In the context of the escalating trade war between the United States and China, a paradoxical phenomenon is that the trade war is not been a hot issue for China’s online society in general.
Apart from the business professionals and manufacturers who are worried about the increasing tariffs on their products, large numbers of Chinese netizens — including many university students, school teachers, junior civil servants, and white-collar office workers — rarely discuss the tensions in U.S.–China relations in their blogs and WeChat Moments.
A closer look at Chinese online public opinion reveals that there are three reasons why many Chinese do not lay a strong emphasis on the trade dispute and do not consider it a serious problem.
Above all, there is in general a lack of media coverage about the trade war in online news in China. As a result of deepening Chinese self-consciousness along with China’s rapid economic development over the past four decades, the traditional media such as newspapers, magazines, and televisions tend to focus more on national news — such as new policies launched by the Chinese government — and local news of various provinces and cities rather than international news. Meanwhile, the Chinese internet media and social media represented by Sina Weibo, Jinri Toutiao, and WeChat Public Accounts, whose target audience is the younger generation in China, are more inclined to report entertainment news than political news in order to gain more click rate and page views.
Second, a popular opinion among Chinese netizens is that the dueling tariff plans of the United States and China will not last long, because U.S. President Donald Trump is too capricious to stick to one policy for a long period. Another reason that may prevent Trump from launching a long-term and full-scale trade war against China is, according to this argument, that Trump will not be able to convince other partners (such as European countries) to join in sanctioning China, nor gain support from the American farmers and ranchers, a core support base for Trump, who will bear the brunt of China’s retaliatory tariffs on U.S. agricultural products. It is interesting to note that rumors and fake news about the end of the trade war are disseminated across certain Chinese individual social media accounts from time to time.
Third and more importantly, many Chinese believe, perhaps wrongly, that the United States has more to lose than China and that the ongoing trade row will not lead to serious consequences for their country. The fact that China has still managed to achieve an economic growth rate of 6.5 percent this year (according to the official figures) in an unfavorable international environment strengthens this line of thinking. Until now, apart from manufacturers and traders, the majority of the Chinese population’s daily life has not been profoundly affected by the trade war. True, quite a few Chinese netizens are worried about the shaking stock market. But it is important to keep in mind that stock fluctuations occasionally took place in China even before the start of the trade wrestling.
Moreover, some Chinese people believe that in the worst case, Chinese political and economic institutions can still operate even if there is complete disentanglement between the U.S. economy and the Chinese economy, in view of China’s integral industry chains, large domestic market, and long history of self-sufficiency economy. A post on Zhihu, a popular Chinese question-and-answer website, states, “If Russia is [economically] blocked by the U.S., Russians will starve to death. But the same scenario will not take place in China, because if China is economically blocked, we can farm the land ourselves, and weave clothes by ourselves… Our parents used to live like this.”
Noticeably, there is a tendency to make fun of the Trump administration’s trade sanctions on Beijing in Chinese society. Some merchants even exploit the notion of a trade war for commercial marketing. For instance, a cinema in a small city of China that foreigners rarely visit has posted a notice written in the Chinese language on its gates, stating: “Please be informed that there is an extra charge of 25 percent consumption tax for the clients who are American citizens.” To cite another example, a constellation guide website has published an article attributing the trade war between the United States and China to Mercury being in retrograde.
Of course, it is still too early to predict how relations between the United States and China will develop in the future. However, what can be said for certain is that there is currently a lack of support in Chinese public opinion for the Chinese government to negotiate and compromise with the White House to ease the tensions between the two countries. In the end, this may contribute to transforming the dangerous tit-for-tat game between Beijing-Washington into a long-term confrontation.
Chuchu Zhang is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Politics and International Studies in the University of Cambridge.
Chaowei Xiao is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Land Economy in the University of Cambridge.