China voices strength, pushes nationalism around trade war



Yanan Wang and Sam McNeil | Washington Post

BEIJING — What do tilapia, Jane Austen and Chinese revolutionary poster art have in common?

All have been used to rally public support around China’s position in its trade dispute with the U.S., as the ruling Communist Party takes a more aggressive approach — projecting stability and stirring up nationalistic sentiment in the process.

“If you want to negotiate, the door is open,” anchor Kang Hui said Monday on state broadcaster CCTV. “If you want a trade war,” however, he added, “we’ll fight you until the end.”

“After 5,000 years of wind and rain, what hasn’t the Chinese nation weathered?” Kang said.

The toughly-worded monologue on the banner evening news program followed days of muted official responses to President Donald Trump’s decision to hike tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports. Trump startled financial markets with his May 5 announcement that U.S. tariffs would rise to 25% from 10% as of Friday.

After negotiations in Washington ended last week with no agreement, China retaliated Monday with higher tariffs on $60 billion worth of American goods, raising duties of 5% to 25%.

Then came the government’s public relations onslaught.

“Overnight, we saw official media — in the People’s Daily, China Daily, CCTV — all run spots about the United States as being a problematic negotiating partner,” said Jake Parker, vice president of China operations for the U.S.-China Business Council.

President Xi Jinping, the ruling party’s most powerful leader in decades, has made China’s foreign policy more assertive while nurturing the growth of a red-blooded but tightly controlled nationalism.

The approach reflects a new willingness to allow a shift in domestic public opinion where the trade war is concerned, Parker said.

Weibo, a Twitter-like social media platform which generally censors political discourse, has featured an unusual amount of tariff-related content since Monday. The site’s ranking of “trending topics,” usually dominated by celebrity news, highlighted Kang’s monologue and the subject “American stock market plunges.”

Internet users shared patriotic memes expressing confidence in China’s economy and contempt for the U.S. The commentary echoes earlier times when the U.S. and China were adversaries in the Korean War and for decades afterward.

“All the trade wars are paper tigers,” said a riff on a Communist propaganda poster showing People’s Liberation Army soldiers stamping on a pile of skulls. The poster alludes to Mao Zedong’s famous pronouncement that “All reactionaries are paper tigers” — a derogatory term which he also applied to American imperialism.

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