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What’s the response in China to the trade war?

Here are three things to watch.

- May 15, 2019

U.S.-China trade talks ended Friday without a deal. The United States increased tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods, and Beijing retaliated Monday by announcing it would enact new tariffs on $60 billion of U.S. goods. Although China’s response was proportionate, state media also unleashed a barrage of nationalist rhetoric.

A video clip from Xinwen Lianbo, China’s most watched nightly news broadcast, went viral: “If the U.S. wants to talk, our door is open … If the U.S. wants to fight, we’ll be with them till the end.” Mentions of a “trade war” on Chinese media have spiked, suggesting that government censors have loosened the reins on coverage of the U.S.-China standoff.

What does this renewed surge in strident Chinese commentary mean for the ongoing U.S.-China trade fight? Here are three things to watch.

1. Beijing is rolling out the nationalist propaganda

The Chinese government appears to be preparing the public for a protracted and costly trade war, resisting what it calls U.S. “bullying.” At the same time, Vice Premier Liu He made it clear after the Friday talks ended that Beijing remains open to a deal that gives enough “dignity” to the Chinese side.

By proclaiming that China will fight to the end and invoking the nation’s experience with hardship over 5,000 years of history, the Chinese government is likely trying to shore up popular resolve for a long and painful trade war, should the Trump administration refuse to relent. Broadcasting that the government is standing up to U.S. pressure sets the stage for the Chinese government to blame the nation’s economic pain on U.S. tariffs.

2. The Chinese government may be open to creative ways out of this stalemate

The barrage of nationalist propaganda need not prevent the Chinese leadership from agreeing to a future deal, which President Trump has said could happen “much faster than people think.”

The Chinese leadership has often looked for ways to move past disputes that became rhetorically heated. After a Chinese fighter jet rammed a U.S. EP-3 spy plane off China’s coast in 2001, the Chinese government celebrated the downed pilot as a martyr — but prevented anti-American demonstrations in China. Ultimately, Beijing released the crew and relented on its demand for a formal apology from the George W. Bush administration, accepting “very sorry” instead.

During a more recent spat with South Korea over the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system, the Chinese government patched up relations with Seoul even though the system remains in place.

Nationalist rhetoric and propaganda make it harder for the Chinese government to make concessions in public, but creative wording and diplomatic finesse can often allow the government to save face at the end of the day.

Some of the Chinese government’s rhetoric could be bluster. In a forthcoming article in International Studies Quarterly, my co-author and I find that tough but ultimately vague talk in international disputes can boost domestic support for the Chinese government — even if that rhetoric was ultimately unaccompanied by further action.

Our survey experiments with Chinese Internet users in 2015-2016 invoked a different context — a dispute over whether foreign aircraft can operate freely in the airspace off China’s coast. But the results of this survey suggest that strident nationalist rhetoric can bolster domestic approval for the Chinese government, even without real action.

3. Will we see anti-American boycotts and protests in China?

The sharp escalation in rhetoric from Beijing has triggered speculation from some U.S. commentators that anti-U.S. protests could be imminent.

The Chinese government is unlikely to unleash or incite popular anger in this way, particularly given the proximity to the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. President Xi Jinping’s style also favors state-led nationalism over grass-roots activism — and public demonstrations make the government wary.

Since Xi took the helm in 2012, the Chinese government has not tolerated anti-foreign street demonstrations of any appreciable size, despite rhetorical broadsides against perceived transgressions by the Philippines, Vietnam and South Korea, among other nations. Street-level nationalism could make it harder for Beijing to make a deal while striking that delicate balance between offering concessions and also appearing to defend the nation’s dignity.

That said, if the Chinese government does tolerate or encourage anti-American protests going forward, it will mark a new phase in the trade war and significant escalation in the U.S.-China standoff. When anti-Japanese protests spread to almost 200 cities across China in 2012, the commercial casualties were enormous. In a working paper, my co-authors and I estimate that sales of Japanese brands fell by 1.1 million in the automobile industry alone, and that the effect lasted for several years. The boycott effect was strongest in cities that witnessed anti-Japanese protests.

So far, Chinese consumers have been less than enthusiastic about sacrificing their iPhones and fast-food habits on the altar of U.S.-China trade frictions. As those trade “tensions” escalate to a full-fledged trade “war” in the Chinese news media, that could change.

Where do we go from here?

Trump appears to believe incorrectly that China, rather than U.S. consumers and businesses that use Chinese inputs, is paying for the tariffs. But the Chinese government seems willing to resist Trump’s threats and punitive tariffs so far. A Xinhua commentary even invoked a Korean War-era statement by Chairman Mao: “However long the U.S. wants to fight, we will fight, until we have achieved complete victory.”

Jessica Chen Weiss (@jessicacweiss) is an associate professor of government at Cornell University, a Monkey Cage editor and the author of Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations (Oxford University Press, 2014).