May 2018


Chinese news media in the past month was strongly focused on international issues, with the on-off US-North Korean nuclear summit receiving the most attention, closely followed by the fluid US-China trade conflict.  The reasonably restrained style and tone adopted by major editorials on both these topics contrasted sharply with the one adopted on a more domestically focused issue, namely China’s demand that international airlines refer to Taiwan as part of China on their websites and online booking systems, demonstrating that elevated sensitivity of the ‘One-China’ policy and sovereignty issues even relative to regional nuclear security.

US-China Trade War

Chinese media coverage in general sought to contrast China’s own steady and consistent opening up within international trade frameworks with the US’ own disruptive approach The People’s Daily carried an op-ed piece that set the tone for subsequent reporting: “China’s reform and opening up is an established strategy…China’s pledges to significantly broaden market access, strengthen protection of intellectual property rights, and expand imports have long been arranged, and are nothing new.”  In response to the US claims that its recently announced measures we are responses to US trade threats the article contended that: To say that the new measures are a response to the current trade tensions between the United States and China or that China “blinked” is wishful thinking. It should be understood that China will open up its door even wider to the world, but it will never do so under pressure from outside countries… The “concessions” theory is fake news, and this kind of reckless ignorance should be put to rest.”  The article concludes with the contrast between the US and China, depicting the former as a rogue outside of the international trade system: “The world is clear-eyed about who is embracing openness and who is clinging onto Cold War and zero-sum mentalities. At the core, the trade tensions between the United States and China are a conflict between unilateralism and multilateralism, and between protectionism and free trade…The world will no doubt benefit from China’s new era of openness, but the new measures will not apply to those countries that violate the rules of the World Trade Organization and frequently launch trade wars against other countries.”

In another editorial, the People’s Daily took aim at the mechanism being used by the US to investigate Chinese trade practices, accusing the US of breaking international trade rules through its use: “The trade protectionist move unilaterally taken by the US will severely undermine free trade and global economy…The US’s resort to domestic laws [Section 301 investigation] in dealing with international trade frictions is against international rules.  The US was one of the major makers of international trade rules, but it has become an obvious breaker by its recent practices.”  Positioning China as a member and defender of the global trade order, much as Xi Jinping himself has done since the election of Donald Trump the article continued that: “Undoubtedly, the US’s behavior will harm both China’s and its own interests, and more severely, it will damage the global value chain.  Global coordination and common prosperity have become a shared consensus and a common goal for the world. Under this backdrop, the US’s unilateralism, which is disrespectful of common rules, is very incompatible with the times. The US’s unilateral move has not only harmed the interests of China and other WTO members, but also severely damaged [sic] multilateral trade mechanism.”

Privately owned business publication Caixin had a slightly different take on US trade actions, seeing these less as assaults on the international trade order than on China’s own managed economy: “Washington’s recent trade actions are aimed foursquare at China, not at the EU or other trade partners. However, the aim is not to reduce China exports to the U.S. The aim is a fundamental opening-up of the Chinese economy to the Washington free-market liberal reforms that China has steadfastly resisted.”  Despite this fundamental distinction of US aims, the article was no less kind to American intentions, accusing the country of imperialism: “In a sense, it is a new version of the Anglo-American opium wars of the 1840s using other means to open China. There is no way for the U.S. to rebuild the hegemony that elites in Washington picture. As globalization and democracy have dented the foundation for that hegemony, the U.S. lacks the strength, will and internal unity needed. In fact, the U.S. has found it difficult to subdue Iran and North Korea, not to mention major countries like China. Washington cannot rule the world as an empire.”

US-North Korea Summit

The Global Times provided extensive commentary on the unfolding saga of the on-off US-North Korean nuclear summit, whose occurrence as of today still remains unclear.  Following the initial escalation of rhetoric by North Korea in late May that led to the US cancelling the summit, a number of Western commentators pointed to potential Chinese interests in stymieing the proposed meeting. The paper commented extensively on this line of thinking: “[S]ome US and South Korean media have connected Pyongyang’s change in attitude to Beijing’s influence, and in extreme cases said Beijing intentionally incited Pyongyang to be uncooperative with Washington. The most incredible opinions say it involved the China-US trade friction. The US and South Korea blamed China for North Korea’s change in attitude, but never reflect on their own policies. The Chinese are baffled by such simplistic logic from US and South Korean politicians and media.”  With a good offense being the best defense as usual for the Global Times, the editorial stated China’s position on the talks before quickly pivoting to clarifying who was to blame for the escalation of tensions: “China has always supported peninsular denuclearization and achieving permanent peace through phased efforts, because that’s the most realistic and operable means…When North Korea offered to make huge concessions only half a year ago, the US continued to push its demands and refused to immediately provide any reward. When North Korea announced a halt to nuclear tests and the abandonment of test sites, and released three US citizens, the US demanded more, like asking North Korea to promptly submit part of its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.” concluding that “It is clear from China’s perspective that the US has overestimated its weight in forcing North Korea to accept its demands.”

Following President Trump’s unilateral cancellation of the summit, the Global Times again weighed in on responsibility and accountability for the failure of the process, implying the cancellation shortly after North Korea dismantling its nuclear test site as a sign of bad faith by the US:  “US President Donald Trump on Thursday called off a planned summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, just hours after Pyongyang had followed through on its pledge to demolish their nuclear test site. The time difference may have inspired Pyongyang to think Trump’s public announcement was delivered “on purpose” and could result in North Korea moving to its next anger phase.”  While the article stops short of accusing the US of being duplicitous in this regard, it highlighted the sincerity of North Korea and the diplomatic failure of the US: “Pyongyang had shown its utmost sincerity by demolishing the nuclear test site. It was a turning point where North Korea could replace their confrontational policies with concerted efforts aimed at working with international communities to resolve Korean Peninsula issues…The US could have easily received what it wanted through diplomacy”.  The article concludes with the view, not elaborated on further, that “America’s national image has been damaged ever since Trump announced his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. The cancellation of the Singapore meeting will only enhance their negative image, regardless of any explanation provided by Washington.”

China Daily provided the latest commentary at the end of the month when the fate of the summit was still in the air.  The article was apologetic for North Korea’s behaviour during the process: “The anger shown by the DPRK that Trump cited as the reason for calling off the meeting is understandable. The DPRK called US Vice-President Mike Pence “ignorant and stupid” after he said the country could “end like Libya”. Since the Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi was killed by US-backed rebels eight years after he gave up his nuclear weapons program, such comments are bound to spook Pyongyang, as no doubt intended.” The article effectively sought to portray the US as bully antagonising North Korea’s escalating rhetoric as defensive measure, conveniently confusing President Trump’s response to the escalation with its cause: “Trump also spoke of the United States’ “massive and powerful” nuclear capabilities in his letter, saying he hoped they would never “have to be used”. All of which has served to highlight the existential threat that prompted Pyongyang to pursue nuclear weapons in the first place.”  The article concludes with a common thread across China’s North Korean reporting, namely China’s position as an impartial bystander focused on the peaceful resolution of the conflict: “An end to hostilities and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula are goals that many countries have been working for in the past decades. Which is true of China, however Trump might suggest to the contrary. It has urged the DPRK and the US to hold firm their commitment to dialogue in order to move relations forward.”

 “One-China” Airline Demands

The overall calm rhetoric on trade and North Korea was contrasted sharply by the tone struck by Chinese media on a seemingly marginal issue related to Taiwan this month.  Chinese media coverage of its civil aviation authority issuing a demand that 30 foreign airlines amend their websites and online booking services to show Taiwan, as well as Hong Kong and Macau, as parts of China, rather than as separate countries was both vocal and intense.  The matter was quickly further politicised and escalated when the White House issued a statement on the matter. The People’s Daily reported that: “In a statement on Saturday, the White House described China’s caution that foreign airlines should not refer to Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan as independent countries as “Orwellian nonsense”.”   Perceiving a potential attack on its sovereignty the article launched into a full-fledged counter-attack on the US: “The White House statement may very well be triggered by its geopolitical instinct and double standards applied to China…China is sensitive to such issues given its recent history. Macao was for too long occupied by the Portuguese, Hong Kong was forced to be ceded to the British and Taiwan was forced to be ceded to the Japanese. Most Americans may find it hard to understand such feelings. After all, US history over the last 150 years has been a constant annexation of territories from Asia to Latin America.”  While the article failed to explain what a ‘constant annexation of territories’ was, it also tried to turn the table on the US in a clumsy analogy. “Referring to Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan as a country goes beyond insensitivity, it’s about basic facts. Would the White House or average Americans feel okay if people in other countries start to describe Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Alaska or Texas as independent countries, because there have long been independence movements there?”

This topic, a hot button of the Chinese Communist Party received extensive coverage in its official newspaper, the People’s Daily which wrote another piece on the White House statement, specifically on its reference to China’s demand being ‘Orwellian nonsense’:  “The one-China policy is a reality of international politics. Any attempt by any government to encourage Taiwan independence will offend Chinese society and any company that disrespects the issue will have to pay a price…George Orwell satirized the Soviet Union’s political system in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. The White House used Orwell’s metaphor to attack China. This shows some American elites obstinately regard China as a totalitarian state, brushing aside the variety of Chinese society, which has been implementing a socialist market economy for decades. These elites have misled US society in understanding China.”  Having fallen into the trap of taking the US statement literally, and thus effectively further validating it, the article continues that: “The White House’s harsh rhetoric against China will not scare Beijing. China will continue promoting international society to reach a consensus on the one-China policy in accordance with China’s pace,” and ends on a somewhat incongruous note that seems to fail to recognise that China’s civil aviation authority is government entity and the paper itself a party organ: “[N]on-governmental forces should play a major role in urging foreign enterprises to correct their language, with the government offering necessary support. Non-governmental forces can be flexible and represent the influence of the Chinese market and thus have a special deterrence.”



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