Perspectives: The Month Through China’s Eyes
Chinese media coverage for most of the month focused on a series of international security and trade related issues, mainly focusing on the deteriorating relationship with the United States following the recent escalation of actions and rhetoric by President Trump, as well as on the ongoing North Korean nuclear crisis. At the end of the month, the proposed amendment to China’s constitution to lift the two-term limit on the presidency came as surprise to much of the country, and triggered a series of editorials in state owned newspapers to explain and justify the proposals.
China’s Constitutional Amendment
The Central Committee of China’s communist party (CPC) has proposed amending the country’s constitution to lift the two-term limit for the country’s president, paving the way for Xi Jinping’s continued power beyond 2022. Chinese press coverage was unsurprisingly and exclusively positive about the news, and this was accompanied by a massive official crackdown of criticism on social media.
The Global Times commented on a number of the proposed changes in detail. With regard to the President’s term limits, it argued that the two-term limit was only in place for the presidency and not on the two other leadership positions traditionally held by China’s top leader: “Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, there have been multiple adjustments to the institution of the presidency and its terms of reference. Over the past two decades, a trinity of leadership consisting of the CPC Central Committee general secretary, president of the nation and chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission has taken shape and proven to be effective. To remove the two-term limit of the Chinese president can help maintain the trinity system and improve the institution of leadership of the CPC and the nation.”
Unsurprisingly, the article did not consider distinguishing between the government role of president the communist party roles of general secretary and military commission chairman. Another proposed amendment of the constitution actually stressed the CPC’s continuing primacy in leading China. The article justified the proposed amendment in the following manner: “Practices prove that fundamental interests of the Chinese society lie in consistently following the CPC leadership. We are living in a changing and sophisticated era where individuals have limited horizon and capability. The CPC Central Committee is undeniably the most capable in mastering the overall situation and leading people to build a powerful country and better life,” adding for good measure that the “Chinese people trust the CPC Central Committee’s wisdom, firmly support and unwaveringly uphold its decisions including constitutional amendment.”
And in case there was any doubt as to why the amendment on CPC leadership was required, the article clarified that: “There has been a related statement in the preamble to the Constitution, but this has been challenged by some who are supported and instigated by overseas forces. In this sense, stressing the CPC leadership in the Constitutional amendment proposal was essential.”
The People’s Daily was perhaps most explicit in terms of justifying the amended term limits, implying that Xi’s success meant that he should continue to lead: “In the past five years, the historic achievements made in reform and opening up, socialist modernization and the vitality of socialism with Chinese characteristics are fundamentally attributed to the strong leadership of the CPC with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core. Guaranteeing the authority and unification, centralized leadership of the CPC Central Committee allows the CPC to achieve one victory after another. Just like Comrade Deng Xiaoping pointed out that any leadership must have a core, and a coreless leadership is unreliable.”
In a subsequent follow up article, the Global Times sought to set the context for the constitutional changes and the factors supporting them, gushing that: “Since the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012, Chinese society has faced serious challenges brought about by previous internal problems…The new ruling team has not just been muddling along under the leadership of General Secretary Xi Jinping. Instead, it quickly started to deepen reforms in a comprehensive and magnificent way.”
Another key factor identified included the collapse of the West in the face of China’s rise: “The most influential value system in the world now is the Western value system established by the US and Europe. It has shaped and affected quite a few Chinese people’s mind-sets. But some key parts of the Western value system are collapsing. Democracy, which has been explored and practiced by Western societies for hundreds of years, is ulcerating.”
The ultimate justification for the amendments therefore lies in the importance of ensuring that China’s current leaders can continue on their course at a critical time for China’s development: “The current ruling team of China is progressive and ambitious with clear goals and willingness to take on responsibilities. They want to make contributions to this nation which can stand the test of time…China cannot stop and take a break. Our people believe that every year is crucial.”
US Trade War Prospects
US President Donald Trump’s proposal to levy reciprocal taxes on goods from countries that raise tariffs on US imports drew a reasonable amount of media attention in China, which has already been subjected to a range of tariffs by its largest trading partner.
China Daily questioned whether President Trump’s remarks would lead to an actual policy proposal or were just a continuation of campaign trail slogans, but recognised the importance of signalling in international trade relations: “While Trump’s rhetoric on Monday might just be another bid to help the US in its endeavors to renegotiate trade deals, it is a costly miscalculation to underestimate the disruption he is bringing to the international trade scene… [Trump’s] preoccupation with reducing US trade deficits has been led astray by indiscriminate America-centrism and his overall refusal to accept widely accepted international trade protocols and practices, which are outcomes of mostly US-initiated and dominated trade negotiations under the framework of the World Trade Organization. Even the relatively low US duty structure was itself a negotiated outcome.”
The article continues with the observation that reciprocal taxes would be self-defeating for most Americans but that this would likely not stop President Trump from implementing them: “If Trump honors his campaign promise to impose much higher tariffs on imported goods, it will significantly drive prices up for countless imported commodities, including daily necessities, making them unaffordable for ordinary Americans. Considering the punitive tariffs his administration recently imposed on imported washing machines and solar panels, it is very likely Trump will press ahead with the “reciprocal tax”, even if not in a wholesale manner.”
Another China Daily editorial recognised that both countries would be worse off in a trade war, calling for “frank and sincere talks” between China and the US to avoid further escalation. The article found that: “[Trump’s] administration has defined the bilateral relationship as one of rivalry and competition. However, the opportunities for cooperation and the benefits that can be accrued from them should not be ignored or missed.”
The article proposed a quid pro quo de-escalation and accommodation rather than the tit-for-tat escalation course the countries were on: “Given the increasing protectionist measures Washington has been taking since Trump took office, there has not surprisingly been talk of tit-for-tat actions leading to a possible trade war. To avoid that worst-case scenario, the two sides should …focus on common ground and find reasonable solutions to their trade differences…Frank and sincere talks with a willingness to agree on quid pro quo actions to achieve a mutually satisfactory solution are the best, if not only way, to avoid escalating retaliatory measures that would lead to a trade war that would be damaging for both.”
North Korea Sanctions
The US Treasury Department’s inclusion of multiple Chinese entities in its latest North Korean sanction list drew extensive criticism from the Chinese media. China Daily felt that these actions, together with US plans to intercept ships suspected of violating UN sanctions “only threaten to jeopardize the current Olympic inter-Korean détente that has brought hopes of way out of the dangerous predicament on the Korean Peninsula, with the Republic of Korea saying on Sunday that the DPRK is willing to hold direct talks with the US. Those with an optimistic outlook hope such talks happen and lead to negotiations that secure a lasting peace agreement.”
The article closely followed Beijing policy by warning of US aggression and urging for mediated talks: “…the current easing of tensions, encouraging as it is, is only a window of opportunity that can shut at any moment. While it is open it needs to be made the most of. Trump’s threats, even if intended as a pressure tactic, along with his adherence to the position that Pyongyang take concrete steps toward denuclearization first, will only slam the window closed, restarting the vicious cycle of tit-for-tat actions that had threatened to get out of hand prior to the current inter-Korean cordiality,” concluding that “Rather than harking back to his earlier threat of “fire and fury”, Trump should accept Pyongyang’s offer of talks and work with all stakeholders to end the crisis and denuclearize the Korean Peninsula peacefully.”
The Global Times had earlier that month also pointed to the current easing of tensions between North and South Korea as part of the Olympic Games, summing up the situation in the following manner: “In the past few days, Pyongyang seemed to direct this diplomatic show with Seoul an actor. The US and Japan were unhappy and threw brickbats at the show, while China silently rejoiced at South-North détente.” Holding the longstanding position that China is bystander in the nuclear crisis, the article nevertheless recognised the country’s importance in the process: “China is not part of direct confrontation on the North Korean nuclear issue, but is a stakeholder in the peninsula situation. Given its might, China alone can shape the strategic environment of regional disputes. The situation on the peninsula will see fundamental changes depending on whether China follows the US, Japan and South Korea in sanctioning the North or supports North Korea in becoming a nuclear state.”
However, the article failed to call for China to play any sort of active role in the process, implying that its presence alone was a positive influence: “China encourages improved Pyongyang-Seoul relations and supports direct Pyongyang-Washington talks. Beijing seeks a practical solution to the nuclear crisis, rather than jockeying for status in the peace process. While countries like Japan actively voice their opinions out of fear of becoming marginalized, China’s influence on the issue cannot be overlooked even if it keeps silent. All sides expect China to shoulder responsibilities in a way that benefits them. The interactions on the peninsula are sophisticated and need to be interpreted by professional diplomats.”
Early in February the Global Times mounted an attack against a UN report that North Korea had earned US$200m by exporting commodities banned under the UN sanction list to China, among other countries. The article implored that: “The problems shouldn’t be politically interpreted. The UN sanctions on Pyongyang are unprecedentedly harsh. Loopholes are normal in the preliminary stage of the implementation and have no connection to relevant countries’ Pyongyang policy.” The article sought to downplay both the violations as well as China own involvement in the them, tautologically arguing that tough sanctions encouraged their own violation: “With tougher sanctions, North Korea will be more eager to trade with other countries in violation of UN resolutions. Smuggling will become more profitable. Previous experiences suggest that a 100-percent implementation of sanctions is difficult, and there are often those who take risks for profit.
The article then ‘exonerated’ China from any wrongdoing by implying a lack of intent on its part: “…the Chinese government has been stressing the importance of strictly implementing the UN resolutions, to which the Chinese society also supports. Double-faced behavior doesn’t conform to Beijing’s way of thinking and acting, and couldn’t the collective attitude of the Chinese society to the North Korea sanctions [sic],” before falling back on its traditional bait and switch of shifting blame to the US: “In fact, the US is a deliberate destroyer of the UN resolutions…Washington has been one-sidedly interpreting and selectively implementing the resolutions, and its preparations for a military strike on Pyongyang are an open secret.”
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