The world is eagerly anticipating next week’s bilateral talks between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in San Francisco (although China is yet to announce Xi’s participation). Yet if numerous op-ed writings and readers’ comments in the Chinese mainstream media are any indication, the mood in China is not in favor of Xi traveling to the United States. Last Monday, a Chinese write-up titled “美国的欺诈” (“The American Fraud”), declared that the “high-level U.S.-China bilateral meeting is entirely to serve the interests of ‘fraud’ America.”
Reacting to a guancha.cn report titled, “Will Chinese, American leaders be holding summit talks in San Francisco?” one reader commented: “‘Return to Bali’ is really the starting point, otherwise there is no need to meet. A video or phone call is enough…” Another stronger public reaction to the expected Biden-Xi meeting sounded more like a warning than advice: “Consensus no, coexistence yes. A meeting between two hostile, modern leaders with different personalities will not really end well. If the United States continues to say one thing and do another, there is no need to waste President Xi’s time, President Xi is too busy.”
In fact, overlooked by the global media, the critical issue of Sino-U.S. relations at present has been keeping Chinese society vertically split into two rival – and at times hostile – political camps. These camps emerged following the “anti-China” trade and tariff policies launched first under the Trump administration, followed by an overall political, economic, and diplomatic “China containment” policy – also being called “new” U.S. Cold War against China – under President Joe Biden. Amid these developments, not only China’s strategic affairs community but also Chinese society in general seems to have been divided in two rigid, mutually ideologically contesting factions, which can be characterized as “pro-U.S.” and “anti-U.S.”
Earlier in the summer, the mainstream U.S. and international media, as well as the official Chinese media, all were positively interpreting a flurry of visits to China by top U.S. officials as much awaited “easing” of the current state of China-U.S. relations. Yet a large section of China’s intelligentsia was alarmed by the sudden “friendly” attitude the central government in Beijing displayed toward the United States. Chinese official media widely reported that Premier Li Qiang expressed the hope that the appearance of a rainbow upon U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s arrival in Beijing was a sign of the “dark clouds over the Sino-U.S. relations dispelling.” But the op-ed columns highlighted a growing chasm between the two conflicting narratives when some commentators openly demonized Yellen and her “uninvited” visit.
Targeting the visiting Yellen, and spitting venom in a scathingly attacking column, Meng Yan, a former deputy director of a think tank under China’s Ministry of National Defense, pointed to Yellen’s “infamous” speech at the John Hopkins University last April in which she aggressively advocated that U.S. firms lessen dependence on China. Meng wrote: “Yellen has a clear three-point agenda: China must continue to purchase U.S. bonds, must reduce its high-tech investments, and must allow U.S. companies and investments to freely enter China.” Elsewhere, scornfully dismissive of Yellen’s veiled threats, yet another Chinese commentator said: “This is what the political elite of the U.S. Empire demands of China. And the ‘old Jewish grandma’ has come to Beijing not to negotiate but to dictate.” (Emphasis added)
The intensity of the duel between two opposite narratives is best understood by looking at a bizarre video currently circulating on the Chinese social media – conveying a warning to all those opposed to the upcoming Biden-Xi in-person talks, their second in two years.
The video is anchored by a young woman who tagged herself as @doctoralscholar and is seen issuing instructions in a serious and loud tone, imitating a Communist Party official. In the video, citing an article dated October 31 in the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, People’s Daily, the young anchorwoman issues an appeal in lecturing tone, saying: “Sino-U.S. relations have entered a new situation. All individuals who deliberately incite anti-American sentiments, maliciously provoke attacks on the United States, slander and smear the latest policies of the central government will be dealt with ruthlessly and resolutely. The central government’s new decision-making does not allow any interference.”
The video even condemns by name many well-known leftist “anti-U.S.” Chinese international relations specialists, scholars, and media figures. Some prominent public figures named in the video include Professors Jin Canrong and Zhang Weiwei, and one of China’s most popular Maoist-leftist media figure, Si Manan (who has been carrying out a one-man crusade against top Chinese billionaire-capitalists such as Jack Ma, Pony Ma, and Xu Jiayin in the columns of the popular Maoist digital platform, the Utopia).
As pointed out by Lan Binqiang, the sole purpose of the video is to criticize and condemn all those who belong to the left of the ideological divide and who have been advocating that Xi should not “normalize” or “stabilize” Beijing’s relations with Washington.
In a long analytical commentary, a well-known Kunlunce.com (a popular leftist digital platform) foreign affairs columnist, Lan Binqiang, expressed “shock” at how the video attempts to “manipulate China-U.S. issue and spread rumors at this sensitive moment.” Lan’s article was first uploaded by the radical left website Red Song Club and then subsequently aired by various left-oriented and mainstream platforms.
The video has been denigrated as a “fake.” Indeed, there does not appear to be much effort being made to truly censor those opposed to a Biden-Xi summit. Just a casual glance at media commentaries and social media blogs would reveal a flood of op-ed articles suspicious of the United States’ intentions.
In a speech delivered at the Annual Conference of China Asia Pacific Society, Fudan University, in late October, Professor Wu Xinbo, dean and director of the Center for American Studies, expounded on why Biden is pulling out all the stops to bring Xi on board to attend the APEC meeting in San Francisco. Wu underscored two reasons: It will make Biden’s diplomacy appear successful and send a signal within the United States that Biden is doing his best to stabilize relations with China, while at the same time carrying out strong competition with China.
In a hard-hitting article, influential left-leaning Maoist intellectual Zhang Zhikun dismissively asked the question: “With the United States continuing its strategic competition policy toward China, can China-U.S. relations really get better?” In reply to his own question, Zhang rhetorically wondered, isn’t it true that only until a few days ago scholars and analysts in China asserted that Sino-U.S. relations were irreversibly broken and would never get better? Isn’t it true, Zhang further asked, that the broad consensus in China, in official as well as in academic circles, is that the strategic competition launched by the United States against China is “just a variant of the Cold War”?
As preparations continue for Xi’s trip to San Francisco, an article that first appeared in March this year on the popular news and current affairs portal toutiao.com (the “fake” video mentioned above attacked toutiao.com by name for its anti-U.S. commentaries), has again gone viral on several digital platforms since last Thursday. Authored by a well-known economist and influential expert on Sino-U.S. relations, Peking University Professor Li Lingyao, the commentary contends that “China’s biggest problem is that some intellectuals have been brainwashed by the United States.” It is pertinent to recall, just a couple of weeks after Li’s article was published, Xi Jinping himself gave a speech at the March “two sessions” accusing Washington of trying to contain China and undermine the country’s further development.
In the face of such overwhelming anti-U.S. sentiment in China, what is compelling Xi to match Biden’s eagerness for bilateral talks on the sidelines of the APEC summit? A definite clue to resolve the riddle may be found in the People’s Daily commentary published on October 31 – the same day as the White House issued a statement confirming the two leaders would meet in San Francisco (something China has yet to confirm, for its part). Published under the signed column “Zhongsheng,” a space known for airing the CCP’s official line on foreign affairs, the commentary invited the United States to cooperate with China and said it is the best choice and the right path for China and the U.S.
Finally, notwithstanding whatever “guardrails” the two leaders may put in place, no one in Beijing or Washington is expecting a major breakthrough coming out of Xi’s first outing to the United States in seven years. In the end, despite the vigorous debate surrounding the event, the Biden-Xi bilateral talks in all probability promise to turn out to be what one Chinese reader commented: a “chicken-duck dialogue.”