Close observers can glean clues about Chinese government policy based on the degree of censorship on discussions of certain topics. For example, I have been following the North Korean issue closely. After the conclusion of the annual sessions of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference on March 20, many articles related to North Korea on my WeChat public account were deleted by the network management department, even including those posted back in 2015. At that moment, I predicted that there would soon be some changes in Chinese policy toward North Korea because I criticized North Korea in many of my articles. It turned out that Kim Jong-un visited Beijing shortly after that.
Recently, there are more and more articles about the China-U.S. “trade war” on WeChat public accounts and they are rarely deleted. Since most of these articles criticize the United States and President Donald Trump, I reached the following conclusions: 1) China is definitely using public opinion to put pressure on the U.S. government; 2) Xi Jinping’s firm hand against Trump’s threat of a “trade war” is authentic; and 3) Trump should take Xi’s stance seriously.
In fact, I don’t think there will be a trade war between the United States and China since they are the world’s largest and second largest economies. The value of their bilateral trade equals the GDP of many countries. The economic damage of a China-U.S. trade war could be comparable to that of a real war. No rational politician would agree to it — but that, of course, requires accepting the premise that Trump could be rational.
Scholars and journalists also generally take a calm view toward a China-U.S. trade war. They think the announced tariffs are a form of game playing between China and the United States, just like their back-and-forth on other issues like Taiwan and North Korea. After all, Sino-U.S. relations are multidimensional and economic frictions and political frictions coexist, which is understandable.
What’s critical is that it seems the Sino-U.S. economic communication mechanism in the Trump era is not as smooth as it used to be. There are even problems with some high-level interactions and economic dialogues. Chinese academics cite, as an example of this, that Liu He, Xi’s close aide and a vice premier of the State Council, didn’t meet with Trump in person during his visit to the United States, which was considered a bad sign for Sino-U.S. relations. In brief, what’s frightening is not the existence of misunderstanding but the lack of a comprehensive and mature exchange mechanism to address issues.
But what do ordinary Chinese people think? This question should be considered from two perspectives. Most people are closely following the developments, and gained both national pride and confidence from the counterattack launched by the Chinese government against Trump. Some people, though, think that China may have no advantages in a trade war and will suffer bigger losses, because there is a significant quantitative difference between products imported by China from the United States and the products imported by the U.S. from China. Some netizens point out that China could sell a large number of U.S. Treasury securities as a counterattack against a trade war, but China wouldn’t benefit much from doing so.
There are even some people who think that from a personal standpoint it might not be a bad thing if the United States could pressure China economically, because it might make China more open and, for example, make it much more convenient and cheaper for Chinese people to buy imported cars.
In his speech at the Boao Forum for Asia recently, Xi referred to China’s plan to become more open in the finance, insurance, and automobile sectors, among others. Many saw this as a response to Trump’s threat. One conclusion thus has gained traction among Chinese: this is a concession on the part of China’s government to the United States, which means that it is effective for Trump to pressure China using economic means.
One interesting aspect of this debate is the stance of relatively radical Chinese people. This group argues that, as the United States has always been tough on China over the years, China should take this trade war as an opportunity to teach the United States a lesson in order to make the United States more polite when dealing with China in the future. “Since Trump is the president they [the Americans] elected, they should pay for it,” such posts often argue.
People who embrace this view have seesawed back and forth along with Trump’s mood changes. For example, Trump tweeted on April 8 that he and Xi would always be friends and that the Sino-U.S. trade conflicts would be solved, which was interpreted and celebrated by many as a concession made by Trump to China. On the next day, however, Trump tweeted about China’s unfair 25 percent tariffs on car imports from the United States and called on China to put a full stop to it. So the same people angrily called Trump a lunatic who is reckless, thoughtless, and dangerous to China.
The fact that Trump frequently tweets about China has been a hot topic among Chinese people. His tweets never fail to cause a big stir among the public. Some believe that he is good at putting up smokescreens to confuse Chinese people and leaders. There have also been calls for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to find an appropriate way to offset Trump’s preemptive strategy of diplomacy, since passive responses might not be enough to adapt to the new situation.
Ever since Trump started the trade war, the United States has also taken many provocative steps on the Taiwan issue as well, infuriating Chinese people and increasing their deep concerns over Trump’s real goal behind the trade war. More and more people believe that the United States is trying to “contain” China through political, economic, and military means, and think China should make big adjustments to Sino-U.S. relations as a result.