Amid rising U.S.-China trade tensions, senior officials and Chinese state media have begun making hawkish comments criticizing the United States repeatedly in the past week.
However, one Chinese media outlet recently published an editorial urging Beijing to put “people’s interests first,” and openly criticized the state media’s rhetoric encouraging the country to close off contact with the United States.
The two contradictory opinions on display hints at political infighting—and indecision—within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regarding how to deal with the United States.
From May 23 to May 31, the CCP’s official mouthpiece People’s Daily criticized the U.S. administration continually for nine days with scathing commentaries published daily.
The articles took on a hawkish tone criticizing the United States for the trade talks going downhill. For example: “The United States was self-destructive in its capabilities and achievements, which put the United States into a strategic trap of its own making,” one editorial published on May 24 read.
“When the United States is moving away from the correct direction of globalization, China will take the responsibility of fully supporting globalization… China is always the builder of world peace, a contributor to global development, and a defender of the international order,” another editorial stated on May 25.
Publishing nine articles consecutively to criticize a strategic rival was a tactic previously adopted by the CCP during rising tensions with the Soviet Union back in 1966. “Both of us [Soviet Union and CCP] said a lot of words which are nonsense [in those commentaries],” Deng Xiaoping, former CCP leader, had summarized in the 1980s.
Following the People’s Daily articles, Wei Fenghe, China’s defense minister, delivered a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 2 in which he also harshly blamed the United States: “The United States has launched economic and trade frictions against us recently. If it wants to talk, we are open to that. If it wants to fight, we will fight until the last moment.”
Wei also said: “There’s no way the United States can bully us.”
But a commentary published by Caixin magazine, a privately-owned media that often represents the views of the CCP’s pacifist faction, expressed a different stance.
Caixin published an editorial titled, “The People’s Interests Are Fundamental” on June 1, in which it criticized the state propaganda’s viewpoint: “History has proven that [the attitude of] self-limiting, self-isolating, and starting a new path on one’s own does not work… and will bring huge losses to people’s interests.”
The article called out the People’s Daily’s rhetoric—which claimed that since the United States has enacted punitive measures against China, the Chinese regime should stop business with the United States, and develop its own technological standards and economic system. Caixin called such attitudes “extreme nationalism” that will end up hurting the country.
In the U.S.-China trade dispute, the article suggested a different approach: “Achieving common ground while reserving our differences as much as possible is the way to meet the interests of both the people of the United States and China. ”
The article also implored the Chinese leadership to think carefully about its next steps: “For the products and services that are related to people’s interests, you [the Chinese regime] should be careful about using retaliatory measures. If you must use retaliation, you must evaluate the impact sufficiently, do preparations in advance, and set a bottom line—to avoid related damage.”
The report was broadly shared by Chinese netizens, but was removed from the internet the following day.
A netizen with the moniker “Citizen” commented that he agreed with the views expressed by the Caixin editorial: “CCP’s first round of tariffs in the U.S.-China trade war was [imposed on] food and medicine.” He complained that many ordinary people are suffering the consequences.
Some former officials have expressed similar pacifist views. Li Ruogu, who served as the chairman and president of China Export-Import Bank until 2015, but still regularly makes public appearances, said earlier this year at a conference: “The U.S.-China relationship is the foundation of relations between China and the West… It will impact our relationship with other developed countries if we can’t manage it well.”
Zhou Xiaochuan, former governor of the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), China’s central bank, said at a finance conference held in Japan on May 27 that he disagreed with the Chinese regime’s insistence on keeping the currency exchange rate below seven yuan against the U.S. dollar. He added that the exchange rate should be decided by the market.
This opinion differs from the current leadership. Yi Gang, the current governor of PBoC; Pan Gongsheng, president of China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange; and Guo Shuqing, chairman of the China Banking Regulatory Commission, have all publicly stated that seven was the bottom line of the yuan-dollar exchange rate.
Li Linyi, a U.S.-based commentator, told the Chinese-language Epoch Times on June 2 that this stark difference in opinion indicates that the political infighting within the Party has worsened, since the Party stresses unity in the public eye in order to appear stable.
“Under the pressure of the U.S.-China trade war, the cracks between CCP factions are enlarging. Sooner or later, people will see these cracks as the trade pressure increases,” Li said.