China’s State Media Reverses Course, Criticizes Trump to Flex Muscles in Trade War

August 9, 2018 Updated: October 8, 2018

After weeks of dealing with the repercussions of the U.S.–China trade war, Beijing is switching tactics.

China’s state media have recently gone on the offensive, with articles aggressively criticizing President Donald Trump and the trade tariffs.

On Aug. 6, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece People’s Daily published a strongly worded editorial, calling Trump’s trade tariffs “a 21st-century ‘street fighter’-style game of extortion and intimidation.” The article accuses Trump of “turning international trade into a zero-sum game” and threatened that China will fight back.

“When it comes to matters of national interest and national dignity, China will never surrender to blackmail and will definitely rise up in response,” it read.

Another editorial, by the hawkish state-run newspaper Global Times on Aug. 6, blasted Trump for using “business tactics to govern a country, which not only pulls down America’s standing, but also severely damages the United States’ reputation.”

Meanwhile, an article originally posted on popular social media WeChat and reposted by the state-run news site Guancha, called out Trump for being bad at mathematics.

Such rhetoric was repeated in the regime’s English-language mouthpiece, China Daily, with an Aug. 8 opinion article explaining “How futile a trade war with China is, and how trying to corner China publicly with economic pressure will backfire.”

Another attack  went beyond the trade war, with an Aug. 8 article in the state-run Xinhua news agency suggesting that Trump’s Iran sanctions are an example of “playing with fire” in the Middle East.

The attacks signal a sharp reversal of government directives sent to state media last month, when they were instructed not to inflame trade tensions by openly commenting on the trade war or criticizing Trump directly.

“When exposing and criticizing American words and actions, be careful not to link it to Trump and instead aim it at the U.S. government,” according to a memo to state media seen by Reuters.

Similarly in June, central authorities issued instructions that Chinese media were not to report on comments made by Trump, U.S. government spokespeople, or other U.S. officials. They also were not to report on commentaries made by American media.

Why did Chinese state media suddenly make an about-face?

Heng He, a China commentator for The Epoch Times, believes that the change in tone is mainly to serve as an internal publicity campaign for citizens, to convince them that China is still confident in winning the trade war.

China has run out of tactics to challenge the United States, “but it must put up an appearance that it will not lose, so it is fighting a war of words,” Heng said.

Since the first batch of tariffs went into effect in early July, China’s financial markets have suffered, while the yuan continues to depreciate and foreign manufacturers have shifted their supply chains out of China to avoid the levies.

Faced with the harsh economic consequences and citizens’ displeasure at how the Beijing leadership has handled the trade war—as evidenced by netizen comments and rare open criticisms circulating online—China is attempting to flex its muscles about the subject.

Many state media articles in recent days have threatened retaliation, while calling on citizens to support the state. But some Chinese netizens are expressing support for the United States instead.

Amid recent revelations that Chinese pharmaceutical companies may have distributed expired vaccines across the country, many netizens turned to the Weibo (a platform similar to Twitter) account of the United States embassy in Beijing to plead for help.

“Please, Mr. President, save these children in China,” read one post. Many of the vaccines were typically administered to children to inoculate them against serious illnesses.

“Please increase the punishments on China through trade,” read another post.

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