, out of retaliation, China decided to impose a tariff of 25 percent on 14 categories of products — including 106 items; such as soybeans, automobiles and chemicals.

Nationalistic emotion was evident in the comment section of the state media’s Weibo accounts. After the Ministry of Commerce responded to the U.S. government’s decision banning American companies from selling technologies to ZTE, a Chinese telecommunications equipment and systems company, Weibo users posted the following on April 17:

• Let’s boycott Apple!

• Good job China! We have to safeguard our interest

• Believe in China! This kind of nationalist

This kind of nationalist sentiment spread quickly on the Internet

However, under these emotional and nationalistic posts, more sober Weibo users warned, “It is stupid to boycott Apple.” There are also more rational voices saying, “The U.S. is actually restricting the development of China’s science and technology;” “Even so, the trade war should not be continued.”

In this tit-for-tat war, Chinese state media remain the flagships in disseminating information to both Chinese and international audiences. These media outlets are guiding the public, serving the country’s overall interests and instilling confidence and pooling strength set by Xi and the leadership.

Meanwhile, the tone of the news reports reflects Xi’s vision that China seeks to tackle with multilateral issues such as international trade by playing the role as a responsible major country

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