BEIJING – Among China’s most surprising responses to the trade war has been its reluctance to use its vast state media empire to rally the home front. That’s changed since U.S. President Donald Trump’s latest tariff barrage.
In recent days, the once-banned phrase “trade war” has roared back into widespread use in Chinese media. Meanwhile, official news outlets gave high-profile play to commentaries urging unified resistance to foreign pressure, including an editorial from the nationalist Global Times calling the trade dispute a “people’s war” and threat to all of China.
Such sentiments have found an eager audience, with a state television video vowing a “fight to the end” attracting more than 3 billion views since Monday. The clip was the most-read piece on China’s Twitter-like social media platform Weibo earlier Tuesday.
The rhetorical shift underscores the risks that China’s Communist Party veers toward a more nationalistic position as the trade war drags on and weighs on economic growth. Chinese President Xi Jinping, like Trump, has promised to rejuvenate his country and can’t afford to look weak in the face of foreign power.
So far, China’s state media have sought to tamp down the kind of patriotic passions that fueled a backlash against Japanese interests when a territorial dispute flared in 2012. Even now, state media commentaries focused the blame on the U.S. government, rather than the country as a whole.
For instance, a commentary published in the Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, avoids any mention of Trump’s name and refers only to “certain people in America who brood over the so-called massive trade deficit,” said David Bandurski of the China Media Project, an independent research program affiliated with the University of Hong Kong.
The article “tries to avoid any sense of general animosity toward the U.S., and stresses that the American people and businesses are losing out as a result of tariffs,” Bandurski said. “Right now the messaging from the leadership through the state media is all about treading the line.”
Although increased use of the term “trade war” in official media suggest a hardening of rhetoric, some media outlets are still prohibited from using the term, according to a person familiar with the matter. The suggested alternative is “an unclear external environment,” the person said, adding that authorities have directed outlets to stress the stability and resilience of Chinese economy.
Maintaining that balance is difficult in a country where all school children are taught about the country’s “century of humiliation” at the hands of colonial powers. China’s top trade negotiator, Vice Premier Liu He, has already found himself targeted by unflattering comparisons to the Qing dynasty official who signed an 1895 treaty with Japan that surrendered the island of Taiwan.
That’s why Liu stressed in remarks to state media after failed trade talks Friday in Washington that any deal should be “balanced” to ensure the “dignity” of both nations.
Trump’s tweets announcing the tariffs landed at a particularly awkward time — the day after China marked the 100th anniversary of a popular revolt against the country’s leaders. The May Fourth Movement, which led to the Communist Party’s founding, stands as a reminder of the risks of failing to stand up to foreign powers.
Last Tuesday was also the 20th anniversary of the U.S.’s bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. While the American side called the incident an error, Chinese protested and relations plunged to a modern low.
The “people’s war” mentioned in the Global Times editorial was introduced by party patriarch Mao Zedong in an oft-cited 1938 speech in which he argued that China would eventually repel the Japanese invaders. Mao argued that while conflict was affected by political, economic military and geographic elements, the people are the decisive factor.
Earlier on Tuesday, the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, posted an image on its WeChat account of the Chinese flag with the words “Talk — fine! Fight — we’ll be there! Bully us — delusion!” superimposed over it.