Chinese Perceptions of the U.S. ‘Trade War’

In many ways, Chinese views of the trade war are nearly identical to the opinions of U.S. citizens on the other side of the dispute: they are divided, largely along support for the administration in charge.

Over a year ago, in January 2018, President Trump began imposing tariffs on U.S. imports, over time expanding the scope of the tariffs to cover additional goods from various countries. In July 2018, Trump issued tariffs covering 818 categories of Chinese goods worth $50 billion, and China announced its own retaliatory tariffs on that same day, launching “the largest trade war in economic history” according to the Chinese Commerce Ministry.

Since the initial shots were fired, both sides have threatened additional tariffs, met to negotiate, set deadlines, and granted extensions. Seeing as both nations’ leaders – Trump and Xi Jinping – owe at least some of their rise to power to the cults of personality that they’ve created, much of this maneuvering appears to be directed at times by interests of ego as much as the economy. Nevertheless, the two countries have a lot to lose if the so-called war doesn’t end peacefully: the U.S. is the number one importer of Chinese goods, buying 18% of all of China’s exports. And China is the third largest market for U.S. exported goods, at 8.4%.

Neither Friend Nor Foe

In spite of their intricately linked economies, the U.S. and China have not been considered allies. And despite their conflicting ideologies, neither have they been considered enemies – at least up until this point. But now, Trump has called China a serious threat, and a Chinese minister has said the U.S. trade restrictions are tantamount to “holding a knife to our neck.” However, this strong rhetoric does not appear to be winning either side any additional supporters. As is largely the case in the U.S., Chinese perceptions of the trade war and the actions taken by the Communist Party of China (CPC) appear to be split along party lines.

In Fall 2018, at amidst the trade war’s tit-for-tat, a joke made the rounds on the Chinese internet: “at 8 a.m., Xi hears of a new round of tariffs from Trump; at 9 a.m., Xi is publicly threatening harsh retaliation; and by 4 p.m., he is quietly ordering quick compliance with U.S. demands behind the scenes.” For Chinese citizens quietly critical of the CPC, the trade war is viewed as a greater threat to the Party than to regular people. In their eyes, the regime and its less than savory actions are only legitimized by the economic successes produced; thus, any threat to the export-oriented economy’s prosperity is also a threat to the Party. Indeed, in recent years, Chinese citizens have said that the two biggest problems facing their country are corrupt officials and economic inequality – though many also believe that Xi is taking care of these problems and the situation will improve in the future.

From this perspective, the trade war persists not because of a battle for economic dominance between China and the U.S. but principally to maintain party control. This parallels the view in the U.S. that Trump’s tariffs are chiefly politically motivated – they exist to cater to his political base, despite their economic cost.

“Nothing Will Stop China”

The CPC version of the origin of the trade war is the inverse: the motivation was purely a matter of economic expediency. The U.S. is the world’s largest economy. China is the second largest economy and growing much more rapidly than the U.S. Therefore, the U.S. had to do something to protect its position at the top, and the tariffs were the U.S.’s attempt to stop China’s rise. A director of a Chinese university clarified that this was the “actual purpose” of the U.S. actions, despite what the Trump administration has claimed about wishing to balance the trade deficit or improve American manufacturing jobs.

A Chinese businessman with this view added: “You realize that you Americans are too late? We’re too big to be pushed around anymore.” Thus, he believes that even if the U.S. wins the tariff battle, China will ultimately win the overall trade war. As a local lawyer explained, in terms of exports, “nothing will stop China from going abroad because it’s driven by an internal need – being a closed market for so long and now being given the opportunity to open up.” This viewpoint has been expressed in state publications, by researchers in the Ministry of Commerce, by China’s international trade representative, and by Chinese students, and it appears to be fairly universal. Even before President Trump came into office, a majority of Chinese people thought the U.S. was “trying to prevent China from becoming an equal power,” and only 29% of Chinese citizens believed the U.S. was “willing to accept China’s rise.” The Trump administration’s tendency to focus on external threats to jobs and the economy – immigrants rather than infrastructure, foreign manufacturers rather than domestic mechanization – may have unwittingly provided Xi and the CPC something just as tangible and useful to his supporters: ostensible confirmation of their longstanding fears.

Works Cited

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